Michael Matthews (Australia) takes a selfie with 2022 world champion Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) and runner-up Christophe Laporte (France).

Michael Matthews came for gold, but ‘third place on home soil, it feels like a win’

With his trade team BikeExchange-Jayco fighting relegation, Bling heads back to Europe with great form, high spirits and a bronze medal.

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Michael Matthews and Australia hoped for more, but all things considered, ‘Bling’ is delighted with how things ended up in Wollongong: “third place on home soil, it feels like a win.”

With a large breakaway up the road – and then a very small breakaway riding away for the win – the home favourite spent much of the 267-kilometre race nestled in the peloton in a race that was action-packed from the start.

“I was definitely hurting out there, and it was much harder than it was the last couple of days. But the team was great today,” Matthews told the gathered press after the podium ceremony. “We expected an attack from [Mount] Keira. It happened. We had three guys in that bunch. So that took a lot of pressure off the guys behind and we could just sit on and wait for other teams to chase… Later on in the race Jai [Hindley] went with another move, which was really good. That saved me from having to do that, so I was just waiting for the last two laps to really do my thing and save the podium in the last sort of 500 metres.”

After Remco Evenepoel struck his final blow just a shade over 25 km to go, it soon became clear that everyone else was racing for the podium. It looked likely that the medals would be fought out among the few remaining fragments of the breakaway, but the last chase group was devoured by a peloton in full flight in the last kilometre, seemingly caught unawares.

“We were talking in the peloton [about] if we were still racing for anything because we didn’t know exactly where anyone was. It’s really difficult to get information in a World Championships,” Matthews said, referencing the lack of in-race radios. “There was still attacking on the final climb up Mt. Pleasant so the race was still on, and then we just kept catching bunches – even the last 500 metres we were still not even sprinting for top 10. But then I saw the French team lining up for [Christophe] Laporte, to do a leadout for him, and I jumped on the back of that and did my thing in the sprint.

“Even afterwards I didn’t know exactly where I finished, but I found out a couple of minutes later that I was actually third. So I just knew we did a great team performance today and I wanted to finish off for Australia on home soil just to see where I would end up. Whether it was fifth, 10th, 15th, it didn’t really matter. I just wanted to finish off the best way I could.”

Matthews earned his own world title at U23 level in Geelong in 2010, and in the twelve years between Australian World Championships, he was a familiar face in the race for rainbows, finishing runner-up in Richmond, VA in 2015, third in Bergen two years later, with fourth in Doha in between. 

Since those Sagan Years, the Australian’s best result came in 2020 where he finished seventh behind Julian Alaphilippe, and now after five years away, he’s back on the elite podium for the third time in his career – and second time this week after Wednesday’s Mixed Relay.

“I think this one’s the best. On home soil, it’s definitely the most special. I’ve been second, but the second place was also quite a long way away like this one was. I think the level of cycling at the moment is so high, so it’s just incredible to be up here with this bronze medal. Obviously, we came here for the stripes on home soil. But coming away with the third place … it feels like a win here.”

Matthews sprinted to third two minutes 21 seconds after Evenepoel crossed the line solo.

There was a fair amount of debate when the Australian team was announced, Caleb Ewan’s exclusion coming as a surprise to many. But Matthews – graciously without the slightest reference to his absent compatriot – sees his bronze medal as just reward, a kind of vindication.

“The selectors, they knew what the course was going to be like. I’m sure they also knew how it was going to play out with other teams thinking exactly the same as us, that it’s going to be a very open race, it’s going to open really early, especially with Kiera after 30 kilometers – it’s going to light up there. And just the way cycling is going at the moment, it’s opening up much earlier. And we needed guys to do that role, to be able to do that role, and we had amazing guys with plan B, with Ben O’Connor, with Jai… and with Heinrich and Clarkey, [the] most experienced guys in Aussie cycling who were still there with me in the deep final. So I think the selectors did a great job of selecting the team and I was able to to finish off with a podium.”

Matthews arrived at his home Worlds carrying the momentum of a fantastic European summer, his Tour de France stage win the glittering highlight of a good season for the 31-year-old. The sheen was all the brighter given his underwhelming 2021, his first year back with BikeExchange-Jayco after a four-year sabbatical.

After falling short of victory last year, Matthews and BikeExchange took a different, more simplified approach to 2022.

“I think, to be honest, last year we were overthinking it too much,” said Matthews. “We tried to do too many things and [this year] we just went back to what we knew worked for us. I think we just put way too much into it, actually, which didn’t seem to work out in a positive way and only became negative. So we went back to just training hard, enjoying time with my family and being surrounded by good people. I think that’s that’s the most important thing.”

Bling performed consistently at the early-season races in Mallorca, took a promising fourth-place finish at his beloved Milan-Sanremo and ended his victory drought on stage 1 of the Volta a Catalunya, but it was nevertheless a tricky start to the year.

“It was definitely a rollercoaster at the start of the season with crashes, with sickness and really bad times,” Matthews recalled. “My shape was always there, but unfortunately in these little things, they were holding me back. I’ve just been lucky with a bit more…yeah, I’d say: luck, since the Tour de France victory. From there, it’s been rolling, and I think I’ve got my confidence back and I’m feeling good on the bike again. So hopefully I can keep this going and finish off the season on a high, for sure.

“I mean having a medal here in Australia, it’s… We wanted that one actually” – grinning, he indicates the gold medal resting on Evenepoel’s brand new rainbow jersey in the seat next to him – “but I think coming away with a third place on home soil, it feels like a win.”

While some of his rivals and teammates ended their season in Wollongong, Matthews and BikeExchange are still fighting the threat of relegation. At time of writing, the Australian outfit is still on the right side of the red line, and the 400 points Matthews earned on Sunday boosts them a little further clear of the danger zone.

But with points ever in mind, Matthews is taking good form and better spirits back to Europe with him.

“I’ve still got, I think, four more races to go, so it’s definitely not the season finished yet,” Matthews confirmed. “I think we got some good points today also with the third place here. But yeah, we’ve still got some racing to go, so I’m looking forward to that. I’m heading back to Italy, racing next week and then to France and then back to Italy again for a couple more one-dayers. The form is good, so I may as well continue trying to pick up a few more wins towards the end of the season.”

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