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Michael Matthews (Orica Greenedge)
Former U23 world champion toughs it out at Orica GreenEdge
Michael Matthews (Orica GreenEdge) is on the verge of making his grand tour debut at the Giro d'Italia, but the road to get there won't be easy.
"I had to convince him to come up and ride the Ardennes races but that's all part of his development: to make him believe," sports director Neil Stephens told Cyclingnews. "I'm sure he knows that now that he's going to come out of this week as a better bike rider.
"He's going to go to Romandie, he's going to do part of the Tour of Romandie and he's going to come out of there a better bike rider. He's going to go the Giro and he's going to work in with Gossy and the rest of the boys and he's going to come out of the Giro as a better bike rider. It's a plan over several years."
The 22-year-old signed for Orica GreenEdge and the end of last season following two years at Rabobank, where he'd taken his first steps in the professional peloton having won the under-23 world title in 2010. It was an unsurprising move on the surface, given Matthews' ties with Orica GreenEdge's general manager Shayne Bannan, who had guided him through development within the national program. Yet at the same time, Matthews had very much found a home within the Dutch team. He admits that it was a difficult decision to leave.
"They [Rabobank] did everything for me and there was no real reason to leave," Matthews told Cyclingnews. "But when you get this opportunity from GreenEdge to come and join an Australian team with all the riders that you've been growing up watching on TV with Gerrans, Goss, O'Grady... and then getting to ride on the same team as them and with Shayne Bannan, Neil Stephens and Matthew White and everyone being the directors, it was too good of an opportunity to pass up."
Rabobank can be a tough gig for non-Dutch riders but Matthews made the most of the opportunities that he was given even if he admits that he was thrown in the deep end.
"When I first went into Rabobank I won a lot of races straight away which was really good but in terms of learning, I was basically going into every race being told I had to win," he explained. "That gets a little bit hard on the head after a while."
Winning a stage at the Tour Down Under, Vuelta a Murcia and then the Rund um Köln afforded Matthews starts in harder races, but it proved problematic.
"My legs might have been good enough but for my head it was a totally different story," he admitted.
"When he got into Rabobank I tend to think that he stagnated a little bit and I think he recognises the fact," said Stephens. "What we're doing here is that we're not preparing him for the Giro, we're preparing him for life. He's getting better as a bike rider, he's getting better as a person, he's getting better as a teammate."
It was somewhat ironic that having signed on for Orica GreenEdge, Matthews was unable to secure a start in his home WorldTour event, the Tour Down Under in January. Second to Luke Durbridge in the road race at the national titles, third in the time trial and a proven performer in Adelaide, it was not enough to earn selection.
"I was a bit bummed about that and I think I dropped a bit of form," Matthews explained. "I had no racing for a while."
Matthews stepped back into the breach at Paris-Nice and has since been enduring a hard racing block in a bid to rediscover his best. His form is only now starting to rise to the challenge, Matthews said.
The Ardennes, too, have been a first for Matthews. But what the classics give in terms of experience, they also take back, and the skin on his left side was gnarled with scabs after crashing at Amstel Gold Race.
"I used to live in this area so I know the roads really well but knowing the roads isn't everything in these kinds of races where it's just stress all day for 200, 250 kilometres. In your head it's just such hard work. The climbs aren't so bad, the course isn't so bad but the stress in your mind of trying always to be at the front is just... you really need to learn how to cope with that."
There may be the odd opportunity for Matthews to show himself towards the end of the Giro's second week, with the first mainly dedicated to assisting Matt Goss in the sprint stages. What happens after that remains ambiguous.
“It's obviously the first grand tour for me so I'm not putting too much expectation on myself both before and after," Matthews said. "I really wanted to go into the Giro not 100 per cent but able to ride myself into it. And then ride myself into those stages where I want to be really good.
“Romandie is going to hurt me a little bit. I've been talking to my sports director Neil Stephens and his way of thinking about it has made me think about it a bit more. If you're going to be a good professional, you've got to do these hard times when you're younger and then get through them. Then when you get up to that level where you're winning it becomes easier.
"If it doesn't kill me then hopefully I'll be stronger."