Worlds gold a celebration of Australia's cycling future
Michael Matthews became the first Australian to win a gold medal in the nation's inaugural hosting of the UCI Road World Championships when he won the U23 men's road race in emphatic fashion yesterday.
In so doing, Matthews - who will ride for Rabobank's ProTour team in 2011 - became only the second man to win the event in his home world titles after Leonardo Giordani took gold in Verona in 1999.
The Australian was one of the hot favourites heading into the race, thanks to being runner up in the U23 Tour of Flanders, winning stages at the Tour de Langkawi, the Tour of Japan and the Ringerike GP, plus a host of podiums in Italian one-day races and a top 10 overall in the recent Tour de l'Avenir.
And judging by his reaction after the finish, winning the world championship on home soil increased the satisfaction of a season that had so many highs.
"I had a lot of pressure coming into this race - I had my whole team behind me and Australia backing me so it's unbelievable to come away with the result I'd been dreaming about since the start of the year," said Matthews. "All the pressure helped me, I reckon, it kind of pushed me to the finish line.
"Me winning this title shows that the level of cycling in Australia has just come up so much in the last five or 10 years. It's amazing that us Aussies are getting out there and just showing the world that we're actually good cyclists."
Matthews' manner of victory had fans and rivals in awe of his fast finish; five bikes lengths ahead of the powerful John Degenkolb of Germany was an indication of the 20-year-old's form and it had third-placed Taylor Phinney handing the Australian some big compliments.
"I don't think anyone could have beaten Michael Matthews today in the sprint - he was above and beyond anyone else," said Phinney; high praise coming from the reigning US national champion who took out Wednesday's U23 men's time trial.
While he knew he had the legs to perform well in the title decider, Matthews still couldn't believe his luck when he looked left and saw no one challenging him for finish line honours. "That look to the left... I couldn't believe it, really. I couldn't believe if it was real or I was dreaming... I had to pinch myself. But it was real, it was unbelievable," he explained.
Matthews is a product of the Australian Institute of Sport's Jayco-Skins development program, which provides young riders with valuable European racing experience. The rest of the well-drilled Australian squad also demonstrated its prowess in yesterday's victory, the significance of which wasn't lost on the winner.
"My team worked really well; I got them on the front with about three laps to go when Ben King was still off the front, because he's a bit of a threat, that kid. He just won the US Pro road championships so he was a bit of a threat being out there solo and we had to bring him back," said Matthews.
"We cooked up a couple of our teammates to bring him back but I still had two guys left at the end to help me up to the front and make sure I was up there for the sprint, making sure I had water and food and everything. It was perfect, really - I couldn't ask for much more from my team."
Matthews' victory also confirmed that the Australian has a bright future in road sprinting - earlier this year at the Tour de Langkawi, Matthews was hesitant to admit his status as a sprinter, preferring to be categorised as a time trialler. His approach to the finale demonstrated why this isn't the case anymore.
"With about three laps to go there were still a couple of French and Italian riders in the bunch - [John] Degenkolb was smashing it up the climb and I wasn't sure whether it was going to stay together for a bunch kick or not," he explained.
"I just sort of prayed that hopefully it was going to come back for a bunch kick. It did in the end and I made the most of it."