When Michael Matthews (Sunweb) arrived at the Volta a Catalunya more or less directly from Milan-San Remo, he was burdened by concerns that he was still short of his best after the heavy crash that curtailed his participation in Paris-Nice. A week later, his Sunday night journey from Barcelona to Belgium was lightened considerably by the two stage victories he claimed on the Catalan roads.
The quality of Matthews' brace of wins augurs well for his prospects at the Tour of Flanders this coming weekend, even if the Australian was reluctant to set himself any precise target for his much-anticipated debut in the race.
Although Matthews placed second in the amateur version in 2010, and in his very first race on the cobbles to boot, he was ushered in the direction of the Amstel Gold Race and the Ardennes Classics on turning professional at Rabobank. His first two seasons at Sunweb featured brief but encouraging cameos on the cobbles, but the Ronde is another kind of a challenge.
"I can't honestly make a comment about it because I honestly don't know," Matthews told Cyclingnews this week. "I haven't done the race before and I'm not entirely sure where my form is, so I can't put a number on it. There are so many amazing riders at the moment, so it's really difficult to say, especially when you see they averaged 46kph at Gent-Wevelgem. It's going to be an amazing race. I'm just going to go out there and do my best, and talk afterwards.
"We're in the highest level of cycling; there's nothing higher than this. For 90 per cent of the Classics riders, Flanders is the biggest race of the year. It's the World Championships of Flanders, so everyone's going to be in top shape."
Ordinarily, Matthews would have raced the E3 BinckBank Classic and Gent-Wevelgem this past weekend alongside the rest of the Ronde contenders, but the heavy crash that forced him out of Paris-Nice saw him quickly redraw his schedule, with the Volta a Catalunya decided upon to compensate for the missing race days.
It was a decision informed by direct experience. Twelve months ago, when his March was similarly interrupted by a broken shoulder sustained at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Matthews rode at Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, even though they were just his third and fourth competitive outings of the season.
Matthews battled gamely to 13th place in Wevelgem last year, but his state of exhaustion afterwards was such that he could barely climb the steps of the Sunweb bus after warming down. Small wonder, then, that he opted against repeating the same schedule this time out. Seven days of racing on Catalan roads offered a more graduated build-up to the most important Sunday of his spring.
"I learned a lot from last year's crash. I think I maybe rushed back into it a little too fast last year, with too high expectations from myself," Matthews said. "This year we took it a little bit easier. I tried to switch off a bit and see what the doctors said was possible instead of stressing out."
After suffering a concussion on the opening stage of Paris-Nice, Matthews spent a week off the bike completely, and had only returned to tentative turbo trainer sessions when he was given the all-clear to line out at Milan-San Remo just 72 hours before the start. Twelfth place on the Via Roma was remarkable in the circumstances, before he looked to continue the rapid comeback in Spain.
"We thought we needed a stage race, so we went to Catalunya instead of doing E3 and Gent-Wevelgem," Matthews explained. "They were maybe too stressful races because of the crash I had this year. I hit my head so hard, and I had lots of stitches in my face and a broken tooth and everything. It was a smarter option, I think, rather than doing the Classics after such a big crash."
Matthews started his week in Catalunya clinging to hope and rather unencumbered by expectation. He ended it with two stage wins to his name. In the uphill finale at Sant Feliu de Guixols, he delivered a razor-sharp sprint to beat world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). At Vila-seca on stage 6, he showed notable staying power to pip former Sunweb teammate Phil Bauhaus, who's now at Bahrain-Merida.
"After the first stage win, I did a really long speech to the whole team for five minutes, expressing what it meant to me," Matthews said. "OK, so it's Catalunya, and not the World Championships, but it meant as much as a World Championships to me, that win. To turn the season around from what it was two races ago to what it is now, it's a totally different ball game. It gave me a lot more belief in myself."
Last August, a win on the final stage of the BinckBank Tour seemed to hold a similar resonance for Matthews after an injury and illness-blighted season, and he carried that form through the final weeks of the campaign, landing both the Grand Prix de Montreal and the Grand Prix de Quebec. But while his morale has been boosted by his Catalan excursion, Matthews smilingly conceded that the pressure to perform at the Classics remained as imposing as ever.
"It gives me more confidence to give the team directions on what I need, and it gives them more confidence to believe in what I say," Matthews said. "But pressure off? Probably not, really. It's nice to win, obviously, but the goal of the season is the Classics."
The 28-year-old is spending the week before the Ronde at Sunweb's Classics base in Nazareth in East Flanders, but he opted not to participate in Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, preferring to recover from his exertions in Spain.
"That week in Catalunya was really, really hard, but I think it was what I needed," said Matthews. "Last year I was always behind the eight ball. I was at races like Gent-Wevelgem, but I wasn't racing – I was just another number in the peloton. Now with a good, hard seven days in my legs, hopefully I can be in the race."