Flashing The Green
Michael Mahews, king of the sprints at last year’s Tour de France, is fast company.
One year on from his remarkable sprinter’s jersey triumph at the Tour de France, Michael Matthews is returning to the iconic race for another attempt at Grand Tour glory. From a rebellious Canberra teen to one of the best cyclists in the world, it has been quite a ride for the 27-year-old.
Michael Matthews’ WhatsApp profile photo is proof of the adage that one picture is worth a thousand words. Taken towards the end of the 2017 Tour de France, it shows the Australian cyclist in bed wearing the hallowed green jersey. Matthews is visibly exhausted – the exertions of three weeks at the most famous bike race in the world have taken their toll. His sunglass tan from day after day riding through the French summer is noticeable. But the beaming smile suggests the hardship had all been worthwhile. After fighting as hard as Matthews did for the most-coveted sprinter’s prize in professional cycling, it is unsurprising he wanted to wear it to bed.
Matthews is not the first Australian to win the Tour de France’s sprint classification. Robbie McEwen claimed green three times last decade, while Baden Cooke won in 2003. Stuart O’Grady famously finished second on four occasions, having never broke through for a victory. But for the sheer grit he showed in chasing down a seemingly unassailable points gap, Matthews’ triumph was in many ways the most impressive of Australia’s green jersey wins.
It was on stage 10 that Matthews thought his sprint classification campaign was over. After the expulsion of world champion Peter Sagan in the first week blew open the points contest, Marcel Kittel had established a sizeable lead with several stage wins. Matthews desperately needed to hit back. Yet on a beautiful day in the Dordogne region of south-west France, the Team Sunweb rider was substantially off the pace and finished in 13th place.
Outside the team bus, Matthews was spotted bent over his bike, tears in his eyes. He took more than ten minutes to compose himself before speaking to the media. His green jersey ambitions – which he later admitted Team Sunweb had been plotting since the start of the year – were in tatters. “After that stage, I really thought it was done,” he tells Inside Sport.
He was not. Despite Kittel’s gaping lead, Matthews could still mathematically win the jersey. “The Tour de France is a rollercoaster,” he muses. “You never get a clear run for the whole way – everyone has a problem or two during the Tour. It is up to you to nullify those problems and make them as small as you can. I had a good talk with [Team Sunweb sports director] Luke Roberts and my wife Kat, and they both kept me motivated; they told me they had done the calculations and thought it was still possible.
“From that point it was all or nothing,” Matthews continues. “I was suddenly a long way behind, so I needed to dig deep and try some things. I had nothing to lose. That’s when I won two stages and a lot of the intermediate sprints, which got me back up there in the points tally.”
As the battle for green headed towards a thrilling denouement, Matthews sensed weakness in Kittel. “I could tell Marcel was starting to suffer,” he says. “That was our plan – we had to make it as hard as possible for him to get to the finish each day. It is not just about winning the flat sprints, you have to get through the mountain stages, too. And the mountain stages at the Tour de France are some of the hardest climbing stages of the whole year. We just tried to break him down each day. That’s racing.”
Eventually, Kittel cracked. Midway through stage 17, with the gap down to
“I COULD TELL MARC EL WAS STARTING TO SUFFER. THAT WAS OUR PLAN WE HAD TO MAKE IT AS HARD AS POSSIBLE FOR HIM TO GET TO THE FINISH EACH DAY… I HAD MIXED FEELINGS WHEN I HEARD OVER THE TEAM RADIO THAT MARC EL HAD WITHDRAWN. AT FIRST I THOUGHT MY SPORTS DIRECTOR WAS JO KING !”
just nine points, the German sprinter abandoned. “I had mixed feelings when I heard over the team radio that Marcel had withdrawn,” Matthews told reporters at the time. “At first I thought my sports director was joking!”
The Australian rode the four remaining stages calmly to add his name to an illustrious honour roll. “Waking up on the final morning and seeing my green bike, my green kit,” says Matthews, struggling for words. “And my team-mate Warren Barguil [winner of the climbing classification] with his polka-dot bike and jersey. As a team, to collect two jerseys and four stage wins was special. The Tour did not start that well for us, but once we started winning, we just kept winning. Rolling into Paris in green was definitely the highlight of my career so far.”
That Michael Matthews has determination in spades will not surprise anyone familiar with his rise through the ranks of professional cycling. A troublesome teenager, the Canberran dabbled in motocross and found himself “ending up in bad crowds”. Matthews knew that he was heading in the wrong direction, but says it “was easier to hang around with those guys than to take life more seriously”. If not for a schoolyard intervention, Matthews’ attitude might never have changed.
“My sports teacher, Des Proctor, saw an ad in the newspaper for a talent identification program,” he explains. Matthews took some persuading, but eventually agreed to go along to the leafy Bruce campus of the Australian Institute of Sport. “I was doing all sorts of tests: running, jumping etc. At the end, they told me I would be best at rowing or cycling.”
Matthews took to the latter sport immediately, although he would not ride
to or from school for fear of what classmates might think. His talent quickly became clear and within six months he was on the startline of the under-17s road championships. His coach told him pre-race to attack solo with two laps remaining. He did, powering away to earn the junior title on a brand new road bike.
