Matthews: Sometimes you need to be willing to lose the World Championships to win them

Australia's Michael Matthews is among the favourites for the 2019 World Championships road race
Australia's Michael Matthews is among the favourites for the 2019 World Championships road race (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

Piece-by-piece and day-by-day, the Australian team has put the finishing touches to their preparations for Sunday's elite men's road race at the World Championships in Yorkshire. In the 24 hours since Rohan Dennis' time trial victory, the emphasis has quickly shifted, with new personnel on the ground, a raft of road bikes assembled, and an ever-growing feeling that this could be Michael Matthews' year.

Even to the untrained eye, the riders are easy to identify as they stroll through the team's base camp on the outskirts of Harrogate. Mitchell Docker and Luke Durbrdige joke with each other in their matching team t-shirts, Rory Sutherland is in his pyjamas as he drops off laundry, and manager Brad McGee buzzes from room-to-room as he checks on his riders and staff.

While the vibe is positive, the language coming out from the camp is one of cohesion. Everyone seems on the same page. Two days before Dennis' win, McGee told Cyclingnews that for Matthews to win on Sunday, he needed to also be willing to lose. What the former time trial specialist meant was that the 29-year-old needed to be proactive and not passive, and at Matthews' pre-race press conference – attended by just a pocket of journalists – the rider himself repeated McGee's sentiment verbatim. One can almost guarantee that it's the squad mantra for Sunday.

"Sometimes you need to be willing to lose the race to win the race," Matthews says, deep into our appointment.

"A lot of the times, I was scared to lose the race, and that's why I've come off second best."

Those times have included a second, third and fourth, but after missing out on a place in last year's race, the Australian is determined to take this opportunity. Along with the team's collective nature, Matthews has several advantages on his side. His form is on the up, as shown by his win at the recent GP Cycliste de Québec, while he'll also have seven teammates at his disposal come Sunday.

The course itself is almost perfect for a rider of his qualities, too, with the punchy climbs and technical sections well suited to the Sunweb star. None of the climbs are too long or too hard, while his sprint will make him a feared competitor throughout Sunday's proceedings. There will certainly be better climbers on the start line, and even faster finishers, but few – other than the utter elite – have the broad array of weapons within Matthews' arsenal.

"I'll do everything that I can but, in the end, fate is fate," he responds when it's mentioned that Australia's last win in the road race came exactly 10 years ago.

"I'm the one who needs to be out there and committing everything. I'm the one that needs to make the right moves and have the legs to go at the right times. To put that all down to fate is pretty risky. I would just like to go out there and do my best, and, when I cross the finish line, be happy that I know that I did everything I could. I've done all the work and I'm in the best shape that I can be in."

That said, Matthews is aware that in order to come out on top this weekend, he must walk an incredibly fine line between aggression and patience. But once again, Matthews hints that his tactic in the road race will be to take the race on and not wait for his principle rivals to exploit any doubts or weaknesses.

"I know that I need to be more on the front foot than the back foot, and not wait so much, but when you're told your whole career to wait for the sprint, and that's your best chance to win the race, it's hard in that moment to attack," he admits.

"A lot of guys will be looking to come to the finish in groups of one or two. It gives them the best opportunity to win the race, rather than in a sprint. This will open the race for a lot of attacks and, hopefully, I've got the legs to make the difference. I'm not here for TV attacks; I'm here to win the race."

Winning on the one-day WorldTour stage is still not something Matthews is overly familiar with. His three wins at the Canadian WorldTour races in the past couple of years remain his only victories at that level and within the one-day arena, but if this month's earlier triumph in Quebec illustrated anything, it was that Matthews is more than capable of maximising his one shot at victory.

"I think that in some of the Worlds I've done, it just came down to the wrong decision at times. I have to live with that but I've worked a lot on keeping focus in those stressful moments and trying to deliver," he says.

Of course, untamed aggression would scupper even the best-laid plans on Sunday. Assuming he has the legs and the support to attack, Matthews will have to pick his moment precisely. But almost 290km in the saddle isn't just about physical exertion. The roads around Leeds and Harrogate will be just as tough on the mind, just as tough on the soul, and Matthews will have to keep his concentration throughout.

"I think a lot of it comes down to the mental side of things. I've got a good track record in the Worlds, although probably not as good as Peter Sagan," he jokes of the three-time winner. "But I think that my body is ready for it. I've done a lot of work on my thinking within a race to make sure that I'm mentally ready after six hours."

Team Support

Those around Matthews will be crucial in Australia's plan. McGee has found the perfect blend of Classics riders and leaders, and has filled slots with riders willing and able to perform their roles. The only debutant is Nathan Haas, but as McGee mentioned in an earlier conversation with us, the Katusha rider's hunger and commitment is second to none. In a sense, Haas is the embodiment of McGee's blueprint for Sunday.

For Matthews, the game-plan on Sunday will be to remain in contention for as long as possible before making a possible strike. But for that to happen, he must save his legs in the opening few hours.

"It's going to be about staying out of trouble until that point. The race really begins on the circuits for me. Until that point, I've got a really strong team to support me, and they all know the roads really well. I'll try to save as much energy as possible while staying at the front because these roads are so narrow. With 200 guys in the peloton, and the weather that's expected on Sunday, it's going to be madness. Hopefully, everyone stays safe and we have a good race. That's the main thing."

If Matthews and Australia can execute their game-plan to perfection, and minimise mistakes, then they have a chance on Sunday. Mathieu Van der Poel (Netherlands), Sagan (Slovakia), Belgium's Philippe Gilbert and defending champion Alejandro Valverde (Spain) all start as greater favourites than the Canberra-born star, but Matthews at the very least can push them closer than most.

However, everything must run like clockwork. There is no room for self-doubt, and, as he and the team around him know, he must be prepared to lose to win.

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