There was something of a valedictory feel to Michael Matthews' post-race press conference in Foligno at the end of stage 7 of the Giro d’Italia, with the Australian accepting that he was unlikely to retain the pink jersey after the race’s first major mountaintop finish at Montecopiolo on Saturday.
In a week marred by unexpected crashes and unpredictable weather, Orica-GreenEdge have managed to stick rigidly and successfully to their preordained script at this Giro. Their opening act was winning the team time trial in Belfast with a squad backboned by Australian pursuit talent, allowing Svein Tuft to enjoy a cameo in pink on the opening road stage.
Since then, Matthews has played the role of leading man with aplomb, contesting the early sprints in Ireland to move into the maglia rosa and then hitting all of his lines in the uphill finish at Montecassino, the very stage he had circled in the roadbook before the race began.
Indeed, two weeks ahead of the corsa rosa, team manager Matt White even had the confidence to arrange for a custom pink bike to match Matthews’ expected wardrobe as he took his bow at the Giro. Given the accuracy of the GreenEdge planning to date, then, Matthews’ quiet acceptance that he will surrender pink at Montecopiolo seems a probable scenario.
"I haven't looked into tomorrow's stage in detail, but when the team looked at the race route we thought that if we got the pink jersey then today was last day we could keep it," Matthews said. "I would be pretty sad to lose it and I’ll try my best to keep it, but realistically, it’s not really possible. But it’s been an amazing week, I think we couldn’t ask for much more out of ourselves."
Friday’s bunch finish in Foligno may prove to be Matthews’ final flourish in the pink jersey, but it seems unlikely to be his last act at the business end of the race, and while he may harbour some mild regrets about his fourth place finish behind stage winner Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), there were mitigating circumstances.
"I was maybe one or two spots too far back, but after yesterday, I think I wasn't at 100 percent, because I used a lot of energy on the final climb," said Matthews, who was still feeling the effects of matching BMC's pace-setting on the road to Montecassino and then coolly unfurling a crisp sprint at the top.
"Today was more about trying to keep the pink jersey, and trying to get a position in the top three on the sprint. It would have been amazing to get that stage win but it’s been a great week already."
While Matthews and Orica-GreenEdge will be expected to exit stage left from the general classification picture on the road to Montecopiolo, his fellow countryman Cadel Evans (BMC) seems the man most likely to inherit the maglia rosa on Saturday afternoon.
Like Matthews, Evans’ Giro has followed something a dream scenario to date. Currently 21 seconds behind Matthews, he already has a lead of just under a minute on Rigoberto Uran and is almost two minutes up on Nairo Quintana, although the Colombians will look to put his credentials under closer scrutiny as the race enters the high mountains.
"I think Cadel's going well enough to take pink jersey tomorrow, but this is going to be a long Giro for general classification riders," Matthews said. "If he takes jersey tomorrow, it is going to be a long two weeks for him, but he also has a very strong team here, with has some good climbers to pace him in the mountains. It would be good to see him finish on the podium, if not with the pink jersey at the end of the three weeks."
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