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Amongst all the recent doom and gloom in cycling I thought we’d focus today on young man with a bright future ahead. I’ve kept a keen eye on Michael Matthews ever since the 2007 Tour of Bright when a bunch of us A-graders were riding full-gas up Mt Hotham and he passed us like we were standing still. We all thought it was an attack from within A-Grade until we all looked at each other and realised he was wearing a B-Grade number. Michael went on to winning B-Grade which was just the start of what will be a tremendously successful career. Here’s what Michael had to say about his interests, his nickname, and his riding.
So what have you been doing over the Christmas holidays?
I had 6 weeks off the bike because I was really tired by the end of the season and just came home and saw my friends and family in Canberra. I got to come home pretty early in the season because it was my 21st birthday and the team was like, “yeah, you’ve had a long year”. I basically started racing at the start of January so they said, “we’ll let you go home earlier this year just because you’re a new pro”, which was really good of the team to let me do.
So if you didn’t ride much over the holidays, what did you do?
I bought a little motorbike cuz I’d originally been racing motorbikes for 10 years so I bought a little motorbike just to play around with. Just a little 50cc. I put big suspension on it and made it go really fast so that was pretty fun. And my brother bought one as well so we made a little track in my backyard. Just something to do to keep ourselves entertained. I’ve also been hooked on Gran Turismo on Playstation lately.
Someone told me your brother’s into mountain biking. Does he race?
Yeah, he races every now and then (downhill and 4-cross) but he needs to be more committed because he’s got such good talent. Sort of like me on the road bike, but he’s not committed enough yet.
A couple years ago you got 2nd at the U23 Tour of Flanders. Is that the type of race you could see yourself developing towards? Or have you found your wings in the sprints?
Yeah, I’d like to be good at the classics but they’re something you need to really focus on over the years and just learn the roads and where all the important parts are to be in the race. Its not really something you can jump into as a young guy. I think I have that same pure power as the guys who win it have. Yeah its just a long waiting game for those races and you don’t see many young guys doing very well in them.
So how did you get second in the under 23s? Those guys are no slouches either.
That was a good ride. My team rode really well for me. Pretty much the last cobbled section they just jammed as hard as they could to split the bunch and then I just launched on the cobbles and had enough speed to break the bunch into a few pieces. And then it came to a little bunch sprint at the finish and two of us got away [Slovenian Marko Kump] in the last kilometer and no one chased and then I won the little bunch sprint.
What types of races do you see yourself winning in the next three years?
I think I’m sort of diverting myself a little bit more to the sprint races but I’d like to go well in the harder races where it’s a small bunch sprint at the finish. I’m not a big bunch sprint kind of guy because I don’t have that sort of confidence in the big bunches. Which sort of seems strange but I think over the years I’ll build up more confidence, getting more involved and trying more things in the bunch. At the moment its just crazy…at that speed and everyone’s just looking at each other…I don’t know…its something you really need to do over a couple of years and figure out how to do it properly.
So was winning the stage in Stirling at the TdU was unexpected? Did it give you a false sense of security going into last season?
My form was really good at Tour Down Under last year. Maybe a little bit too good and I found it really hard to hold my form through the rest of the year. Being a first year pro it’s expected that there will be lots of ups and downs so I think I’ll just use that as a learning experience for this year and maybe not go into Tour Down Under well and try to keep my form for more of the year.
Who’s your coach who helps you with that sort of thing?
My coach in Canberra, Glenn Doney. He started with me when I began cycling five years ago. He does a lot with me and as structures my programs along with my Rabobank coach in Europe. They work together and do my program for me.
A lot of people don’t realise that you’ve done really well in time trials as well. Many people see you as a sprinter. Do you have any interest in time trialling or does it just come naturally to you?
Yeah, I really like time trialling but usually when I do a time trial I’ve already done a really hard stage before or big bunch sprint so the team’s not really focused on me doing time trials. They’d rather focus on having a little rest day through the time trial and then focusing for the next day. But for me, I like doing time trials, but if that’s what the team wants me to do, thats what I do.
So how about this year? What does the team want you to do with the change of dynamics with Mark Renshaw on the team now?
We haven’t talked really too much about it but there’s a lot of races through the year and they’ll be races that Renshaw will give me a turn and I’ll give him a turn. Its just basically who’s going the best. I guess that it will push us both as well to have our form higher than each other so it pushes each other and we’ll win more races.
Since you’ve spent a season with Rabobank and you’ve already gone through integrating with the team, have you helped make it easier for Renshaw get acquainted with Robobank?
I was actually pretty lucky the way my season started because I won the first race of the season for Rabobank and it sort of pushed me into the team more because they had a bit of respect for me. It just made it easier, otherwise it would have been tough because of the language barrier. But I think with Renshaw, these guys have been racing with him for so long they all know each other anyway so its not too much of a change. Well, it is ( a change) but they all know each already but for me no one really knew who I was. They knew me from cyclingnews and stuff but not personally.
