On his last visit to Rodez in the Tour de France, Michael Matthews discovered an uphill finish perfectly tailored to his characteristics, but found himself scarcely able to raise a gallop on the Côte de Saint Pierre. Hampered by four broken ribs he sustained in the opening week, the Australian struggled to 17th place, tortured as much by the missed opportunity as by the missing skin.
Two years on, Matthews returned to Rodez in rather more felicitous circumstances, in the whole of his health and shepherded by a determined Sunweb squad. He held his nerve when Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step) accelerated from distance, and then bounded up the final ramp to the line to claim a fine sprint victory ahead of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).
"In 2015, I wasn't really able to contest it with the four broken ribs and the skin off my body but it was nice to be able to do a recon for this year, I guess," Matthews said on Saturday afternoon. "I knew what I was in for. I'd done a lot of training for this sort of finish. I just needed to be able to position myself right and have a kick over top of the climb there and then I could enjoy the last 50 metres."
Matthews' talents are so varied that he could realistically aspire to victory on anything up to half of the stages on this Tour, but as the race reached its third weekend, he was facing the very real prospect coming away with nothing. Marcel Kittel's dominance in the flat sprints – five wins and counting – made the stakes on Saturday's uphill finish in Rodez all the higher for Matthews, and his Sunweb team set out their intentions by chasing the early break. In a fraught finale, Matthews' every movement was closely policed.
"I think being a clear favourite makes it difficult because everyone's eyes are on you. It's not that they're going to try to follow you in the peloton, it's that they're going to try to get in front of you and make it harder for you to try to win," said Matthews, who took the second Tour stage win of his career.
"In the end, I had to fight a few guys to be in a good position on that final corner. It's lucky I had some legs left to zip back to the front, get into third wheel and do my sprint properly. Otherwise it would have been quite difficult from far back."
Sagan and Kittel
The win was Sunweb's second in as many days, after Matthews' roommate Warren Barguil nabbed a fine Bastille Day victory in Foix. If Barguil's win had the feel of a bonus, Matthews' triumph was a dividend on a considerable investment of time and resources. "What we said in the meeting was pretty much exactly what we did in the race and that's what it takes to win at the Tour de France. It's never won individually, you need a whole team to win a stage – unless you're Warren Barguil," Matthews smiled.
Matthews joined Sunweb during the off-season after four years at Orica-Scott in which his goals seemed to overlap too frequently with those of Simon Gerrans and Caleb Ewan. The promise of having a team at his disposal at the Tour was too great to pass up, though such responsibility brings its own pressures, particularly in the face of two weeks of Kittel dominance.
"To get the win took the weight off my shoulders," Matthews said. "I can start tomorrow's stage with a big smile on my face. It's the Tour de France and it took a bit of pressure off. I was making little mistakes myself because I was putting myself under pressure. There was never pressure from the team but I always put a lot of pressure on myself because I work so hard. When you devote so much, you feel the pressure and you make mistakes. Hopefully I can relax now and make fewer mistakes."
Currently second in the points classification, Matthews' victory narrows the gap, but his deficit to Kittel remains a daunting one. He is some 99 points behind the German, who dealt an important blow two days ago by following Matthews into the early break to contest the intermediate sprint on the first leg in the Pyrenees.
"A stage like this has only 30 points. He's still a long way in front with flat sprints still to come and he's won almost every one. It's a lopsided battle for the green jersey this year with 50 points on the flat stages and 30 on the intermediate stages," Matthews said. "It was always going to be difficult for a rider like me to take green, but we'll keep trying and see what happens, it's not over until Paris, I guess."
Before the Tour began, of course, Matthews would have expected to have been contesting the green jersey with the man who has made it a permanent fixture in his wardrobe for the past five summers, Peter Sagan. The world champion's expulsion in the opening week removed one of the contenders for Saturday's explosive finale in Rodez, though Matthews still had to overcome Van Avermaet, such an impressive winner here in 2015.
"It's hard to say when he's not here. I don't want to claim anything when he's not here," Matthews said of Sagan. "Greg was super strong when beat him two years ago, and he's super strong now. It's really hard for me to say if I would or would not. I think in the end you've got to race the guys who are here."