RODEZ, France (CT) – Just four days ago, Michael Matthews (Sunweb) sat perched over his bike, head in his hands and tears in his eyes, taking several minutes to compose himself before stepping forlornly onto his team bus.
He’d just finished 13th in the bunch sprint to Bergerac on a day where he’d been desperate for a strong finish and points for the green jersey. Speaking to the press a few minutes later Matthews said he was “devastated” with his result and suggested his teammates had let him down.
“Today was really one of the days where we needed to nail it, and we didn’t,” Matthews said at the time. “I don’t know if there was a miscommunication with the lead-out train today, but we weren’t where we said we wanted to be in the [pre-race team] meeting and it left me a long sprint to try and even get into the top 15 to even [get] into the points.”
Matthews frustration wasn’t just from that one result — rather it had built up over the course of a week and a half. He’d managed five top-10 finishes in the first seven stages, including a second and a third, but he hadn’t snagged the win he was after.
But after Saturday’s stage 14, Matthews was in an entirely different mood. He’d just won the uphill sprint into Rodez, ahead of Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), securing his team’s second win in as many days. Sitting in his winners’ press conference, the 26-year-old Australian wore a wide grin and was full of praise for his Sunweb teammates who had ridden the front all day.
“I think what we said in the meeting was pretty much exactly what we did in the race and I think that’s what it takes to win a stage of the Tour de France,” Matthews said. “You need a whole team to win a stage and I’m just super happy for all the efforts the guys did for me to be able to pull off a win like that. It makes it more special when you know that everyone has given you everything they have to deliver you in the best position possible …”
Matthews and Sunweb had earmarked stage 14 as a key opportunity from a long way out. Team sports director Luke Roberts told CyclingTips at the start of the day that almost all of the Sunweb line-up took it easy a stage earlier to ensure they’d be firing on all cylinders for stage 14.
“This is one that we know is really suited to Michael, and we made sure we had the guys keep pretty quiet yesterday, other than Warren — Warren had a free role yesterday to go for it,” Roberts said. “The other guys stayed quiet and saved their legs for today. So we want to make sure Bling has a chance here to go for the win.”
Matthews went into the stage as one of two big favourites, the other being Van Avermaet who won on the same finish at the 2015 Tour. Sure enough, it was Matthews and Van Avermaet that emerged at the front in the closing metres, with Matthews able to scoot around and take his second career Tour de France stage win.
After his frustrating start to the Tour, Matthews might have been questioning whether a stage win was going to elude him at this year’s race. But for his sports director Aike Visbeek, it was little surprise when the Canberran was able to hit the line in first position. As well as Matthews’ top-10 finishes — six of them by stage 11 — Matthews had shown his form by getting into the breakaway on a mountainous stage 9 to win the intermediate sprint.
“He already had the proof that he was in a really good shape because last Sunday in the mountain stage he was also riding really strong,” Visbeek said. “He showed some amazing things [but] then you want to turn that into results.”
Today’s win is certainly a result. It’s his third win of the year, his third with Team Sunweb, and certainly the biggest win since he changed teams at the start of this year. It’s a victory that will ease a lot of internal tension for Matthews.
“It definitely took the weight off my shoulders and now I can start tomorrow’s stage with a big smile on my face knowing that I have a win in this Tour de France and I can take a little bit of pressure off,” Matthews said. “There was never really too much pressure from the team but I always put a lot of pressure on myself because I work so hard …
“Me and my wife, we devote our whole life to cycling and I think in the end when you devote so much you make little mistakes because you feel the pressure so much. Maybe now I can relax a little bit and hopefully make a few less mistakes.”
After today’s victory, Matthews has narrowed the gap to Marcel Kittel (QuickStep Floors) in the battle for the green jersey. The Australian now sits 99 points behind his German rival, but he’s less than confident of being able to overtake the man who’s won five stages at this year’s Tour.
“I think a stage like this was maybe 30 points, but [Kittel’s] still quite a long way in front with those flat sprints and he’s almost won every single one,” Matthews said. “It’s really a lopsided battle for green this year with 50 points being on the flat stages and 30 being on the intermediate stages so it was always going to be difficult for a rider like me to be able to take the green.
“I think we’ve just got to keep trying and see what happens in the days to come.”
The first of those days, Sunday’s stage 15, is perhaps another opportunity for Matthews to put his arms in the air. With four climbs, two of them first-category — including one which peaks 31km from the finish — it’s a day that should be too hard for Kittel. But Matthews, with his superior climbing ability, might be able to find a way to get to the finish in the lead group. But it won’t be easy — it’s a day that suits the breakaway and besides, other teams will be reluctant to let a rider of Matthews’ speed contest the final sprint.
But Sunweb isn’t ruling out the chance.
“I think tomorrow could also be a good opportunity,” Visbeek said after stage 14. “He climbed very well. So no, we don’t rule anything out.”