Michael Matthews’ 2018 season can be seen as a jigsaw puzzle. Starting out, it appeared all the pieces were ready to be slotted into place. Instead, they all ended up on the floor. If at first he struggled to make sense of the mess, by the end of the season he had patched things back up pretty neatly, and had even picked up some new pieces that will only enhance the bigger picture.
The 2017 season had been the strongest of the Australian’s career to date, with two stage wins and the green jersey at the Tour de France followed by a world title in the team time trial. As such, he was convinced “it was all going to happen” in 2018.
Yet his second season with Team Sunweb was thrown into disarray from his very first race, as he broke his shoulder in a crash at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He went on to post some perfectly creditable results throughout the spring, but the shoulder – which wasn’t fully weight-bearing and which is still not fully healed – was perhaps the difference between a top 10 and a podium or victory.
“I had such big ambitions for the season, trying to tick all these boxes. I really had massive belief, and for that all to change in one small crash, it was mentally hard to deal with,” he says.
There were further setbacks to deal with, in the form of illness and injury, the nadir coming when food poisoning forced him to leave the Tour de France after just four stages.
“For the sicknesses and breaking the shoulder to all to happen in half a season, my head was totally going crazy,” he adds.
Matthews isn’t being flippant; the psychological toll was considerable. He’d sunk so low after his exit from the Tour that his mood began to affect his training, his diet, and even his closest relationships.
He felt written off – “people were saying I wasn’t that good anymore, I even sensed the riders around me weren’t really too worried about me anymore” – and his belief in himself started to falter as well.
The days at home during the Tour – where he’d watch with envy as his rivals won stages suited to him – were the lowest, but leaving the race turned out to be a “blessing in disguise”. It allowed him to have the time away from racing that his shoulder needed – and probably should have had four months previously – to recover to an extent that it was no longer holding him back in races.
Tom Stamsnijder and Matthews backstage at the Team Sunweb presentation in Berlin (Bettini)
In the second half of the season, Matthews was a rider re-born. He went to the BinckBank Tour and won a stage and finished second overall, before heading to Canada for the prestigious WorldTour double-header – the GP de Québec and the GP de Montréal – and winning them both.
Matthews describes those results as “massive” – and not just in the context of his season, but also in his career. For someone who seemingly has the whole calendar at his feet when it comes to one-day racing – someone who has finished on the podium of Milan-San Remo, the World Championships, and La Flèche Wallonne – Québec and Montréal were Matthews’ first major Classics victories. They were his first one-day wins at WorldTour level, his only previous scalps being two wins at the Vuelta a la Rioja and one apiece at the Vuelta a Almeria and Rund um Koln.
“It was a massive breakthrough,” he says. “I’ve always struggled, for some reason, to get on the top step at the Classics. I think it was more mental than physical. I put way too much stress on myself. I read about how prestigious they are, the big following around these historic races, and maybe I just stressed myself too much and made some silly mistakes.
“Towards the middle of the year and after the Tour de France, I thought ‘I have nothing to lose now, let’s just go all in, and not stress about the Canadian classics, let’s just race like I enjoy racing, not overthink things, what this guy’s going to do, what this guy’s tactic is, if this guy’s going well… don’t care about those things, just race your own race’. And that’s what I did.”
The mental aspect is an important one. That the summer, Matthews decided to start seeing a sports psychologist – “someone who could help me keep my head straight and make sure I didn’t lose that belief in myself”.
There’s little doubt that Matthews possesses an extremely rare level of physical talent, but, by his own admission, his psychological resilience hasn’t always been up to the same standard. He is a self-confessed over-thinker and over-worrier, to the detriment of his state of mind after races and sometimes his performances during them.
“Sometimes I’m maybe too critical of myself, pointing out maybe too many points, then I start to go a bit crazy,” he acknowledges.
He still hasn’t got over the 2015 Milan-San Remo, where he found himself boxed in against the barriers in the sprint on the Via Roma. “That’s one I play over and over in my head. I think I’ve played it a thousand times already.”
As well as helping him out of his mid-season funk, Matthews’ psychologist has encouraged him to simplify things when it comes to his approach to racing.
“I think that was something I’d been missing, that mental coaching to help me, when I’m in a race, just relax, breathe, try and make clear decisions in your head instead of panicking. That’s what really changed in the second half of the season,” he says.
“It’s about trying to eliminate mistakes but also, if they do happen, to not overthink it too much – just say ‘ok it happened, but move on, the race is still going, you can still change it’. Maybe I’d just think ‘I’ve made this mistake now; my race is done’. For some reason I was always thinking other people make no mistakes, which is ridiculous; everyone makes mistakes. Maybe I shouldn’t think about them so much, just move on, and continue racing.”
Matthews and a teammate celebrate his win at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal
‘I wasn’t respected at Orica’
Whether directly or indirectly, Matthews’ time with his psychologist perhaps fed into another aspect of his late-season improvement: his leadership quality. It might seem odd at first that someone whose nickname is ‘bling’ might lack confidence, but that has largely been the case when it has come to standing up and speaking in front of his teammates.
“Normally I’m quite quiet in the meetings. I probably don’t give enough information on how I want the race to be ridden, and what I need them to do,” he admits.
“From the second part of the season, I was really involved a lot more in the meetings, telling guys what I wanted, what I’d seen in the last few years, how we can move forward, and how to help me in the best way possible. In Canada it made a massive difference. The feeling that I was giving them was that I was ready to win, that I was willing to fight for them and to do everything possible to win that race. Maybe I was lacking that sometimes, to give that boost to teammates, that I’m really there to win.”
The reason why that had been lacking until now, Matthews attributes to his experiences at his former team, Mitchelton-Scott. Having turned pro with Rabobank in 2011, he joined the Australian outfit – then Orica-GreenEdge – in 2013 in their second season, before leaving for Sunweb in 2017.
“I didn’t feel like I was really respected among the riders there,” he says.
“There were a lot of older guys, and the age barrier was… it was totally different ends of the scales. I was 22, coming into the team, but they were more towards ends of their careers, and wanted to make sure they were also getting good results. I think they felt I needed more time to learn everything, rather than them listening to me when I was so much younger. That’s what I felt anyway – maybe it wasn’t true, but I that’s how I felt.
“They would just say ‘you’re the young one, do what we say’. That’s fine, and nine times out of 10 you just do what they say, but for me to learn how to be a leader in the future, I found it quite difficult. Mentally, it was tough. I understand where they’re coming from, and I accepted their opinions, but it didn’t help me to grow.”
While Matthews reveals that, at Orica, those elder statesmen called the shots over the team directors, he insists the culture at Sunweb, the highly structured German-registered organization, is totally different.
“The way this team is structured is that everyone has a voice, no matter who you are. From the neo-pro to the person who’s been pro for 15 years, we’re all equal. That’s the structure Iwan [Spekenbrink, general manager -ed] has created in this team, the model they’ve carried on from the Skil-Shimano days. That’s something special.
“I don’t want to be a leader like that who just shuts people down; I would rather make everyone involved in the conversation, give my input and say ‘this is what I reckon, but I’m willing to hear everyone else’s opinions’.”
From the physical to the psychological, and even the mechanical – it emerged he’d been riding with his saddle eight milimetres too high – Matthews did a fine job of picking up the pieces of his toughest travails to date. And in the post-Canada glow it seems that one of the most complete riders in the modern peloton is more complete than ever. He’d probably now be wary of entertaining such thoughts, but perhaps 2019 will be the year the puzzle all comes together.