Following the success of his first season with Team Sunweb, Michael Matthews is looking to the new year and assessing a change of targets for 2018. A double stage winner and green jersey winner at the Tour de France, Matthews also enjoyed stage wins at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and Tour de Suisse, and was part of Sunweb's Worlds TTT winning squad in 2017.
At Sunweb, Matthews has enjoyed an undisputed leadership role at his preferred races in contrast to his time with Orica-Scott. On the Australian team, Matthews and Simon Gerrans often had competing ambitions but in Sunweb, 27-year-old Matthews tells Cyclingnews he could hardly have found a better set up.
"It was the right move across to Sunweb with the support I've received throughout the year and basically I've done all the races I wanted to go for. They gave me full support," Matthews recently told Cyclingnews in China. "That was what I was working towards these last few years. Getting that full support and getting the team to believe in me that I can deliver the results that they expect. You can see how the whole team went this year. We definitely rose up a whole level from what the team was before and I think we are pushing each other to get even better and get the results we deserve."
As Matthews hints at, the challenge now is to replicate the success of 2017 and continue Sunweb's successes.
"This team has been working for ten years or so and progressing each year," he said. "To have the year that we've had this year, it shows the progression they've made over a long period while getting better and better. It will be hard to top what we've done this year but maybe we'll try and set some different goals and see what we can achieve in different races."
Since 2015, Matthews has won 13 races with all but two coming at WorldTour level. He has also podiumed at Milano-San Remo, Amstel Gold Race, twice at the GP de Québec and London–Surrey Classic, and claimed silver and bronze at the Worlds. From his first team camp with Sunweb, it was evident that Matthews would be leading the team for the Tour with the pressure to deliver and pay back the team for its support. A stage winner in six of his seven Grand Tours, it was on paper a likely outcome. However, a Tour stage win is never a foregone conclusion and after the frustrations of the opening week, six results inside the top nine, the goal of stage wins and the green jersey was slipping away.
Rather than throwing in the towel and succumbing to the pressure, Matthews' focus was kept on track by sports director Luke Roberts. Matthews explained that having built their relationship from the European winter, through the spring and into the summer ensured a level of trust and confidence had been established between the two. A relationship that ultimately proved fruitful for Matthews, Roberts and Sunweb, validating the decision to back in the Australian as the team leader.
"We didn't actually know each other that well before I joined Sunweb. When I was joining the team was like 'We have an Aussie director that you may know and you can start to work with him'. I jumped on that straight away and it was a really good idea from the team and by Luke," he said. "We got to know each other through the year and by the time we got to the Tour, we were really close and the true key success to our Tour de France was Luke. Not just in the race and at the race, but the preparation before the race.
"The way he went about by whole preparation going into the race, my mindset, everything I needed to do to go for the green jersey and target the stages I wanted to win," he said. "He had an input to all of it. Also in the race, he never sounded stressed on the radio and always had a really good plan in the morning on how we could race it the best that day. He kept everybody calm and happy at the same time. I think it's maybe a secret in cycling to enjoy yourself and feel like you can be a in a relaxing atmosphere but still deliver what you need to do in the day. He does a really good job with that."
Roberts, also crucial in the Giro d'Italia win of Tom Dumoulin in May, has emerged as a perfect fit for Matthews as coach and DS, explaining he believes he has become a better cyclist because of the partnership.
"What we've achieved with these results this year, it makes you a little bit more relaxed and you can be a little more calm in the races rather than being stressed all the time," he reflected. "When you are stressed you make silly mistakes and that I think is something I was doing in the past. When it came down to the moment when you need to right mistakes, I was making the wrong mistakes. I wanted it too badly and was making silly mistakes."
Michael Matthews celebrating his win over Greg Van Avermaet in Rodez (TDW Sport)
Adjusted ambitions from 2018
For Matthews, the Grand Tours, spring classics and world championships have been the primary goals in recent years. He has either won or finished on the podium, proving his ability to train, prepare and execute a plan. In 2017, Matthews spoke of his desire to tackle the cobbled classics in the coming years with eight in Gent-Wevelgem an indicator of his potential.
Matthews then quickly switched gears and finished fourth on his Liège-Bastogne-Liège debut to further underline his versatility. The challenge over the off-season for Matthews and Sunweb is to plan a race programme that provides the Australian with the best shot at Monument victory as he explained.
"I really love Liege, it is a really nice race, but then I also really love San Remo and Flanders. We are going to have to miss one of those next year but which one, I am not exactly sure. For sure, the team will make the best plan possible to achieve my goals and their goals," he said.
With second at Milan-San Remo and wins at Flanders and Liege, Philippe Gilbert has proven that success in the three monuments is still possible in the 21st century. But not in the same year. For Matthews, that means deciding which one he has the strongest appetite for in the short term.
"I have loved San Remo from the start. I have built a love for Flanders from riding it at a young age in the U23s and I built the love for Liege this year. I think the love for San Remo goes back to before I was even able to race it and just watching everybody else race it and seeing the history of the race. Now it being so close to my home, I think that is the one I would choose out of the three."
While the spring will see an adjusted but not overhauled race programme, Matthews will again skip the Australian summer, a return to the Giro or Vuelta, or both, are possibilities. A hilly Worlds circuit unsuited his capabilities is an unlikely race which also opens up a change in his programme.
"We were thinking that before the Tour released their course but now the Tour course has been released, it seems quite interesting so maybe we have a look at that too," said Matthews of riding the Giro and Vuelta. "I was thinking to maybe not go back to try for the green jersey again, but when you see the course like this, it is a possibility to go again. We have to see what the team wants to do with Tom Dumoulin. He could also go for the yellow jersey so we have to wait to see what the Giro and Vuelta courses look like and then we can decide what is best. The team is really good at planning their goals."
At 27, Matthews is entering his prime years as an athlete. With his confidence sky high and appetite as strong as ever, Matthews is aiming to double down on his 2017 success. Regardless of the race.
"Our real goal of the year was to be in my best shape there and now I know how to train properly for a certain goal and hopefully, I can take that into next year," he said. "When I set my goals for next year I know how to get myself ready for them mentally and physically."