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A Colorado State University graduate student is the only male cyclist in the country that has been selected for the longest bicycle stage race in the world — a grueling 5,700-mile grind across Russia.
However, he has quite an uphill climb before he can begin: He must raise half of the $20,000 entry fee this month.
Matthew Carnal, who is pursuing his master’s degree in the Department of Health and Exercise Science, is hoping to race in the third annual Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme, which starts in Moscow on July 18 and finishes on the other side of the country 24 days later, in the Pacific port of Vladivostok. He has launched an online GoFundMe campaign at http://col.st/X44ic to raise $10,000 by the end of January, and has collected more than $2,200 so far.
Carnal plans to use any extra funding to purchase bicycles for kids. His inspiration? He wants to expose others to the sport that he credits with rescuing him from depression resulting from a difficult childhood and the loss of a successful career in 2008.
“I ride because it clears my thoughts,” he says. “It’s mental health for me — I ride to fight depression.”
The self-described “country boy” from Parsons, Kansas, says he comes from a broken home where his mom raised him and his two siblings. Carnal worked hard to make a better life for himself, despite losing a grandfather and an uncle to suicide.
“I was just that dreamer, that kid on the bike dreaming,” he recalls.
Carnal got his first road bike in 2001, and completed his first major event in 2002, the Hotter ‘N Hell ride in Wichita Falls, Texas. He added to that tour by biking to Wichita Falls from Oklahoma City — and back again.
He had earned undergraduate degrees in biology and chemistry on a baseball scholarship and got a master’s degree in economics. He worked as a chemist/technician for Koch Industries for five years before the firm was divested to SemGroup LLC, where he was a lab manager for a few years before transitioning to an economic analyst position. When the 2008 recession hit, Carnal says, he was among the hundreds of employees laid off by SemGroup.
“I had built myself up, and then lost it all,” he says of his six-figure salary. “It was a career I’d built over 10 years.”
After two years of job-searching in vain, Carnal hit rock bottom while living with his brother in Missouri. He decided to use the last of his money to ride his bike across the U.S.
“That ride kind of gave me hope, because even though I only had $600, that trip probably cost $4,000,” he recalls. “It restored my hope in life because total strangers helped me so much. People fed me, and someone even patched me up when I wrecked. It was all about piecing my life back together with help and support.”
Carnal moved to Colorado Springs and started his own business coaching cyclists. When he logged 3,347 miles in January 2012 to win the Strava Base Mile Blast, he was featured in Outside magazine. But that was also the year Carnal got clocked in the head with a cup of ice thrown from a flatbed truck in Oklahoma, and the year he lost a close friend to a fall off the North Peak of the Maroon Bells near Aspen. “It was a rough go,” he says.
However, Carnal rebounded again.
He cycled the U.S. Southern Tier in 2014, covering 4,563 miles in 31 days, during one of the coldest winters of the decade. This was on a fixed-gear bike, meaning he could do no coasting. He’s had two concussions and undergone nine surgeries in his athletic career for various knee, elbow and shoulder injuries.
Carnal says he came to CSU to separate himself from the many other Front Range cycling coaches: He wanted to learn more about exercise science.
“I was a low-level pro, I didn’t have a name,” he explains. “I wanted the academics because I value education. And I’m a big thinker, your typical academic.”
Barry Braun, head of the Department of Health and Exercise Science, lauds Carnal’s drive.
“Matt’s plan to attempt an extraordinarily difficult adventure, not in spite of how hard it will be but because it is hard, without expectation of monetary or other tangible reward, while also striving to raise money and awareness in the service of others, is exactly the kind of attitude we treasure here in HES,” he says.
Initially fascinated by studying how exhaust from cars’ combustion engines affect the pulmonary and cardiac health of cyclists, now Carnal is working with Associate Professor Brian Tracy to demonstrate that a smartphone app can measure the body’s lower-extremity power just as accurately as a $10,000 force plate. He’s set to graduate in May, and wants to pursue a Ph.D. in exercise physiology or biomedical science.
But Carnal’s first order of business is to find corporate sponsors and individual donors to raise money for the ride across Siberia. Carnal says that in addition to buying bicycles for kids in Fort Collins, he’d like to provide communities with shipping containers outfitted with bicycle repair tools so kids can learn how to maintain their bikes in addition to riding. While the only other American (and only woman) tapped for the Red Bull race is fundraising for the National Kidney Foundation, Carnal wants to make sure all of the donations he collects are used for his cause, not overhead.
“I don’t want the money to go toward someone’s salary,” he says. “I want to make something happen.”
Only two of 10 solo riders have finished the Red Bull Trans-Siberian Extreme in the past two years, but Carnal seems unfazed by the odds.
“I just want to follow my passion, follow the sport I love,” he says. “I’m not after money. I’ve seen what that can do to people. I’m after stability, because I haven’t had that in my life.”