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MENDE, France (VN) — First came Peter Sagan. Then Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) arrived on the scene.
Over the last few years it was hard to imagine Michael Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) ever winning major races again. His speed and consistency were reliable as ever but he was simply being outfought by too many faster and more durable versions of himself.
One win and a string of near misses over a two year period said it all.
And that trend looked like it would continue throughout this year’s Tour de France with Matthews picking up another two runner-up spots over the first ten days of racing.
Then came the stage to Mende, and without a shadow of a doubt Matthews’ most complete, consummate, and calculating performance of his entire career. He was frankly unstoppable and even the van Aerts and van der Poels of this world would have been impressed.
“It’s been difficult,” an understandably emotional Matthews said during his winner’s press conference.
“The Tour de France is such a special race and everyone comes here with their own certain goals and unfortunately you don’t get to choose the stages laid out for you. Nothing has really suited me so far and I’ve always come up second best, or third best, or top-ten. I have the most top threes and top tens in the last few years without a win. I’ve been consistent, which is good but you need to win.”
Always keep believing. pic.twitter.com/TsgqtYiuKZ
— Michael Matthews (@blingmatthews) July 16, 2022
On the road to Mende the Australian raced like a winner, unshackling any of the self doubt that had crept into his racing over the last 18 months. He made the 23-man break of the day – no easy feat given the caliber of riders in the main move – and then with over 50km to go he attacked over the top of the Côte de Grandrieu. One look back, and he was gone.
The break soon responded. Luis Léon Sánchez (Bahrain Victorious) and two other riders skipped across to the Australian as EF-Education unleashed their chase from the remnants of the break.
Matthews led over the next climb, one of his breakaway companions crashed out of contention, and then with 3.5km to go as the final brutal climb to the Mende airstrip began to bite, he unleashed his next powerful attack. There was no response.
“My wife last night and this morning, she said to me, if you want to win then you have to gamble and you have to throw it all out there. You have to try something different and surprise people and it worked out,” he said later.
“What was going through my mind? My wife and daughter. They were going through my mind the whole day. I just wanted to make them proud of me today. They’ve sacrificed so much for me. We don’t get to spend enough time together because we want to make our dreams come true and hopefully today my wife and my daughter are proud of me. That’s all that went through my mind, especially when Bettiol passed me.”
We can’t forget Alberto Bettiol in all of this. The Italian charged up the climb from the early break and slowly but surely caught Matthews. It looked as though the Italian would take the spoils as he opened a short but agonizingly important gap as the climb rose towards the summit but Matthews dug deep, for what he later called the hardest 2km of his entire Tour de France. He managed to pace himself back the EF rider and instantly hit him with a final, last gasp attack.
The moment the race was pic.twitter.com/6P7Bt2MzsS
— Team BikeExchange-Jayco (@GreenEDGEteam) July 16, 2022
“I knew that I couldn’t give up. I wanted to show my daughter that this is why I’m away so much, this is what we sacrifice for, and hopefully she’s proud of me,” he said.
“On the final climb, that was the longest 2km of this Tour de France. That’s for sure. The fans were screaming so loud that I couldn’t feel my legs. Being first, on a climb, in the Tour de France after being in the break… I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had Mat Hayman on the radio cheering me on, telling me to ride as fast as I could from bottom to the top, and that if I did then I’d win the stage. When Bettiol caught me, I had a little bit left but not much. I just had to pace myself. I know that I can go very deep at the top of a climb as best as I can. I knew that I needed to attack him right away. I don’t know what else to say, it was just magical.”
Matthews’ last Tour de France stage win came in Sunweb colors back in 2017, when he also took home the green jersey. That feels like an age ago but throughout the last few years, and all their ups and downs, Matthews hasn’t lost sight of his focus and determination to succeed. There are faster riders, there are stronger riders but few in the peloton have this man’s grit and spirit.