When Michael Matthews spoke about his plans for this year's Spring Classics, and his intention to compete on both the cobbles of Flanders and the hills of Limburg and the Ardennes, one was reminded of the advertising campaign a major pizza concern built around the multi-talented American sportsman Deion Sanders in the 1990s.
Sanders was combining careers in professional baseball and American football when he signed with the Dallas Cowboys in 1995, and a commercial trading on his dexterity was swiftly put together to mark his arrival at the NFL's marquee franchise. The spot shows Sanders locked in tense negotiations with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones at Texas Stadium. "So what's it going to be, Deion? Football or baseball?" Jones asks. Sanders shrugs: "Both, boss."
"Offense or defense?" Jones continues. Sanders, a cornerback with a penchant for cameos as a wide receiver, nonchalantly repeats the previous answer: "Both." When contract talks are interrupted by a pizza delivery, Sanders is offered his choice of bases, and responds with the same punchline: "Both."
In truth, Sanders – aka Prime Time, aka Neon Deion – had an outsized public persona more in keeping with the one affected by Peter Sagan, but in terms of sheer athletic versatility, Matthews is perhaps his equivalent in the professional peloton of today.
In an era of increasing specialization, Matthews is firm in his intention to play in both directions over the coming weeks. Last spring saw him test the waters in the cobbled Classics with an assured display in his first Gent-Wevelgem appearance in six years, and then barely a month later, he surpassed all expectations to place fourth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At the Tour de France, meanwhile, he was regularly on the offensive in the mountains in search of the intermediate sprint points that eventually yielded the green jersey.
In late March, he will tackle Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, and then – after another block of hard racing at the Tour of the Basque Country – line out in April for Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"In the future, I might need to try to focus on one or the other, and I'll take that decision when it comes, but for now I'm going to do a bit of everything," Matthews said at the Sunweb team presentation earlier this month. "I don't have enough experience to say how exactly it’s going to go, but I'm going to try my best and absorb every bit of information I can during the Classics.
"I love climbing and I love racing really hard. I'm constantly doing that in training. The two kinds of Classics, they're obviously different, but it's still really aggressive racing, which I like. For now, I think it’s possible to do both.”
Matthews is not alone in tackling a spread of Classics, of course – Philippe Gilbert made a winning return to the cobbles in 2017, and the revamped route of Amstel Gold Race has encouraged men like Greg Van Avermaet – and he maintains that the fundamentals of preparing for racing in Flanders and the Ardennes are not so far removed.
"I won't change my training that much," he said. "All of those Classics have got climbs in them, so you need to be able to go uphill. You can't put on too much weight because you still need to have that balance for the power-to-weight ratio. I'll put a little bit more on than the last few years because I was really probably too skinny for the Flemish classics, but not so much that I'll lose my climbing legs."
During Matthews' four-year spell at GreenEdge, he eschewed the cobbles in order to focus his energies on Amstel Gold Race, whose roads he knows intimately from his time in the Rabobank set-up in his formative years. When he signed on with Sunweb ahead of the 2017 season, however, he was encouraged to incorporate the cobbles into his schedule. His resume, after all, includes a second place at the amateur Tour of Flanders in 2010.
"I really do like these Classics. I started my life in moto-cross, so I really like getting dirty," Matthews joked, his appetite seemingly whetted by his eighth place in Gent-Wevelgem a year ago. "I really like being out there and finishing totally empty. I've been doing a bit of cyclo-cross in training too, just to change it up and see what it feels like to finish totally empty and totally muddy. It's a really nice feeling."
While Matthews will make his debut at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2018 – thus beginning his season a week earlier than his by-now traditional start at Paris-Nice – he will wait at least another year before testing the waters at the Tour of Flanders.
"To throw me into Flanders would maybe be too much, especially with all these other Classics that I'm doing. I'll see how I go this year by putting a bit more focus on it and we'll think next year about putting Flanders on the programme,” Matthews said. "I'll take another year to progress in maybe the smaller classics, and then next year go to Flanders."
Although a professional since 2011, Matthews is still only 27 years of age, and there is surely time for the melody of the hills and lanes of Flemish Ardennes to reveal itself. "I don't think anyone really has them nailed," he said. "I hope I can keep learning over the next years and become more of a Classics rider."
From Via Roma to the Côte de Ans
Matthews will doubtless be rather more impatient to chalk up a major victory on other terrains this spring. His full-throated showings at Paris-Nice have made him a perennial favourite at Milan-San Remo, but third place behind John Degenkolb in 2015 is, by some distance, his best showing in La Classicissima, a race that seems perfectly tailored to his gifts.
