Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images

‘It is the most impressive ride of his career’ – Matthews’ tenacity pays off

It took a different approach to net a career-defining victory for the 31-year-old Australian.

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Of the 39 victories in Michael Matthews’ distinguished career, few have meant so much, or been so hard-fought.

On Saturday’s scorching stage 14 of the Tour de France, the Australian got himself in the day-long breakaway of 23 riders. With around 50 km to go in the hilly transitional stage, Matthews attacked, prompting three others from the break to join him.

When Matthews and co reached the final of the day’s climbs – the punishingly steep Côte de la Croix Neuve – the 31-year-old opened a gap and powered on alone. He’d soon be caught and then dropped by Alberto Bettiol, but in a ferociously dogged display, Matthews dug deep, reeled in Bettiol, then went it alone, powering on to the finish line solo.

Matthews had enough time to sit up and celebrate joyously, a fourth Tour de France stage win now under his belt.

“I think this is pretty much the story of my career,” he said. “I’ve had so many rollercoasters, ups and downs. How many times I’ve been smashed down, to all the time get back up …”

Matthews’ win was impressive not just because of the way he earned it, but because of the road he took to get there. It had been five years since his last Tour stage win and in those five years the world’s biggest race offered Matthews little joy. Between Saturday’s win and his last success in 2017, he’d been second on four occasions.

In 2018, Matthews was forced out of the Tour in the opening week due to illness. He was second on stage 3 of the 2019 edition, winning the bunch sprint behind an imperious Julian Alaphilippe who was winning solo into Épernay, kickstarting a remarkable Tour for the Frenchman.

Matthews missed the Tour in 2020 in what would be a final, fractious season with Sunweb. And when he returned to the Tour in 2021, now back with Team BikeExchange, he again reached as high as second place, again winning the bunch sprint on the opening stage, again behind a solo Alaphilippe.

And then came the 2022 Tour and with it, another two second places.

On stage 6, on the uphill finish into Longwy, Matthews was beaten only by his training buddy Tadej Pogačar, then seemingly on his way to a third-straight Tour victory.

“The only thing we could have done better was if Matthews was on the wheel of Pogačar into the last corner, which was the plan,” said Matt White, Matthews’ sports director. “He had to go past four of five non-sprinters and had a good run at [Pogačar], but you can’t give the world’s best climber a headstart with 250 metres to go.”

Matthews learned from that and was better positioned on the uphill finish to stage 8. This time it was another generational talent in Wout van Aert that got the better of the Australian.

“I gave it a shot from the front and started my sprint first but just got beaten by Wout on the line,” Matthews said. “I honestly don’t think I made a mistake today. I did everything I could, there was just a stronger rider in the bike race today, so I wouldn’t take anything back.

“I did my best, the team rode a great race to lead me to where I needed to be, and it’s second again. Hopefully I’m knocking on the door of that win.”

“That win” on stage 14 was the result of a different approach.

Matthews on the final climb on stage 14 of the Tour. (Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

While Matthews has a formidable sprint, and while he excels on punchy uphill finishes on tough, hilly days, he’s found himself eclipsed on such terrain in recent years. It’s taken the world’s best to do it, but the likes of Alaphilippe, Pogačar and Van Aert have all proven a fraction better on such stages. And in flat finishes, Matthews has ever been a shade slower than the pure sprinters.

But on stage 14 of the Tour, Matthews did things differently, taking the race into his own hands. He got in the break, and proved on several occasions he was the strongest rider there. And on that steep final climb out of Mende, he also proved that he’s much more versatile than most give him credit for.

“I think I just wanted to show everyone that I’m not just a sprinter,” he said afterwards. “I can also ride like a rode today.”

The significance of Matthews’ victory – and the way it was earned – wasn’t lost on his sports director.

“I think for Matthews it is the most impressive ride of his career,” White said. “He has changed over the years; he is a different rider to what he was four or five years ago but what he has become is a lot more robust and his ability to climb has obviously improved, but he has still got that snap there.

“He has some close run-ins early in the race and to get that monkey off his back, third time trying, we are all very proud of it.”

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