Michael Matthews (Sunweb) made his final pre-Worlds starts last weekend in Canada at the GPs Québec and Montréal, and he proved his form for Bergen with top 10s in both, including a third-place finish in Quebec City.
Cycling Australia has tapped the 2015 silver medalist as their sole leader for the UCI Road World Championships for the second year running, with a team built to support him all the way to a hoped-for selective sprint finish. If that is indeed how the race plays out, Matthews has already had a dry run against a few of the chief contenders, including defending champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who successfully defended his Québec title last Friday.
"It was another good preparation here in Canada. It's a similar course to what the Worlds will be with a climb and a circuit. Though Norway is quite a bit longer, so I'm assuming I'll be better than in the shorter race," Matthews said after his second career podium performance in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec. He agreed with an assessment by Québec runner-up Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) that he, Sagan and Van Avermaet were all likely to be going head to head at the business end of the Worlds road race.
"Hopefully like Greg said this is the podium but in a different order. I think each one of us wants to be on the top step, but I think it will be a good show to see who will be on that top step."
Claiming a pair of stage wins and the points jersey at the Tour de France to go with wins in the Vuelta al País Vasco and the Tour de Suisse, Matthews has enjoyed one of his strongest years as a pro. He joined Sunweb at the start of the season after four years with various iterations of Orica, and has slotted in to a void left by John Degenkolb, who jumped to Trek-Segafredo for 2017.
Turning a sharp Classics skill set and strong career results into actual victories has been a challenge for Matthews thus far, however. He has delivered impressive performances in top-tier one-day races throughout the calendar, with seven top 10s in WorldTour one-day races this season, but has never taken a victory in a one-day event at the WorldTour level. Ahead of his biggest one-day race objective of the year, then, the Canadian GPs were a valuable piece of his tune-up puzzle.
While the Vuelta a España has been the classic Worlds build-up event in the past, things have changed in recent years. Three of the last four World Championship road races have gone to riders that eschewed the Spanish Grand Tour for alternative late-season tune-ups, and Matthews is hoping to join that list this year. A pair of rolling circuit races in a cooler clime had obvious benefits for a rider eyeing success on the lumpy road course in Bergen.
"My ideal preparation was here or Britain," he said. "When you see the stages at the Vuelta this year, I think there were only three or four opportunities for riders like us to go for a stage and there's 21 stages. It's mainly uphill finishes, mountain finishes, so it wasn't really an option for me. And also too with the weather normally being really hot every single day in the Vuelta to then go and race the Worlds in the freezing cold rain, it's the total opposite. So it's a risky move going to the Vuelta.
"Either here or Britain was going to be my preparation. Also Britain is pretty bad weather like Norway so I think that would have been pretty good preparation too, but with the one-day races, here in Canada, it's also one-day racing at the Worlds, so it's nice to get that one-day racing in before the Worlds instead of stage racing."
As is the case each year, the upcoming Worlds road race was a central topic of conversation at every pre- and post-race press conference for the Canadian GPs. While plenty of riders who made the trek did target one or both of the races a major late-season objective, Matthews was clear after his strong ride in Quebec City what he was there for, and he also noted that everything was going to plan to that point.
"Everything from after the Tour until now has just been a stepping stone to be at my best at the Worlds," he said. "That's been the goal since the Tour de France. I had a nice little rest after that, and these are the stepping stones I need to be doing to be at my best for the Worlds. Everything is going into that at the moment. But I think it's going in the right direction, and I think I should be at my best for the Worlds, physically and mentally."