Flash­ing The Green

Inside Sport - - Contents - BY KIER AN PEN­DER

Michael Ma‚hews, 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 [œžŸ¡¢].

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