He conceded that Sagan's aggressive – albeit unsuccessful – approach in 2017 may have provided a hymn sheet for the years ahead. Matthews, like Sagan, is quick enough to beat most riders in a sprint finish, but aware, too, that the Cipressa and Poggio are rarely tough enough to shake the pure sprinters from the peloton.
"I think riders like us need to do something like that because we're probably not going to win a flat sprint, so we have to try something different. The last few years I was told to wait for the sprint, that it was my best opportunity, but I think cycling is changing and the sprinters are really getting to the finish of races like Milan-San Remo," Matthews said.
"It's definitely a race I know better than the Flemish Classics. I know how the race works, though I don't know exactly how to win it yet."
Matthews has a fair idea of how to win Amstel Gold Race, too, especially on the new parcours introduced last year, which saw a flat run-in to the finish after the climb of the Bemelerberg instead of the old shoot out over the top of the Cauberg. His challenge, however, was hindered when he was caught up in an untimely crash, and he had to settle for 10th after a sprint for the minor placings.
"I lived around there for two years so I know the course and I know the climbs," Matthews said. He was careful, meanwhile, to downplay his prospects of bettering his fourth place at the 2017 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which he attributed to "a rampage of trying to salvage something" from a spring campaign high on form but low on tangible success.
"I was doing a lot of attacking to try to bring it back for Warren [Barguil] but he wasn't up for it in the finale, so from then on, it was a case of me trying to see what I could actually get," Matthews said. "There was no pressure to achieve any goal, I was just enjoying the race. It was really nice weather that day, which helped, and there was a bit of frustration from Amstel, I guess."
The green and the gold
Matthews' only victory in his first spring at Sunweb was a stage of the Tour of the Basque Country, and an underlying frustration would endure into the summer months. At first glance, beating Sagan and Degenkolb to the line in Bern at the Tour de Suisse seemed to mark a turning point, but Matthews suggests it was teammate Tom Dumoulin's Giro d'Italia victory the previous month that set the tone for the remainder of his and Sunweb's year.
"At the start of the season, we didn't have the results we were aiming for. We had the legs for it, but we were just a bit unlucky," Matthews said. "To see what Tom and the whole team did in the Giro was the turning point in the season. When it came to the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de France, we felt refreshed almost.”
Although Matthews had to wait until stage 14 in Rodez to get off the mark at the Tour, his string of near misses had kept him in contention for the points classification. Unburdened by a GC leader and buoyed by Warren Barguil's startling form, Sunweb launched an onslaught on Marcel Kittel's green jersey in the final week. Their hope was to wear the German out or even force his elimination, but in end, Kittel was undone by a crash early on stage 17 and forced to abandon. The jersey passed to Matthews, and neither the circumstances nor the absence of the expelled Sagan detracted from his sense of achievement.
"We were really chipping away every day. We were putting the other teams going for the green jersey under pressure, and the sprinters can't get those points in the mountain stages," Matthews said. "Unless you get through the Tour de France, you can't win a jersey. It's not over until Paris. It's unfortunate there was a crash, it happened, but that's racing. I don't take anything away from me or the team."
Carrying the maillot vert into Paris seemed to close a circle for Matthews, and encourage him to give himself over more fully to the task of winning a major Classic. "I have wins in each Grand Tour and I have my green jersey, which I was putting a massive target on these last few years, so I'm going to devote my attention to the Classics," he explained – though he will, of course, be on the start line of the Tour in the Vendée on July 7.
The presence or otherwise of Dumoulin – the Dutchman will defend his Giro title before deciding on Tour participation – will not, Matthews said, have any real impact on his own aspirations in July. "It doesn't really change, I don't think. The goal for me and the team is for stage wins at the start and then you have to see how it progresses," he said.
The demanding circuit for the World Championships route in Innsbruck in September, on the other hand, means that Matthews is unlikely to be handed the chance to improve on his silver and bronze medals from Richmond and Bergen, respectively, though a man capable of winning a Giro stage atop Montecassino, as he did in 2014, would be a rather deluxe lieutenant for Richie Porte et al in Austria.
"From looking at it on paper and some small videos, it looks really difficult so I think I'll go there in support of the Australian climbers, whether it's Richie or Rohan [Dennis]," Matthews said. "If they need me there, I'd like to go there and ride in support."
The September song, of course, seems a lifetime away right now. When Matthews puts the finishing touches to his 2018 preparation in the seclusion of Sierra Nevada in the coming weeks, he will be thinking only of carrying a tune on the cobbles in late March.
"I'm not afraid. I'm excited, obviously," Matthews said. "I just don't have the experience to go into these races saying I'm going for a podium or a certain result. I'll go and give it everything I can, and absorb as much as I can from my teammates and the race. But scared? Not really. I'm excited to see what comes."
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