Michael Matthews to target Spring Classics before focusing on Tour de France sprints

Australian explores cobbled Classics again, but Tour of Flanders debut must wait

Michael Matthews (Sunweb) will start his 2018 season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as he continues to explore his capabilities on the cobbles, although he will postpone debut rides at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix for at least another season.

The Australian has begun each of the past three seasons at Paris-Nice in early March, but will kick off his 2018 campaign a week earlier than normal as he makes his maiden appearance in Belgian cycling's Opening Weekend.

As in recent years, Matthews will build up to his first race of the season with a lengthy stint of altitude training in February, though this time around his pre-season camp will take place in Sierra Nevada rather than in South Africa.

"Tom [Dumoulin] went to Sierra Nevada this year and he really liked it. I've never really been before but we'll see how that goes," Matthews said at the Sunweb team presentation in Berlin on Thursday.

"Then I'll start with Nieuwsblad. In South Africa, it can be 30 degrees and it could be hard to come back to the cold of the Classics. In Sierra Nevada, it's also cold, so maybe that will work a bit better as preparation."

Although he will face riders whose seasons will begin in Australia in ten days' time, Matthews is hopeful he can hit the ground running on the revamped Omloop course, which mirrors the old finale of the Tour of Flanders with the climbs of the Muur and the Bosberg preceding a finish in Meerbeke.

"I personally get really good effects from altitude," Matthews said. "It makes your training different, it makes my body really have to work hard. The training is harder so when I come to a race, I've been working as hard as the guys who were already racing in January."

After lining out at Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo, where he is a perennial favourite, Matthews will return to Belgium to tackle E3 Harelbeke for the first time, before returning to Gent-Wevelgem, where he rode assuredly to place eighth in 2017.

The Tour of Flanders is not on the agenda just yet, though Matthews has some pedigree in De Ronde – he placed second in the amateur version of the race in 2010, out-sprinting a group that included Luke Rowe and John Degenkolb.

"To throw me into Flanders is maybe too much for the moment, especially with all these other Classics I'm doing and with the Ardennes Classics to follow afterwards," said Matthews. "We'll see how it goes this year and maybe next year we'll think about the Tour of Flanders."

Taking aim at the Ardennes Classics

Matthews will instead turn his attention to the Ardennes Classics, and will again ride the Tour of the Basque Country in early April as preparation for Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Although Matthews finished a fine fourth in La Doyenne a year ago, Amstel remains the centrepiece of his Classics campaign – two years living in Limburg during his spell in the Rabobank set-up mean that Matthews is intimately acquainted with the roads, and he has already finished on the podium, in 2015.

Although Matthews confirmed that he will return to the Tour de France, where he won two stages and the green jersey in 2017, the race does not feature prominently in his thinking at this early juncture. After years on the cusp of tangible achievement in the Spring Classics, the 27-year-old feels ready to step up.

"I just want to put some more focus on the Flemish Classics and the Ardennes, instead of focusing on the Grand Tours," Matthews said.

"For so many years now, I've been focusing on Grand Tours to get those Grand Tour victories. I have one in each Grand Tour now and I have my green jersey, which I'd put a massive target on these last few years. I'm going to devote more attention to the Classics and the build-up." 

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