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In a nod to the cancelation of the Australian international cycling calendar, we are turning our gaze Down Under for a week of feature stories, interviews, historical analysis, and other content to celebrate Australian cycling as part of Aussie Week.
Michael Matthews is back in familiar surroundings with a high-profile return to Australian colors. After a four-year detour with Team Sunweb, Matthews returns to the Aussie fold — now Team BikeExchange — with bigger ambitions than ever.
“I’ve been able to achieve a lot of my dreams in cycling, but I haven’t ticked off enough of them yet,” Matthews told VeloNews. “I still think I’m improving as a rider, and I’m excited to see what I can achieve in the next few years.”
At 30, Matthews knows that he has a few more good seasons to check off his to-do list that includes knocking off one of cycling’s monuments, more stages in grand tours, and perhaps a world title. He already owns stages in all three grand tours, leader’s jerseys in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, along with a points jersey in the Tour, and he’s been consistently knocking on monument’s doors.
Matthews is hoping his versatility will pay dividends in his new adventure with BikeExchange as he enters what he hopes is the next chapter in his career.
“I’ve never been a pure sprinter,” he said. “There are a lot of riders who have the same characteristics as me, and there are not that many opportunities, so to win at this level, you really need to be at your absolute best.”
The growing tug of Flanders
Matthews certainly has been knocking on cycling’s version of heaven’s door when it comes to cycling’s most important one-day races. Twice third at Milano-Sanremo and two podiums at the worlds, Matthews was also fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège on the former climber’s course, and sixth at his first crack at the Tour of Flanders in 2019.
“I really love Flanders,” he said. “In my first experience was I was just inside the top-10, which was great. I wanted to do it again in 2020, but didn’t get put in the team. So that was pretty heartbreaking. But yeah, I definitely want to go back all guns blazing this year again, and see what’s possible.”
With 37 wins on his palmarès, including the Canadian WorldTour races as well as a host of stages and one-day classics, it’s races like Sanremo, the worlds, Amstel Gold Race, and the new-look Liège route where he hopes to really shine in the next few seasons.
“The problem is Sanremo suits a lot of people,” he said. “It’s not a climber’s course but it’s not a sprinter’s course, either. Either one can win. And there’s not really a race like that on the calendar. That race is probably the race that suits the whole peloton. I really consider Milano-Sanremo like a world championship. You sit there all day, boring, boring, boring, and then there’s an action-packed final. And if you’re not on in the right place at the right time, when it really goes, it’s done. Your race is over. So you also need a bit of luck in that race. But you’ve also got to create your own luck. So yeah, it’s really like the lottery that race. I think for me, it’s one of the most exciting for sure.”
The only sheriff in town
The self-styled “Bling” says he’s older, wiser, and more mature. When the chance came to return to BikeExchange, it didn’t take long to convince him.
Conversations with BikeExchange started around the middle of last season, and it was no coincidence that the call happened when Matthews was left off the team’s Tour squad. After four seasons with the Sunweb outfit, Matthews felt it was time for a change. And heading back to the GreenEdge franchise, where he raced from 2013-16, made the most sense.
“I think in life, you really need to take these opportunities when they come and especially if it feels right. I feel like that a change would be nice,” he said. “Maybe I was getting a little bit stuck. And I needed I need to a fresh new atmosphere and some new people around me to really get the best out of me.”
GreenEdge — now Team BikeExchange going into 2021 and 2022 — is a very different team than when he left after the 2016 season. Back then, he was often butting heads with then-teammate Simon Gerrans, who was an established star on the team just as Matthews was coming up.
“I was last on the team with Simon Gerrans, and he was really in the prime of his career,” Matthews said. “He was absolutely flying. So yeah, it was difficult to fight for the same races because we are similar riders. I think between the us two, those seasons we had together was actually quite positive, because we pushed each other so hard that we were both absolutely flying.”
Matthews said he harbors no bad feelings for Gerrans, who retired in 2018. In fact, he said he learned a lot from racing alongside Gerrans, but also knew he needed to try a new team.
“If you see the results from those years, we have some pretty incredible results between me and Simon,” he said. “I think the choice was between me and Simon, and which rider they wanted to keep. They went with Simon at that time, I think it was a good choice for them. They still had great results with him. So yeah, and I got to go off and explore something else and learn a bit more about myself. Now I’m back with all that experience, and hopefully, I can use it to my advantage.”
At Sunweb, he had his chances, but also felt stymied. Back at BikeExchange, he hopes to take full flight, with the full support of the team.
“We expect big things,” sport director Matt White told VeloNews. “He’s one of the most versatile one-day racers in the WorldTour. He’s capable of winning everything from Milano-Sanremo all the way through Liège. We’re really going to enjoy having him back on the team.”
COVID strikes close to home
Like everyone else in the peloton, Matthews saw his 2020 racing derailed by the lockdowns and quarantines. Based in Monaco, he was under a strict lockdown for nearly three months, making it a challenge to train outdoors.
“I think once I started racing, I was actually going well,” he said. “I normally prepare quite well at home, I don’t really need races to prepare for bigger goals. But for the mental side is quite difficult not knowing exactly what racers you’re going to do. But in the end, we’re paid to race, and you have to be ready whenever the race is on.”
Since turning pro in 2010, he’s won races in every season. 2020 came down to the wire, but he got his victory at the 84th Bretagne Classic-Ouest France in late August, finishing ahead of new teammate Luka Mezgec.
Unlike many others, however, he was diagnosed with COVID-19 during a rest day at the Giro d’Italia, prompting his departure from the race.
“I still actually don’t know if I was truly positive,” he said. “It’s a bit hard to swallow because I still don’t know what happened. I tested positive the night of the day of rest day. I was meant to do a retest, but there was no time. So I didn’t get a retest and had to go home. It was a pretty sad way to end the season.”
After racing five straight editions of the Tour, he’s hoping to return to France this summer after being left off Sunweb’s 2020 Tour roster. With up to eight sprints on tap on the 2021 route, Matthews should see his chances. Team BikeExchange still has not yet defined its grand tour ambitions, but Simon Yates is hinting he will focus on the Giro, opening up the door for the team to race more aggressively at the Tour.
“There are a lot of sprints, but I wouldn’t consider myself a pure flat sprinter. So it actually takes some opportunities away,” Matthews said. “I don’t think anything’s finalized yet, but my plan was always the Tour. I really want to just focus on the classics at the start of the season first, and then have a good rest and really focus towards the next period.”
Also on the radar in 2021 is another run at the world championship title. A classics-style course in Flanders could be his best chance at the stripes since he was third in Bergen in 2017.
“I hear it’s like a like a Brabantse Pijl, uphill sort of course,” he said. “It suits a lot of people. There are now a lot of people who have that same riding style as I. So I think it’s going to be a very hard race. It’s going to be a very active race. When you see van der Poel and Van Aert are racing these days, they’ll want to blow it apart quite early. I definitely want to go there in really good shape. I think it’s a course that that also suits me. The world championships is one of those ones that have been so close so many times. And yeah, it’ll be awesome, really, to get on the top step. And I think for the fans, it’s going to be one of the best world championships. It’s going to be just insane.”