There are few things in cycling that Michael Matthews wants more than to win the elite men's road world title and wear the rainbow jersey for a year. Australia has two potential leaders, along with Simon Gerrans, but Matthews hopes he will earn the team's full backing at this year's UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
"It is one big opportunity for me to try and get that rainbow jersey this year. I'm going 110 per cent for it and I'm focused more than I ever have been," Matthews said.
"Hopefully I can get that lead role for Australia and hopefully they back me 100 per cent to try and get that rainbow jersey."
This year's championships course is thought to cater to the puncheurs and even the pure sprinters. The parcour incudes a mixture of cobbles, successive steep hills toward the end of a 16km urban circuit, and at some 260km, it will clearly be a race of attrition. Matthews expressed confidence that this course will cater to his abilities more than last year's race in Ponferrada, where he placed 14th, and more than the next editions slated for Qatar and Norway.
"It would be truly incredible to wear that rainbow jersey, if I eventually do get to, because it is a really good race for me this year, and it is probably the one year that will suit me the best," Matthew said.
Matthews and Gerrans, who race for the same trade team Orica-GreenEdge, are proven competitors in one-day classics-style races like the World Championships course held in Richmond. No matter which sprinter Australia decides to support in their bid for a world title, that rider will benefit from a crew that includes Simon Clarke, Heinrich Haussler, Jay McCarthy, Adam Hansen, Mathew Hayman, Mitchell Docker and Rory Sutherland.
It's hard to forget Gerrans' stellar end-of-season run last year that included two victories at the Canadian WorldTour races in Quebec City and Montreal followed by his second place at Worlds in Ponferrada. Unfortunately, this season started in injury with a broken collarbone sustained in a mountain bike accident and he crashed again at both Strade Bianche and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He bounced back to take the first pink jersey at the Giro d'Italia in May but a fourth crash ended up forcing him to abandon the Tour de France in July.
Gerrans committed to a return to the Vuelta a Espana where he has re-built some form ahead of the World Championships, although it is unclear how much form, but if anyone knows anything about Gerrans, it's that he should never be discounted as a top contender for a win.
Matthews, on the other hand, has had a more consistent season and has emerged as one of the world's favourites for challenging races of attrition from one-day events to stages in the Grand Tours. This year, at the Giro he took the maglia rosa off Gerrans' back following stage 2 and went on to win stage 3 in Sestri Levante while wearing it, before handing the race lead over to teammate Simon Clarke the next day.
Earlier this spring, Matthews won the opening stage at Paris-Nice, where he also won the points classification. He went on to place third at Milan-San Remo before winning the first stage at Pais Vasco in Bilbao and enjoying an early stint in the leader's jersey, finish second at De Brabantse Pijl - La Flèche Brabançonne and then third at Amstel Gold Race.
Matthews made his debut at the Tour de France in July, however he was involved in a high-speed crash during stage 3 and rode through the remaining stages with broken ribs, though he did manage to finish twice in the top 10 during the final week.
He took five weeks off and then made his return to the peloton at the Tour of Alberta on September 2, in what was the start of his build-up to Worlds. In Alberta he won a stage, briefly wore the leader's jersey and won the points classification. He took his form a step further when he placed second at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec, behind solo winner Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-QuickStep) but ahead of rival sprinter Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
In Quebec, he told the press that his season has been based around the World Championships this year, with various peaks during the season and then a proper build-up toward the race in Richmond.
"Everything I'm doing at the moment is for that one-day race," Matthews said.
Matthews also envisions a future in green
As far as jerseys go, Matthews also sees himself as a future contender for the points jersey at the Tour de France. This year, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) took the honours but Matthews hopes that when the time is right, he will acquire the full support of Orica-GreenEdge to rival riders like Sagan and other top sprinters in the hunt for the green jersey.
"It's a dream for every cyclist to go to the Tour de France and try and win stages," Matthews said. "The green jersey is definitely my goal for my career - to go for this jersey, eventually. If it's next year or the year after, whenever I'm ready and the team is ready to put the team around me to support me for that jersey. It's not something that you can just do by yourself. The team needs to be totally around just that one rider for that type of a jersey.
"I definitely want to go for it and hopefully the team can support me in that goal to achieve the green jersey at the end of the Tour de France, whether that's next year or the year after."
So far, however, Matthews' presence at the Tour de France has been riddled with bad luck. He was expected to make a debut at the Tour in 2014 but he crashed ahead of the race and had to forfeit his place to teammate Christian Meier. He made his official debut this summer but his luck didn't fare much better having crashed during stage 3. He continued on despite his injuries and finished on the Champs-Élysées in Paris but it wasn't the experience he had hoped.
Matthews hasn't given up on the Tour de France but his participation in the race next year will be something discussed between himself and Orica-GreenEdge during the off-season.
"It's such a big race and for the team it is such a big race," Matthews said. "I've had a lot of bad luck there so it's hard to focus my season around something that has been hit or miss for me at the moment.
"For next year, I have to see what the team wants me to do, whether that's to push for it again, to see if I can have some better luck in the race or not. I have to sit down with my coach and director at the end of this year and see what my goals are and what their goals are for the team.
"The Tour de France is the biggest race of the year and every team wants to send their biggest riders to that race, so I'll re-evaluate and the end of this season to see what I want to do about the Tour de France," Matthews said.
It's a case of first things first for Matthews, and for now, he is solely focused on finishing this season with the best possible performance at the World Championships.