SAINT-LO, France (CT) – The Tour de France hasn’t been kind to Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange). The Canberran crashed ahead of his Tour debut in 2014 and never started the race. And when he did make his debut last year, he crashed heavily on stage 3, ruling him out of contention for stage wins.
Today, on the opening stage of the 2016 Tour, Matthews again hit the bitumen after getting caught in a final-kilometre crash. According to his team, Matthews didn’t sustain any significant injuries in his tumble. And if all goes to plan, he mightn’t have to wait long to turn his Tour fortunes around.
Matthews will go in as one of the favourites on the short uphill finish to stage 2 tomorrow. Assuming he’s given the opportunity to contest the win, that is.
Matthews is one of several imposing options for the newly renamed Orica-BikeExchange team, alongside Daryl Impey, Michael Albasini and Simon Gerrans. Speaking to the press ahead of the Tour start, sports director Matt White was loathe to reveal which rider would get the nod on stage 2, which is mostly uphill for the last 3km.
“I’d love to tell you our tactics now but it would blow our cover a bit,” White said. “We’ve definitely got options. We checked out the course a couple of days ago. It’s obviously one thing seeing a Strava file of how the course looks but some of the guys rode 100km and the other group did the last 50 and it’s an exciting finish.
“It’s going to be a good mix of the best GC riders and a handful of versatile Classics riders.”
Among those versatile Classics riders will almost certainly be Gerrans and Matthews. Were the team to ride for Matthews, it would be the opportunity for the 25-year-old to leave his Tour de France demons behind him.
“Last year didn’t go according to plan,” Matthews said. “I came in here with big expectations and big goals to try and win stages and the stage 3 crash obviously ruined all those expectations and goals.
“I think I can take a lot out of last year about how far I can push myself now just to get through the race and hopefully it’s not just to get through the race this year — hopefully it’s to win stages.”
For Gerrans, the Tour de France has delivered both career highlights, and crushing lows. He has two individual stage wins at the Tour to his name, having won in 2008 and in 2013. That latter win earned him a brief stint in the yellow jersey.
“The Tour obviously goes one way or the other: either spectacularly well or spectacularly bad,” Gerrans told CyclingTips. “I’ve felt both sides of that in the last few years.
“Obviously the 2013 Tour where it was just a dream come true for the team, and then I think I’ve broken bones in the last two Tour de Frances since …”
Gerrans managed to get through today’s opening stage unscathed, finishing in 46th as the highest-placed Orica-BikeExchange rider. And even though Matthews crashed and missed the final sprint, he wouldn’t have contested that sprint anyway.
“Stage 1 is not a focus for us,” Matt White said before the Tour began. “We’ll just be looking to get through on bunch time because the guys we’ve got here aren’t suited to those flat sprints.
“We haven’t really got a team to compete against [Andre] Greipel and [Marcel] Kittel in the pure flat sprints. There’s other stages we can and we’ll be putting more emphasis into those stages.”
One such stage takes place tomorrow and while Orica-BikeExchange has two riders that could conceivably win, there are still lingering concerns about Matthews’ and Gerrans’ ability to work well together. The pair famously ended up sprinting against each other while racing for Australia at the world championships in Richmond last year. And then at the Amstel Gold Race in April, the pair didn’t communicate in the closing kilometres and ended up on opposite sides of the road, showing a lack of cohesion.
Matt White recently hosed down concerns about the team’s tactics, telling the Adelaide Advertiser that the team would work well together at the Tour. Gerrans had a similar view ahead of the Tour start.
“It doesn’t matter who’s getting the results,” Gerrans said. “We’re all going to be focusing on the one objective and that’s winning stages.”
It remains to be seen whether Matthews’ crash will be enough to make Gerrans the stronger option tomorrow, or if the Victorian was always going to be Plan A. Regardless, the Australian-registered team will have no shortage of competition when the road tilts up in the final kilometres of tomorrow’s stage.
Should the team win on the day, it will likely be a case of mission accomplished at this year’s Tour. Particularly if the win comes along with a yellow jersey.