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When he said several months ago that he was completely changing his pre-season build-up, opting not to train and race in Australia during the winter months, it seemed like a big gamble for Michael Matthews.
However, feeling confident after a stage win and the points jersey in Paris-Nice, the Orica GreenEdge rider believes he is on the right track for a strong performance in Sunday’s Milan-San Remo.
“I am quite confident in my form after Paris-Nice,” he confirmed to CyclingTips on Friday, speaking shortly before travelling from his home in Monaco to Milan.
“It was a different build-up to what I have done in the last few years. It was nice to go into my first race really relaxed and get some results of out of it too, which was an added bonus going into this weekend for Milan-San Remo.
“It turned out to be quite a successful race for me and for my team, being my first race of the season. So yes, I was quite happy with my result and my form.”
Although most of his rivals in Paris-Nice had already honed their form in other events, in theory putting them at an advantage, Matthews immediately showed he was competitive.
He finished eighth in the prologue time trial and then placed tenth and fourth in stages one and two.
A bigger performance was in store on day three into Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule.
Matthews’ Orica GreenEdge team took control of the peloton in the lumpy final few kilometres and manoeuvred him into the perfect position for the sprint. He then blasted home well clear of runner-up Davide Cimolai (Lampre-Merida) and third-placed Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek Factory Racing), taking over the race lead in the progress.
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), last year’s San Remo winner, was fourth.
Although Matthews’ time in the yellow jersey was limited, he clocked up third on stage five and ended up the final winner in the points classification.
The collective showings proved to him that he hasn’t lost anything from his modified pre-season build-up.
“I think I needed a [different] winter…for me it worked out quite well,” he said. “I needed some real relaxing time.
“I had a quite up and down season last year on the bike, so it was nice to have an off season in Europe, enjoy the winter, enjoy being with my fiancée and her family over Christmas and New Year’s.
“I was still training at the same time and building up a lot slower than what I would have done if I was racing in Australia. I think I built myself up to a higher level having a longer time to prepare. That worked out well for me.
“I love to train, so it wasn’t really a problem for me training long hours and long weeks while everyone else was racing.”
“I have trained for all the situations that the other guys throw at me”
While races such as the Santos Tour Down Under are important for many Australians, including Matthews himself in the past, the gamble to give the event plus the warm summer sun a miss is one that he feels was worth taking.
A strong season last year produced results such as stage wins in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España and while he missed the Tour de France due to a training crash, he also impressed with second in Brabantse Pijl, victory in the Vuelta a La Rioja and stage wins in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour of Slovenia.
Those performances all increased his self-belief and handed him the confidence to stake everything on Milan-San Remo.
“It has been a goal of mine for many years to be in this sort of shape leading into the race. It is definitely a goal for my season this year and I have prepared myself 110 percent for it,” he explained.
“I just need a little bit of luck on the day and hopefully it all comes together.”
Speaking to Ride in recent days, Matthews appeared to suggest that he has done the Poggio 100 times in preparation or, at least, the roads in the finale. That answer may be a case of crossed wires; he told CyclingTips that he had done the climb a lot over the winter, but put the figure at a lower number. “It’s maybe 25 to be 30, to be realistic,” he said.
Whatever the exact amount, he has covered the finale enough times to feel he knows the roads inside out. He also believes he’s ready for whatever happens.
“For me personally, it doesn’t really matter if it goes crazy on the Poggio or comes down to a smaller bunch sprint in the final,” he said. “I have trained for all the situations that the other guys throw at me.
“Whether they attack on the climb or it comes to a sprint, I have the team and I have done the training to be able to sustain anything that is thrown at me.
“I am just out there to do my best and hopefully my team can dominate the race like we did in Paris-Nice.”
As past editions of the race have shown, it takes a combination of elements to win. Physical strength is crucial, of course, and so too tactical nous. The race strikes a fine balance between climbing, descending and sprinting, making it very important to choose when to hammer and when to hold back.
Matthews knows this clearly, and makes clear the outcome is unpredictable. All he can do is be as ready as possible, then play things as well as he can.
“I definitely have the form to be able to do something in the final. But like I said before, you need a little bit of luck on the day. I think the weather is going to make a big part of the race on Sunday. It is not looking too nice, so I think I will just have to dress warm and hope for the best. I hope that I don’t freeze!”
Asked to nominate the likely rivals, he suggested Zdenek Stybar’s winning performance in Strade Bianche marked him out as a big danger. He said that the presence of world champion Michal Kwiatkowski and former San Remo winner Mark Cavendish on the same Etixx-QuickStep team heightened the danger that squad poses.
“Then there’s obviously [Alexander] Kristoff,” he added. “He knows how to win this race, he won last year. He showed really good form in the early season so he will be one to look at for sure also.
“As for Sagan, you never really know with him. He can have good days and bad days like everyone. But he will always be around the mark, fighting for the win also. I guess we will see how he goes.”
All Matthews knows at this point in time is that he feels ready, and he believes his team is also in the right place. Everything else will be revealed on Sunday.
Depending on the outcome, he could become the third-ever Australian winner after Matt Goss in 2011 and Simon Gerrans in 2012. If that happens, the decision to forgo the warm summer back home and instead shiver through a European winter will be fully vindicated.