Do you feel a bit of weight on your own shoulders with the teams expectations on Renshaw? You’ll be an integral part of that.
I’m basically learning from him because he’s got so much experience and even just sitting down with him in the meetings before the race, just hearing how much experience he has in the lead-outs and through the race…he just has everything planned out. And like last night, Rabo’s not really known for their lead-outs, but we were at the front doing our best to keep Mark in a good position and it worked out. Well it didn’t quite work out perfectly to plan but it was a lot better than we usually do. Even just in the first race he’s made a good impression.
With your quick jump from U23’s to the World Tour, what were some of the shocks that you didn’t expect at that level of racing?
It was different. I went into it with a lot of confidence after winning a stage in Tour Down Under which I think helped me a lot through the start of the season. Then I won two more races after that which kept my confidence up. But the downfall of the season was crashing at the Tour of California and then after that I just had no power in my legs for the rest of the season, which was quite strange. I couldn’t move up in the bunch, I couldn’t do anything. So I think that’s why my season sort of went downhill but that’s what you learn from I guess I never really had a big crash.
I crashed in the second stage of Tour of California coming into the sprint and it really scared me. I think first big crash is always going to scar people but hopefully I can move on from that.
Were there any times in your first season when you thought to yourself, “what am I doing here? This is hard, I don’t want to be here“?
It was Three Days of de Panne and after three days of smashing down rain, crosswinds all day I definitely thought that. On the last stage (it was only 100km) I got dropped in the first 10km because it went straight into a crosswind and I just couldn’t do anything about it. It was just single file in the gutter and I was just not experienced enough to ride with those guys in the crosswinds. That was one of the days where I just wanted to say, “Nope, it’s not on…I’m going home“. I wanted to book my flight and come back to Australia. But then I got through it and you just have those up and down days.
Who are some of the people who have kept you positive and mentored you on Rabobank or even outside the team?
Graeme Browne was really good to me last year. Because he lived next door to me (in Belgium) as well and helped me a lot through last year which I probably couldn’t have made it through the season without him. He was really good to me as well and just tried to settle me down when I got a little bit angry and just little things like that. He’s just a really nice guy and real relaxed. You need those people around you when you’re down.
How did your life change after you won the under 23s?
It was an interesting change. I don’t know, I still can’t even believe I won the race. It was an amazing feeling, winning in Australia in front of your home crowd, all my family and friends…it was amazing. When I crossed that finish line and realised that I actually won, it was the best feeling that I’ve ever had. And then after that I just sort of felt like a star for some reason. It was only U23 worlds but I think my confidence has just grown so much from that. It’s what you need as a cyclist basically. If you don’t have confidence like that you’re not going to win races.
Did the Rabobank contract come up after that or was that being talked about before?
I was actually in the mini Tour De France (the Tour l’Avenir), about half way through they came to me with the contract and I signed then. It was about 3 weeks out from Worlds.
Do you have any desire in the future to sign with GreenEDGE?
Its every Australian’s dream to be on a Australia ProTeam but Rabobank has been really good to me at the moment and I get my opportunities. So until that changes I’m really happy on my team.
I know that over your off-season in Australia you’ve done a few corporate events, dinners, etc. Do you feel out of your depth at all or are you pretty comfortable in those situations?
As long as they know who I am it doesn’t feel weird but when people come up to me and shake my hand and say ‘who are you?’ you feel a little bit awkward. But as long as everyone know who you are, its fine. You just have fun with it and do what you have to do. You’re basically a brand for yourself so you have to promote your brand.
What kind of music do you listen to?
Pretty much everything really. Depends what mood I’m in but mostly hip hop and rap. I’m really into Bruno Mars at the moment. He sort of has relaxing songs but also has hardy songs as well so he’s got a bit of variety.
What’s the significance of your tattoo?
The birth date was sort of just to get something across my shoulders for a start and then I got the angel after I won the worlds.
Is there significance in the Angel?
Yeah, in the World Championships everything just felt so easy so I thought about it and I thought there must have something looking over me in that race because everything just felt easy. My whole plan before the race turned out exactly as I hoped. There must have been something that wanted me to win that day so I got an angel. Then at the end of this year I finished it off with the colors and the wings and the halo.
And the nickname ‘Bling’. Is that something you’ve been given or something that’s self proclaimed?
Actually when I first started cycling I had bracelets and chains and everything on me – every piece of jewellery you could imagine as well as the low baggy shorts and the really long shirts…so one of my good mates from Canberra, his dad gave the nickname “Bling” to me. And now everyone knows me as bling, I’m not even Michael Matthews anymore.