The Classics tend to hand down lessons more readily than they hand out bouquets. Sunweb's Michael Matthews and Søren Kragh Andersen must have felt they had done the hard part when they made the decisive split after the Kemmelberg in the finale of Gent-Wevelgem, but nothing is ever straightforward in this corner of the world and at this time of the year.
Matthews was caught on the wrong side when the 14-strong leading group split in two with 20 kilometres to go, but Andersen remained in front as part of an elite quintet with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step).
Barely five kilometres later, however, Andersen found himself on the back foot when Terpstra and Sagan's impromptu game of bluff and counter-bluff allowed the eventual winner Van Avermaet and Keukeleire to forge clear. The young Dane performed impressively even as all cohesion dissipated from the group, but he received no reward for his efforts, and was swept up by the chasing peloton, eventually finishing 16th.
"With Terpstra and Sagan, the work in the group was not going 100 per cent. I did some pulls but I also saved myself a bit, because I had Matthews behind and I said that to the guys," Andersen told Cyclingnews. "In the end, Terpstra didn't want to ride at all, and Sagan was like, ‘Okay, I'll also stop.' They let Van Avermaet and Keukeleire go, and they are not stupid: They put the gas down and from then on, all three of us screwed ourselves.
"I was a little bit caught in a sandwich there. I'm a young guy and I didn't know exactly what to do. It's a hard experience you know. In the team we hoped for more. We had the chance to get a better result, but that's how it is."
Matthews barely put a pedal stroke askew all afternoon, riding confidently through the narrow section of gravel roads, the so-called Plugstreets, and then forging his way towards the front on the Kemmelberg. As the leading group of fourteen hurtled over the other side, only Sagan and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) stood out as rivals in the potential group sprint, only for the race to turn in a split second on a section of headwind outside of Ieper.
"Søren went to get me a bidon and just at that moment someone started pulling at the front and someone left the wheel go," Matthews told Cyclingnews. "I was putting my bidon in, so I said to Søren, ‘You have to go.' He attacked and made it across to the front group."
The nine riders behind were almost as disjointed in their efforts as Sagan and Terpstra were up ahead. It was quickly evident that Matthews would not be able to bridge back up to the leaders. On the run-in to Wevelgem, their group swelled to thirty or so riders, and in the frantic final sprint, Matthews claimed eighth place.
"We were trying to work behind to get to the front group but there was no real cooperation after that," Matthews said. "I think no one really wanted to help each other. I was trying to get everybody to keep rolling through so we could at least catch the front group and be back in the race again. It was a bit unfortunate the guys wouldn't work together, and I think at that moment we were sprinting for fifth or sixth or whatever it is."
Amstel on the horizon for Matthews
Gent-Wevelgem brought the curtain down on Matthews' brief cobbled Classics campaign. After focusing exclusively on the Ardennes during his tenure at GreenEdge, the switch to Sunweb saw the Australian sample Dwars door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem for the first time since 2011, with a view to one day contending at the Tour of Flanders.
"I think I learned a lot in these two races. It's definitely a lot about teamwork here, you need to have a team around you to support you so you can do your thing in the final," said Matthews, who will forgo the Tour of Flanders as he builds towards the Amstel Gold Race. "I've lived around the Amstel course for quite a long time so I know all the roads there, whereas these are all new roads for me."
For the third year in a row, Matthews began his campaign late, at Paris-Nice, but he declared himself satisfied with his progress ahead of his principal objectives in late April. "It's unfortunate I missed that split in the final but the legs are there, for sure. I showed that today," he said. "I was around the mark today the whole time. I'm looking forward to that big result that's coming soon."
Still only 22 years of age, Andersen is mindful that he might have to wait a little longer for a big result, even if his Tour of Oman stage victory in February underscored his obvious potential. The Dane will line up at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix for the second time, eager to build his treasury of experience.
"For me it's still a learning process and the team is not pressuring me," Andersen said. "I'm learning and even though it was a bit of a costly lesson, I learned again today. You lose more than you win in this sport. That's how it is, even for guys like Sagan."
Lessons can be learned, but wisdom is often inherent. Andersen's education is off to a good start.