Australia’s two leaders for the Elite road race championships in Richmond, Virginia have said that they are both in the right physical condition and mental frame of mind to challenge for a top result on Sunday.
Michael Matthews believes his form is better than when he impressed in the Amstel Gold Race in April, being the only rider then able to stay with former world champion Philippe Gilbert on the Cauberg and then placing third.
As for Gerrans, he has had a year hampered by injury, with several crashes taking their toll, but he is optimistic that he has now reached the right condition to co-lead the team.
“I had really good preparation coming into this race, probably even better than the preparation for Amstel Gold,” said Matthews, sounding relaxed at Cycling Australia’s pre-race press conference.
“It is good confidence boost going into the final of race like this. I know myself that I can do it.”
He was the winner of the under 23 event at the 2010 worlds and, five years later, has the attributes to challenge for his second rainbow jersey.
Matthews is a solid climber on short ascents and also one of the fastest sprinters in the peloton. Given the nature of the Richmond course, that could prove to be the winning combination.
In fact, he said that Sunday’s route reminds him of the course used in Geelong, Australia, where he took that earlier gold medal.
As for Gerrans, he is also strong on steep climbs and has his own impressive burst of speed. A past winner of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Milan-San Remo, he’s also one of a limited number of riders who have won stages in all three Grand Tours.
He’s had a year to forget but knows he can turn things right around if Sunday works out well for him.
“I just had three weeks racing in the Tour of Spain,” he said, speaking about his preparation. “Obviously it takes time for my condition to build. But I have been working towards the world championships for quite some time. It is finally upon us and I am looking forward to Sunday.
“History has shown that when I have had an objective I am either crashing or close to the mark. Hopefully it’s the second of those tomorrow…”
Turning things around
Both riders were fallers in the Tour de France. In fact, most of the team hit the deck, making for a race that turned out to be a very difficult one for Orica GreenEdge.
Gerrans was forced out of the Tour on stage three while Matthews managed to limp on to the finish. His ambition of taking a stage win was however affected.
Since then the duo have taken very different routes towards the worlds.
Gerrans had to undergo an operation and then built back up to resume racing in August. As a result his ambitions prior to the worlds have been limited.
“The biggest goal for the Vuelta for myself was actually just to make the start line on the back of the Tour de France [crash],” he said, talking about his return to competition in the Spanish Grand Tour.
He knew that he could use that second race as the platform to push for a strong end of season.
“The surgery after that [his fall in the Tour]…it was actually just to be ready for the Tour of Spain. I knew I was lining up at the beginning of the race really below the condition that I needed to be to be competitive.
“It was just a matter of contributing as much as I could to my team-mates’ success. I count that as a hugely successful race, to get three stage wins and fifth overall in [Esteban] Chaves.”
Although a placing of his own would have been a boost to his morale, he’s satisfied with what was done.
“As much as I wasn’t up there in the results myself, I did exactly what I was hoping to. That was to improve my condition and to contribute to the success of the team.”
He added that he felt good soon after the Vuelta and agreed that his freshness could pay off well on Sunday.
As for Matthews, he has had a more successful few weeks. He won a stage and placed second in two others in the Tour of Alberta earlier this month, then was runner-up in the GP de Québec. He also helped his Orica GreenEdge squad to fourth in the team time trial at the worlds.
He said that he believes his build-up has been better than it was for the Ardennes Classics, giving him optimism for Sunday.
“The preparation for the Ardennes was basically from the start of the season,” he explained. “It was a really long build-up without racing in January. I didn’t race in January or February, I started in Paris-Nice, which was a nice long build-up.
“I think through the year, with the racing I have done and all the big races I got to do this year, it was really good preparation for the world championships. Getting to do every single one day Classic was really good preparation.
“We had a bit of bad luck in the Tour de France with guys crashing and almost taking out our whole team. It wasn’t great, but I had a really good build-up after the Tour de France. I had a week of recovery and then a training camp, then Quebec, Montreal.
“I came here in really good form and in really good confidence at the same time.”
“It could suit quite a few riders…”
Sunday’s race is of course an unpredictable one.
This is due in part to national teams of varying sizes, plus riders coming into the event with completely different build-ups.
There is also the element of luck, which could prove very important on a technical course that is expected to be lubricated with rain.
Because of all of those factors, both Australians were reluctant to name favourites.
“I think on this circuit there are so many guys who could look for a result on Sunday,” said Gerrans, deflecting the question when asked who he regarded as dangers.
“I don’t think you could reduce it to any one favourite or even two or three guys, because I think that every single team has numerous options.”
Matthews echoed this.
“There are so many guys in the peloton that this race can suit. No-one really knows which direction it is going to go – it can go in all sorts of directions. It could be a tactical day.
“I’m hoping it will be a fast race all day and comes down to a sprint. So it could suit quite a few riders…”
What’s certain, though, is that both are feeling good. They also have faith in their team-mates, believing that they can conserve energy early on and then gradually ramp things up as the finale draws clear.
“Obviously you have to be attentive to what goes on early in the race. But it is such a long day that you have to be very careful in your efforts,” Gerrans explained. “You can’t be following every attack and breakaway all day long. You have to got to pick and choose a little bit, keep a close eye on the competition and make those decision as best as you can.
“I think the Australian team have probably the best team we have ever seen. We have got a really strong group of riders and I think we are going to have some really reliable team-mates.
“That is our strength. We are going to have a strong unit.”
Five years after Matthews’ earlier rainbow jersey, they will hope that gold beckons again.