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Winner of stages in both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España this year, Michael Matthews is determined to add a world championship medal to that tally, either for himself or for one of his Australia team-mates.
The green and gold squad is expected to mount a very strong campaign this year, with former world U23 champ Matthews in fine form and Simon Gerrans coming off a superb double in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal.
Both riders are strong on lumpy courses; both are amongst the quickest in the bunch, particularly when the parcours is sufficiently tough to weed out the pure sprinters.
Put one in the mix, and there’s a chance of success; put both together, backed by a strong and committed team, and Cycling Australia will hope it’s a winning formula.
“I haven’t actually seen the course myself but I am going there a week early before the worlds starts,” Matthews told CyclingTips, speaking from the Vuelta a España. “I have a video of it on my laptop but it is always hard to really get good picture of how the road surface is and the climbs really are when you are watching it through a Go Pro.
“Going by what I’ve seen, it seems not difficult, but not easy. Somewhere in between, which sort of suits my rider characteristics.”
Matthews has had a sparkling year, with wins including the Vuelta a La Rioja plus stages in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour of Slovenia.
He also wore the leader’s jersey in both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, as well as taking stages in each.
Gerrans’ season has been even more successful, netting the national road race championships, the Santos Tour Down Under, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and his most recent double victory in Québec and Montreal.
The latter successes show that his form is on the up at exactly the right time, pointing towards a strong worlds campaign.
“It is going to be interesting,” said Matthews of their partnership in the race. “He is obviously a really strong rider in his aspect and I am strong in my aspect. He can climb really well and he can sprint well too. So I think we just have to play the cards on both of our strengths and hopefully it works to our advantage.
“We will just have to plan the race around both of our best points. He will ride his race and I will ride mine. The perfect race for us would be Gerro trying to go in the final climb and then me waiting to see if it comes back together. That is playing to our true strengths, the best way we can try and win the race with the team that we have.
“If it comes back together, we will have to line it up for a sprint. But until then, I think he has got a really good chance in trying to get away.”
Vuelta success, but also frustration:
Looking back at his Vuelta a España, Matthews sees high points, but also places where he believes more could have been possible. He describes it as a race of “ups and downs,” one where he was targeting many stages but where he achieved one victory.
Still, that statistic doesn’t give the full picture. He was also runner-up on stages eight and 17; he accepts the result of the second of those, where John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) beat him, but not that of the first.
“I think the first stage where I was second, in my opinion Bouhanni probably should have been relegated for that hook in the sprint. I had the upper hand there, I had the speed coming around him and he actually stopped me from sprinting,” he said, referring to the controversial left-hand switch used by the Frenchman on the day in question. The move caused Matthews to stop sprinting right before the line.
“In my opinion that probably should have been a win. I sort of count that for myself as a win, for my own self.”
The result was protested to the race judges, but they voted two to one for letting the Frenchman keep the win. It was an outcome that not many agreed with.
He’s got no such reservations about stage 17, though. “I think that Degenkolb was just quicker than me in that finish,” Matthews said. “It was a straight-up sprint and we were head to head like I guess everyone wanted to see. He was just a little bit quicker in the final few hundred metres.”
The two are both young riders and have been going head to head for many years, first as under 23 competitors and then as professionals.
“I guess people say we are pretty much the same sort of rider,” Matthews said. “We have often been racing against each other in these same sort of races for the last five, six years now. You see we are always in the same sort of finishes as each other.
“He is probably a little bit faster on the flatter stages and I am maybe a little bit faster on the harder stages.”
Given that he could be a major rival for Australia in the world championships, it is inevitable that Matthews has pondered how the German can be beaten. His belief is that the best way to do so is to try to ensure that hilly races are as hard as possible, with the demands of climbing being used to whittle away at Degenkolb’s strength.
That will be a tactic he and Gerrans will likely consider for the worlds.
What’s certain is that Matthews will head to Ponferrada with good morale. He’s psyched after the season he has had, with his performances in the Giro and Vuelta underlining his quality are a rider.
“It has been a dream come true, really,” he said. “I never thought as a sprinter I would take two of the most important jerseys of the season in one year. It’s down to the team, too; for a rider like me you need a really strong team around you to be able to support you in a team time trial like we did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been in the jerseys I have been in.
“It is not just my effort, it is the effort of the whole team to be able to put me in the position I am in now. Obviously I have got to be sprinting well and climbing well to keep the jersey for as long as possible and to try to get some time bonuses, but in the end it comes down to a really strong and collective team.”
Hungry to achieve more next season, including in first Tour de France:
Beyond Ponferrada and whatever other races he will do before the end of the season, Matthews is determined to keep building in 2015. He’s still just 23 years of age and can expect to keep gaining strength for several more years. He wants the season ahead to be a very successful one.
“For me next year is a really big year for me,” he said. “I want to be consistently winning; this year was really a test year on what races [to focus on], what tactics to do and what suits me best. I think next year is going to be a really interesting season with the way I have planned it so far.
“I will be going not for the flat-flat sprints, but all the sprints that have climbs in them or races like the Ardennes, like Amstel. I think they suit me pretty well too.
“It is going to be a big year for me next year. I am going to have a really nice off-season now, then I am going to try to prepare 110 percent to try to step up from this year.”
One of the races which is very high on his list is the Tour de France. He is yet to ride cycling’s biggest event, and while he was scheduled to take part in July, had to sit it out after crashing in training days beforehand.
He was very upset at that, and remains affected by the thoughts of it.
“That was…[he pauses]…probably the most heart-breaking moment of my life…when I crashed and got up and figured out what actually happened to me.
“It is sort of…it is sort of hard to talk about it. When I got back home after the hospital and had all my stitches and was patched up and stuff, I lay on the couch in tears. It was truly a heart-breaking moment.”
Even then, he believed that he might still be able to ride. Orica GreenEdge did too. “The team was really good. They flew me to the race the day after I was meant to go there. They looked after me with physios and doctors and tried to get me into the Tour, but in the end we had to call it and say that it wasn’t possible to race in the condition I was in.”
It’s of little surprise that heading there again next year and getting things right this time around is of prime importance to him.
“I will be there trying to focus again 110%. I was flying this year, I was in my top-top shape,” he said, referring to his condition in the days before the Tour. “It was the best form of my life that I have had so far. That is the hardest part about missing it. If I wasn’t going so well, it wouldn’t be so hard to get dragged out of that sort of race. But in the form that I was in, it was very hard.”
Asked if he believes he can fight for the green jersey, he accepts it is something that is in the back of his mind. However rather than starting the race with that as a named objective, he prefers to wait and see how things play out.
“I will be going for stages, firstly. Then you see by how you are going in the first week, and whether you are within a shot for the green jersey. You base it around it then, seeing how may stages you have won or been placed in, and where you are in the points situation. From then on you try to focus a bit more.
“For my first Tour de France, it is obviously going to be difficult to try to beat Sagan…he has won the last three years in a row and it is always going to be hard to beat him. But I think they are talking about changing the points system a little bit [to make things more open – ed.].
“I guess we will have to wait and see what they come out with, then figure out how to focus on the jersey from there.”