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On a normal day taking the victory and clocking up 50 points and moving significantly closer to the long-running leader of the points competition would have been the main story, but Michael Matthews’ 16th stage in this year’s Tour de France contained an additional twist.
It was the physical contact he had with John Dengenkolb after the finish line, with the disappointed rider either punching or grabbing the Australian, depending on which version of events you believe.
One video clip showed Degenkolb crossing the finish line and striking out, swinging his fist in the direction of Matthews’ face. It’s unclear if the blow landed, though, and another account – from Matthews himself – says that Degenkolb seized him by the throat at some point after that.
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Either way, both the Australian and the German claimed that they were in the right in relation to what was a hotly-contested sprint to the line.
“From my perspective, I don’t think I did anything wrong,” Matthews told journalists after the finish. “I laid off Van Avermaet and then I started my sprint in the same direction. I didn’t change my line, I sprinted in a straight line. I am not sure what was wrong with Degenkolb, but that is up to him.
“If I did something wrong, the jury would say something.”
Degenkolb has a different view, and was angry at what he felt happened.
“Matthews did not hold his line in the sprint, and that cost me the chance for victory today,” he said. “I was on his wheel, in the perfect position to launch the sprint at 200 meters, and I started the sprint. I clearly came with more speed from his wheel, and he saw me on the right side and closed the gap. It made me stop sprinting for the victory.
“I felt like I had the legs to win today. It was very clear he went off his line into my line.”
There is little peculiar about disagreements between sprinters. The discipline is both dangerous and complicated and perspectives often differ. But what happened after the line seemed unusual.
Firstly Degenkolb swung his right fist towards Matthews. The Team Sunweb rider turns his head, although it is difficult to see if he has been hit or if the blow didn’t land. In addition to that, there were suggestions of different physical contact.
Asked if it was true that Degenkolb had grabbed him by the throat, he confirmed that account. “I was just waiting to see who won. I actually thought that Boasson Hagen had won because he was coming so fast,” he said. “We were just waiting for the official result, and he [Degenkolb] grabbed me on the way past.
“I think the officials saw that. I am not sure what they are going to do about it, but I don’t think it is very sportsman-like.”
Degenkolb wasn’t mentioned on the official list of fines, although it is in theory possible that the jury could review the situation if video evidence emerges.
He did allude to some sort of conflict. “In the heat of the situation, you are immediately angry if the chance for a win has been taken away when you know you have the legs to overtake him,” he said. “It’s very disappointing.”
‘I just kept attacking on the first climb’
That tussle aside, the stage saw a superb tactical move which ultimately ensured that Matthews was in a position to take back a chunk of points on green jersey rival Kittel. The latter is a taller and heavier rider, and therefore someone who can struggle on climbs.
Matthews knew this and wanted to take advantage of the tough early kilometres.
“We took it from the word go,” he said. “We were attacking the whole time to make it hard for QuickStep to shut us down. Over the top of the climb I was trying to really put the pressure on.
“I think QuickStep had the plan that the only guy that should come with me was Dan Martin. I tried to keep the pressure on him to keep following me, and I knew Sky would follow him and that would make it harder for Kittel.
“I just kept attacking on the first climb, I felt quite good. Then we got over the top of the climb, then we heard that Kittel was distanced by over a minute. I told the boys, then they all just came to the front with big smiles on their faces and just went full. It was really an amazing day.
“We had a few plans on the bus, but this worked out ten times better than we planned.”
Kittel, meanwhile, said that he was satisfied that he gave his all.
“I can’t say I am happy about losing all the points today, but there was nothing to do. I think I gave my best in the beginning on the climb,” he stated. “I can’t change it, it is what it is.
“Also, as a team, we tried to keep ourselves in contention. But it wasn’t our day today and now we have to move on and think about our next chances and other opportunities.”
The German is having his best-ever Tour de France, clocking up five stage wins thus far. After the fifth, which came on stage 11 into Pau, he had a considerable lead in the points classification. He was 133 points clear of Matthews, who already described himself as ‘devastated’ when Kittel won the previous day’s stage.
The Australian accepted that his bigger rival was likely to gain the edge in head to head sprints on the flat, and so he aimed to try to pick up points on lumpier terrain.
Since then things have gone his way. In addition to gathering points in intermediate sprints, he won Saturday’s stage 14 to Rodez, Kittel lost contact long before the sprint and trailed in 170th. He then won Tuesday’s intermediate sprint, earning 20 points, and nabbed another 30 with his stage victory.
With his rival missing out on both of those gallops on stage 16, Matthews ended the day on 344 points. This is well within sight of Kittel’s 373, but the pressure needs to remain on.
“I need to try to get as many points as possible,” he said. “Tomorrow I think there is a climb and then an intermediate sprint, so we will have to see what happens. It is also stage 17, so there is only a few stages left.
“I need to try to get as many points as I can everywhere I can, basically. Because I know that once we get to those two flat sprints coming into the final of this Tour de France, Kittel is going to extend his lead again. It is going to be a lot of hard work, but I think with the support of this team, it makes it a lot easier for me.
“We will have to keep fighting all the way to Paris, and hopefully we can have a good result at the finish.”
As for Kittel, he is also taking nothing for granted. Friday’s stage should in theory suit him, but he accepts that a bunch gallop isn’t guaranteed.
“Honestly, on that long day, I have no clue what will happen there,” he said. “Because it is going to be a windy day, and it can be like today. We will see. It is almost impossible to predict anything about it.
“Unfortunately the Tour is three weeks long and not only two. Now it is getting more and more tight. Probably I was right by saying it is going to be decided on the Champs Elysees. I will stay cool. I mean, what can I do? I did my best on the climb. The team kept on fighting to bring me back. It didn’t work.”
Matthews is bolstered by the realisation that if he wins the intermediate sprint on the next two stages, he will be ahead of Kittel in points and thus into the green jersey.
“I really need to try get all those points, which is also difficult because I need to go in the breakaway every day and survive the climbs,” he said. “I think it is two totally different game plans. He has his game plan and I have mine. I guess we will see in Paris which one works out best.”
Fortunately, though, he believes his form is holding up very well. Astonishingly well, in fact.
“To be honest I feel stronger and stronger,” he said. “On that first climb I was really attacking like a maniac, and I didn’t feel my legs yet. I am waiting for that day that they just totally collapse, but it is not there yet.
“I am just going to keep trying and give it everything we have. There is only a few days left in this Tour de France, and I will fight it all the way to the line.”