“Bikes are not cheap,” Matthews recalls. “I had some support with travel once I got into the ACT Academy of Sport, but we still had to buy our own equipment. My parents had to re-mortgage their house. I was very grateful for that. At the under-17s national, I showed my family that it was worth it.”
Matthews’ upward trajectory continued at pace. In 2009, he won two Oceania titles and started to impress at overseas races. But it was his victory in the under-23s road race at the world championships in 2010 in Geelong that really shifted the dial.
“Before that, it was just fun,” Matthews says. “I enjoyed riding my bike and getting into nature and feeling free; I never had any pressure. I was training, but doing other stuff outside of cycling – I was not focusing on recovery or nutrition. But from that moment, it clicked in my head. I realised I was quite good at this.”
Australian cycling legend John Trevorrow designed the course for the 2010 Worlds and recalls tipping Matthews to win that race. “I remember [then-Victorian Institute of Sport coach] Dave Sanders saying at the time that Michael was the most gifted youngster he had come across. That is a big statement, given Davo has been involved in the careers of nearly every Aussie to make it on the world scene in recent decades, including Cadel Evans.”
Matthews began his tenure at cycling’s highest level, the World Tour, with Dutch outfit Rabobank. While he achieved several results during his two years with the team, the cultural adjustment took its toll. “I am a little different to the ordinary Dutch person,” he says diplomatically. It was when Matthews moved to Australian team Orica- GreenEDGE (now Mitchelton-Scott) that his career began to blossom.
“I look back fondly on my time with GreenEDGE,” he reflects. “I was able to grow as a rider and as a man. I could do that more easily being around other Australians – I could just focus on cycling. At Rabobank, I struggled a little bit with the culture shock. Then I moved to GreenEDGE and started getting the results I thought I deserved.”
Matthews won two stages during the 2013 Vuelta a Espana, his first Grand Tour. In 2014, he won two Giro d’Italia stages and held the race leader’s pink jersey for several days, before wearing the leader’s red jersey at the Vuelta later that year. More Grand Tour stage success followed in 2015, and Matthews’ one-day results were beginning to improve: second at Brabantse Pijl, third at Milan San-Remo.
But it was around this time that tensions started to simmer between Matthews and GreenEDGE stalwart Simon Gerrans. The situation came to a head at the 2015 world championships, when Matthews
– who won the silver medal – told the media that fellow Australian Gerrans was sprinting against him. While Matthews had a strong 2016 season with GreenEDGE, including his first Tour de France stage win, the rift with Gerrans and the team’s
“THERE IS STILL SOMETHING IN THE AIR THAT NEEDS TO BE CLEARED ,” MATTHEWS ADMITS ABOUT GERRANS .“IT IS NOT BAD BLOOD BUT THE SITUATION WE WERE PUT IN, FIGHTING FOR THE SAME POSITION AT THE SAME RACES WITHIN THE SAME TEAM, MADE IT DIFFICULT .”
growing general classification ambitions meant an amicable exit late that year left few observers surprised.
“There is still something in the air that needs to be cleared,” Matthews admits about Gerrans. “It is not bad blood – but the situation we were put in, fighting for the same position at the same races within the same team, made it difficult. Especially with me being the younger rider – maybe in his head, he thought I should wait for my opportunity, and I thought I was ready. It might not have been handled as best it could by the team, but hopefully in the future we can move on. It is just cycling in the end – it’s not everything.”
Whatever the exact motivation for Matthews’ move to Team Sunweb at the start of 2017, it proved to be an inspired decision. In addition to the Tour de France green jersey, he finished third in the world championships road race and had several strong Classics finishes. But after that stellar past season, for which he was awarded the highest honour in Australian cycling – the Sir Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman Medal – Matthews has a hard act to follow in 2018.
His latest campaign did not begin well. Matthews fractured his shoulder in a crash at his first race of the season, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and then suffered from illness throughout March. “It was not the way I planned to start my season,” he jokes. “But sometimes you just have to accept these things and move forward. The true champions are the ones who can get up and make the best out of a shit situation.”
If it was solely up to Matthews, he would not be racing the Tour de France this year. “I would like to try and win the sprint jerseys at the Giro and Vuelta, to get one in each Grand Tour.” But Team Sunweb have other ideas. “The team is focused on the general classification this year at both. I have to respect the team’s decision, so I will focus on the Tour again.”
Even at the Tour, Matthews’ role within the German-registered team remains unclear. “We will see how the preparation goes and whether we will attempt the green jersey again. The team might also want to target the yellow jersey – they have high hopes after our success last year [when colleague Tom Dumoulin won the Giro d’Italia] – so I might be at the Tour supporting whoever is going for the general classification.” Whether he will be battling with world champion Sagan for the sprint classification, angling for stage wins or helping team-mates tussle for the yellow jersey, Matthews is both excited and a little wary for another edition of the iconic three-week tour. “It is definitely a special race,” he concludes. “You can never prepare yourself. It is such a stressful three weeks – you grow a few grey hairs. It is like no other race. “It feels like a circus.”
On the podium after winning the green points jersey of Le Tour, but he couldn't avoid Peter Sagan at the road Worlds
Victory in the Men's Under 23s Road Race at the UCI Road World Championships in 2010 in Geelong.
Ater growing pains at GreenEDGE, Matthews made the move to Sunweb [¡¢].