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If there was an image which truly brought home how much suffering Michael Matthews had endured to get through stage five of the Tour de France, it was the sight of him at the Orica-GreenEdge bus minutes after finishing.
The Australian had serious difficulties dismounting, having to be helped off his bike and taking a good 20 grimacing seconds to do so. He stood, wincing, teeth gritted, and limped several feet to the door of the team bus and then leant forward, resting his hands on the lower steps before literally crawling up them.
Matthews crashed heavily on stage three, getting snarled up in the mass pileup captured on camera. He was better off than team-mates Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey, who were both forced to retire, but not by much; he may remain in the race, but he is currently in a purgatory and taking things strictly day by day.
A past stage winner in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, Matthews came to the race aiming to add a Tour stage win to his palmares. He reached the podium on Wednesday but not in a way he had planned or envisaged; recognising his grit in trying to get to the finish, the Tour organisers gave him an award for the most combative rider.
It wasn’t what he had been aiming for, but was an important boost at a low point for him.
“It is nice of people to appreciate your effort when you do a ride like this,” said Matthews afterwards.
CyclingTips spoke to general manager Shayne Bannan by the team bus shortly after his rider arrived, and asked him to document exactly what the 24 year old’s injuries are.
“He has got a lot of deep abrasions on his buttocks, knee, shoulder in particular,” he answered. “And he also has a lot of bruising, particularly around the rib area. That makes it difficult for breathing and makes it fairly uncomfortable.”
Matthews referred to the latter injury as the most pressing. “They [his ribs] are definitely not getting any better. They are hurting more and more each day, especially today with how hard the race was. The cobbles yesterday didn’t help my situation either.”
It later emerged that he had two fractures to the area, although his team has said that he will continue on in the race.
Century-old inspiration helps battle on
Racked by pain, Matthews thought about stopping multiple times. However the stage travelled past the graves of Australian soldiers killed during World War I and he said that the thoughts of the fallen ANZAC fighters helped him.
“Going past the memorial of the Australians who died really helped me push through today,” he said. “It was one of the reasons why I was able to get to the finish. There were a lot of times on the stage where I really could just have pulled the pin, and so it is nice that I could get through the stage today.”
He thanked his team, saying that they used a lot of energy to keep him in the bunch and didn’t complain when he was being dropped.
“Hopefully I can get back to a state where I can pay them back and I can go for a win.”
On paper Thursday’s sixth stage would have been ideal for him. The sprint finish is uphill and he has shown in the past that he is strong in such situations.
However, Orica-GreenEdge directeur sportif Matt White stressed that it was far too soon for him to think about doing anything other than surviving.
“Going for the stage is out of the question. We have got a long way to Paris and we are going to have some opportunities later on, but tomorrow is definitely out of the question.”
In fact, for several team members, it’s primarily about survival at this point.
“We will take it day by day,” he explained. “We can’t look too far ahead with the situation we are in. We haven’t had the best of luck – Simon Yates also crashed in the big crash a couple of days ago. Michael Albasini crashed twice today and he hurt himself again. Svein Tuft also crashed, and obviously with Michael Matthews we are obviously taking day by day. But Michael is going to start tomorrow, that is for sure.”
Bannan believes that time should help sort things out. “We will keep assessing Michael’s situation daily and hopefully he can battle through.
“All he can do is to rest as much as he can while he is not on the bike. We can make sure he is well cared for, getting plenty of rest and the natural process will take its course. It is just a matter of whether it gets too uncomfortable to withstand.
“I am sure the longer he stays in the better he will feel.”
Reassess and retarget
The Orica-GreenEdge team had an ideal start to its Tour two years ago. It won stage three to Calvi with Simon Gerrans, then put him into the yellow jersey when it triumphed in the following day’s time trial. Gerrans led the race for two days, then Daryl Impey took over for the same length of time.
The 2014 Tour was much tougher and, thus far, 2015 has been the same. However Bannan and White believe that things can improve. In fact, Bannan said before the start that for the first time the squad would have the all round capabilities to chase stage wins throughout the race and he believes that this remains the case.
The addition of the twins Simon and Adam Yates gives the team scope to chase results in the bigger mountain stages and while the first of those also fell this week, his injuries are nothing like those of Matthews.
Bannan said that things haven’t been easy thus far but that the team has the attitude to keep pushing forwards.
“It has been a tough week. Unfortunately instead of having just one rider crashed out, we have had a little bit more bad luck than normal. But that is cycling, things happen.
“The guys have had a good discussion about it. We just have to really make sure we can get through the next few days without any more crashes and just really look forward to the rest of the race.”
He emphasises that there are plenty of opportunities ahead.
“Whilst we had a couple of stages targeted in the first period, we are still pretty confident the guys can animate the race and some of the stages in the second and third week. That is certainly the intention.
“The Yates brothers haven’t enjoyed the first five days because of how chaotic it has been. But they are really looking forward to the next two weeks.
“As for Michael, there are also stages in the second and third week that he has targeted as well. So while he won’t be targeting stage six, he just needs to finish it and get through it and get a bit further ahead.”
Providing he can do that, he may have a podium visit ahead for something other than the most combative rider award.