Michael Matthews expected to spend July working in the service of Tom Dumoulin rather than sprinting for stage wins at the Tour de France, but the Dutchman’s absence through injury forced a revision of the Australian’s role at Team Sunweb. Or more accurately, a reversion to his original role.
Two years ago, after all, Matthews' finishing speed carried him to two stage wins and the points classification at the Tour. After spending the build-up to this year’s race working on his climbing in anticipation of three weeks as a deluxe domestique for Dumoulin, however, he expressed scepticism at his prospects of being competitive in the sprints here.
The finale to stage 3 in Épernay suited puncheurs rather than pure fast men, but Matthews will surely take heart from the searing turn of pace on the short, sharp climb up the Rue de Coteaux that brought him second place, 26 seconds down on lone escapee Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), who claimed the win and the maillot jaune.
"I was a little bit surprised, I guess. I was really struggling on the steep climbs today but in the finish, I gave everything I had left and luckily it was good enough for second," Matthews told reporters as he soft-pedalled through the finish area towards his Team Sunweb bus.
It was clear that Alaphilippe was enjoying a day with Grand cru status when he soloed clear with disarming ease 16km from home on the Côte de Mutigny, but Matthews will not be disappointed with the class of sprint he produced on the final drag to the finish.
In the closing metres, Matthews had the speed to overhaul Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), though he was unsure if that that display was a sign of things to come in the more conventional, flat sprint finishes in the days ahead.
"I think this was just hard. I honestly didn’t have anything left but there just wasn’t an option to stop. I really gave it everything I had," Matthews said. "Unfortunately, it was only for second but it’s a big confidence booster going forward."
In the overall standings, Matthews is now fifth, 40 seconds behind Alaphilippe, while he lies second in the green jersey competition, 17 points down on Sagan. Despite his concerns at his build-up to the Tour, the Canberra native has enjoyed a solid opening act.
"Sixth on Saturday, fourth yesterday [in the team time trial], second today: all things going well tomorrow should be a good day," Matthews said, though he cautioned that his results had so far outstripped his sensations on this Tour.
The final 70 kilometres of Monday’s stage took the peloton along heavy roads and across a succession of climbs in the hinterland of Reims. Matthews, who placed fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège two years ago, might ordinarily expect to be at home on such terrain, but he confessed that he had struggled far more than he would have liked throughout the final two hours of racing.
"I think it was not where I would have liked to be today," Matthews said of his condition. "I was trying to convince myself that I wasn’t tired, but I was destroyed. I was almost dropped on the third last climb [the Côte d’Hautvilliers – ed.] where QuickStep really pushed it and exploded the bunch, but I had good teammates around me to keep me motivated and bring me back to the front."
By Matthews’ telling, his glass is neither half empty nor half full. The sparkling of confidence inspired by his second place at Épernay seems to be flattened slightly by his concerns about his condition. But his Tour is still young; it is too soon to judge the vintage.
"This is a positive for sure, but my feeling isn’t great at the moment, so I’m not super happy," Matthews said after wheeling to a halt at the Team Sunweb bus. "But I’ll keep fighting every day until I get that win."