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REVEL, France (CT) – It’s been a bumpy road to Tour de France glory for Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange). A long-awaited debut in 2014 was thwarted by a crash in training just days before the start, and last year’s campaign was derailed by a crash on stage 3 that left the Canberran with four broken ribs.
This year’s race was shaping up to be no less frustrating with two crashes in the first week, leaving the 25-year-old despondent.
“I was almost giving up on this race,” Matthews said. “I was going to say ‘Maybe the Tour de France wasn’t for me.’ I’ve just had so much bad luck in this race.”
But everything changed on today’s 10th stage of the 2016 Tour.
Matthews got himself in the day-long breakaway of 15 riders with teammates Luke Durbridge and Daryl Impey for company. All three would make it to the final selection of seven riders before Matthews powered to a compelling victory in Revel, outsprinting Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data).
Matthews was quick to praise the work of his teammates, and rightly so. While Orica-BikeExchange had an overwhelming majority in the final break — the only team with more than one rider — they also rode the stage to perfection.
Luke Durbridge was the architect of the final selection, thinning the break down from 15 to seven in the final 20km before riding a hard tempo on the front to ensure the break stayed away. Daryl Impey was aggressive on the short climb in the final 10km, keeping the pace high and putting Matthews’ rivals under pressure.
Impey then returned to the front, leading the group under the flamme rouge and setting Matthews up for the final sprint.
“Without Luke Durbridge lining it out in the crosswind, trying to drop half the breakaway, and then Daryl Impey attacking on the climb and doing the lead-out for me, I wouldn’t have this victory right now,” Matthews said. “I can’t thank the guys from Orica-BikeExchange enough for their help today. They’ve really made my dreams come true.”
To win the stage, Matthews had to account for regular sparring partner Peter Sagan.
“I think everybody in the breakaway was watching Peter,” Daryl Impey said post-race. “He’s a guy that can do some crazy things out there. He’s a tough bugger.
“He’s not someone to let you get away quite easily. We tried to put him under pressure but he’s so quick to get on to the wheel and I was kind of running a bit flat there at the end. But we had to roll the dice there and Michael Matthews did a great job.”
Matthews himself was quick to reiterate the threat that Sagan posed, offering significant praise for the Slovakian.
“For sure he was the strongest rider in the breakaway; he was even pulling all day, never sat on,” Matthews said. “He gave it everything for the breakaway to stay away and that’s when I knew he had good legs and he was really up for the win.”
As riders with similar capabilities — strong in the sprints, particularly on hard, uphill finishes — Matthews and Sagan often face another in the biggest races. So far, most of the bragging rights have gone to Sagan: the world championships in Richmond last year, most notably, plus two stages of the Tour de Suisse last month. Sagan also won stage 2 of this year’s Tour while Matthews could only manage fifth.
“I knew he was the guy to follow and I was just hoping I had the legs to follow him,” Matthews said. “In Suisse, I didn’t have the legs to follow him.
“It’s really nice to get one over him. He’s got a lot over me now, especially with the world champ’s jersey. It’s nice to get one back.”
The win isn’t just an important one for Matthews — it’s a big one for his Orica-BikeExchange team. While Adam Yates currently sits second overall and leads the best young rider classification, the team missed a few opportunities earlier in the race.
“I think it’s going to turn the team morale around,” Impey said of today’s victory. “The first week was a little bit disappointing, some of the stages we really targeted. But now to get a win … and it’s only the start of the second part of this [race].”
The team had earmarked today’s stage as one it would throw everything at.
“On paper it was a great stage for us,” Orica-BikeExchange director sportif Matt Wilson told CyclingTips. “It was one we were outright targeting so for it come off as well as it did is a great thing.”
“You can have a fantastic year — you can win Classics, you can win anything but if you don’t win a stage in the Tour, or do something at the Tour, you’re kind of invisible and people don’t think you’ve had a good year.
“We have had a great year in this team and to get this now is a huge thing.”
With the team’s main aim of a stage victory now achieved, Orica-BikeExchange can now consider other goals, namely a greater focus on Adam Yates’ prospects in the general classification.
“It certainly allows the team to relax a bit more,” Wilson said of today’s victory. “Our main objective for the Tour, we’ve done now — we got the stage win. We can concentrate even harder on the GC now.”
For Michael Matthews, today’s win is a case of mission accomplished. His frustrating run at the Tour de France is over for now and he’s got the stage win he’s long been chasing. He credits his wife Kat with helping him stay focused on that goal.
“Yesterday on the rest day, my wife, she really … we had a good talk and she really kept me motivated to keep pushing,” Matthews said. “I really dedicate this win to my wife and to my dog Gigi.”
After this year’s Tour de France Matthews will look to the Canadian classics — the GP de Quebec and GP de Montreal — for the chance of further WorldTour victories. Looking further ahead, Matthews has been linked with the Giant-Alpecin setup for 2017, where he’s tipped to replace John Degenkolb, who appears destined for Trek-Segafredo.
For now though, Matthews and Orica-BikeExchange are hoping for further successes at the world’s biggest race.
“It’s not the end of the Tour de France yet.”