Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) placed third on stage 5 of Paris-Nice in Salon-de-Provence on Friday to retain the yellow jersey of overall leader, which he has held since winning the prologue last Sunday.
With no Col d’Éze time trial on the closing weekend, and with Matthews clearly in fine climbing form, it begs the question as to whether the Australian can follow in the paths of fast finishers such as Sean Kelly and Laurent Jalabert, and pull off an unexpected overall victory.
"I'm not going to say I can win Paris-Nice but I'm going to give it everything I have. It's already over for the green jersey, I won it, so now it's all for the yellow,” Matthews said on Friday afternoon.
Although Matthews’ overall lead was sliced to 6 seconds over Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), who moved up to second after soloing to stage victory, the Australian extended his over the pre-race favourites by a further 4 seconds thanks to the time bonus he picked up for placing third on the stage, just behind Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
"I had noted this stage down as I was hoping we could get rid of the sprinters along the way but as we didn't, we sat back and let the other teams do the work,” Matthews said. “The priority was then the yellow jersey more than the stage win.
“It was a hard day for everybody but I feel good. Not super but good. I don't think anybody feels super after the first three days we had."
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) is now in third place, at 18 seconds, while Richie Porte (BMC) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) trail by 31 seconds, and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) is 17th overall, 37 seconds back.
Matthews dealt comfortably with the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux and the climb of the Col de Séze on Friday, but he will face a stiffer challenge on the summit finish at La Madone d’Utelle on Saturday afternoon.
If he can replicate the kind of performance that carried him to stage victory at Montecassino at the 2014 Giro d’Italia, however, Matthews could prove a tough out for the pre-race favourites in what is his first race of the 2016 season.
“I didn’t suffer too much today, I think everybody was more or less in the same state,” said Matthews. “We know that it will all be decided in the last two stages and I expecting some fireworks. But I’ll still the leader and I confirmed today that it’s possible to stay that way to the end.”