Mount Teide has, in recent years, become cycling's most exclusive shared workspace. In mid-February, for instance, those hotdesking in the Parador Hotel – altitude 2,000 metres – included Vincenzo Nibali, Steven Kruijswijk, Ilnur Zakarin and Tom Dumoulin. Riders came and went all through the month, but few, if any, took up residence quite as long as Michael Matthews, who would spend the bones of three weeks training on the volcano.
While so many of his Classics competitors opted to start their seasons in the southern hemisphere in January, Matthews has stuck to a familiar routine for 2019, his third season at the colours of Sunweb. For the fifth successive year, he has eschewed the Tour Down Under and February stage races, preferring instead to steel himself in relative solitude with a lengthy altitude training camp in Tenerife.
Matthews will make his seasonal debut at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday against men who have already sought – and received – broad assurances about their condition from their results and performances in January and February. The Australian, by contrast, will set out guided by his training data and his own sensations, but it’s an approach that seems to suit. In 2015 and 2016, after all, he hit the ground running by claiming stage victories at Paris-Nice.
Even so, it still requires a particular brand of discipline to train at a level that will allow him to hit the ground running and compete on more or less equal terms with riders who have already notched up a solid clump of racing miles.
"I just love riding the bike, and I actually really love training, so I love the stepping stones of getting to where I need to be in the season," Matthews says. "If you don't enjoy it, then I don't think you can do the kind of preparation I've done. You have to get up every morning wanting to go and ride your bike and enjoy every second of it. I'm just so thankful that I can ride my bike every single day. It's still surreal for me that I get paid to ride my bike, I'm still a little bit in fantasy land that I have this as a job."
Tom Stamsnijder and Matthews backstage at the Team Sunweb presentation in Berlin (Bettini Photo)
Omloop to BinckBank
Twelve months ago, Matthews followed a near identical build-up to Omloop only for his entire spring to be compromised when he fractured his shoulder in a crash as the race entered its denouement near Geraardsbergen. Remarkably, he returned to action in time to race Milan-San Remo three weeks later, but although he placed 7th on the Via Roma and took a fine 5th at Flèche Wallonne, he was hampered by the injury through April and beyond.
Snaring victory on the final stage of the BinckBank Tour in Geraardsbergen in August, then, had a special resonance for Matthews. By that point in the year, it appeared as though his season was doomed to be consigned to the books as an ill-starred one. A stage win at the Tour de Romandie had been his lone success to that point, a bout of illness had forced him out of the Tour de France in the opening week, and he had just received word that he had been omitted from the Australian squad for the World Championships.
"I was thinking, 'This is where I crashed, this is where I destroyed my season. Can I overcome this and step up and try and win this race?'" Matthews says. "I think that was the biggest emotion when I crossed the finish line. I didn’t even really think about the actual win, it was more just overcoming all those things that had been thrown at me. I really thought the 2018 season was done before that, and I was really struggling with motivation."
That rasping sprint at the base of the Muur came after a breathless final hour of racing in the Flemish Ardennes and served as a catalyst for the remainder of Matthews’ campaign. The following month, he won both the Grand Prix de Québec and the Grand Prix de Montréal. and a hitherto year of frustration ended on a decidedly upbeat note.
Despite a resumé that includes stage wins in all of the Grand Tours and the green jersey at the 2017 Tour, Matthews revealed this winter that he had come to doubt his own abilities in the middle of last season. Those Canadian successes served to restore some structural soundness to his brittle self-confidence, as well as to lay some solid foundations for the 2019 Classics campaign.
“I think mentally it was massive. All the guys I was racing against were going to the World Championships, and I beat them in a race that’s not 100 percent suited to me,” Matthews says. “After the Canadian races last year, the team really said ‘Ok, this is the clear leader for these sorts of races and we believe that he can do it,’ and that also gave me confidence in myself.”
Matthews wins Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal (Getty Images)
Doing it all
Few riders in the peloton possess as wide a range of skills as Matthews, and, paradoxically, therein lies something of a problem to solve. A rider who can conceivably win just about every Classic on the calendar also runs the risk of spreading himself too thinly and not winning any. Matthews has finished second at both Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold Race, and 4th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but, remarkably, his brace in Canada last September amounted to the first one-day WorldTour victories of his career.
"I think for most of the Classics of the year, they can put my name down and say that it suits me," Matthews says. "It makes it difficult mentally to try to target one and try to win that one because there are so many races that suit my capabilities. Mentally it’s difficult."
At Rabobank and GreenEdge, Matthews skipped the cobbled Classics in order to focus on the Ardennes, with Amstel Gold Race forming the centrepiece of his spring. In his first two years at Sunweb, a smattering of Flemish races were added to his programme and in 2019, he will ride a full slate of cobbled Classics as far as the Tour of Flanders. After a ten-day lay-off, he will then compete at Brabantse Pijl, Amstel, Flèche and Liège.
"The team's seen my numbers in the Ardennes and they’ve seen my numbers in the cobbled Classics and they reckoned I'm actually more suited to the cobbled Classics," says Matthews, who is not without pedigree on the pavé. He came second at the under-23 Tour of Flanders in 2010, after all, and caught the eye at Gent-Wevelgem in 2017.
"I'm probably not as experienced with the cobbles as I'd like to be at this point in my career, but all the characteristics of my riding style suits it, so we'll see what happens. Obviously knowing the roads is very important but nobody can sneak to the finish. There's no hiding in those races. It's really a man's game, those Classics, so I'm really excited to rub shoulders with those guys and just enjoy racing."
Despite his qualities as a sprinter, Matthews is not enamoured by the flat finish introduced at Amstel Gold Race in 2017 – "I liked the finish on top of the Cauberg, because it was man on man to see who the strongest at the top" – and he does not believe that the removal of the Côte de Ans will necessarily increase his chances at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He does welcome, however, the fact that rivals like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and Michael Valgren are also set to take on both the cobbles and the Ardennes. "Riders are changing and the style of racing are changing so I think it’s possible to do both."
Later in the season, Matthews will return to the Tour de France, where a tilt at the green jersey is unlikely given the presence of Dumoulin. "We know how good Tom is at Grand Tours, so it's normal that I have to sacrifice my opportunity to go for the green again," says Matthews.
At the World Championships in Yorkshire, by contrast, he will, all things being equal, expect a leadership role in the Bradley McGee’s Australian team. "Obviously, things can change in a heartbeat, but I have that long-term goal," says Matthews, a medallist in Richmond and Bergen.
Not that Matthews will define the success of his season solely by whether there is a rainbow at the end of his road, or even by whether he tops a podium in March or April. On the red slopes of Teide this month, Matthews was sowing seeds, not fretting about the harvest.
"I really put down specific things last year as goals for the season and it didn’t go according to plan," he says. "Every race I go to, I want to try and win it, but I’m just going to focus on the preparation and the race, then the result will be the result."