After four years away Michael Matthews has returned to Team BikeExchange and is convinced that he’s a more mature team leader and well-rounded rider than the one that left at the end of 2016. The Australian spent the last four campaigns at Sunweb, and although those seasons were littered with wins and even a Tour de France green jersey, the 30-year-old knew that in order to keep challenging for top honours he needed to leave.
His confidence had taken a hit and his opportunities become limited but a move back to where his career took off has appeared to provide him a new lease of life and a spring in his step. Now he’s not just ready to win, he’s ready to truly lead.
“I’d say that I’m more mature than the guy who was here in 2016,” Matthews tells Cyclingnews from the BikeExchange camp in Spain.
“I’ve learned more about myself, what works, and what doesn’t, and I know how to get the best out of people around me. When I was here last time I probably didn’t realise how I was acting around people and how I could motivate them just by being myself and not pretending to be someone else.”
“I’ve found that my mindset has improved over the years. The physical side of things can improve a bit but at 30 I’m at about 95 per cent of my capacity but cycling is about so much more than just your legs. It’s about how you prepare for a race and how you get the best out of your teammates. From what I’ve learned, if you put all of those things together it can create such a massive advantage.”
Matthews' final year with the Australian team in 2016 was dogged by his rivalry with Simon Gerrans. Their running feud famously boiled over at the end of 2015 at the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond when the pair failed to unite in chasing down Peter Sagan and Matthews was left disconsolate with silver. The following year was difficult to say the least – although the pair still performed well – with Matthews eventually leaving for Sunweb and Gerrans lasting one more year before switching to BMC Racing, where he ended his career.
For Matthews the experience of clashing with a teammate taught him vital lessons in leadership and responsibility and, although he would readily admit to not realising it at the time, enough water has now flown under the bridge for the Australian to draw out the positives from his time alongside Gerrans.
“We all know what we’re here for and there’s no rivalry in the team,” he says of the 2021 roster.
“We’re not going to races and splitting the team down the middle for two different leaders. That can be difficult for those also helping but in the end, I think looking back on those years things were really positive. Okay, we had a rivalry but between me and Gerrans we had one of our best years. We were always on the podium in the Classics that we did and we pushed each other to the absolute limit. We had an amazing year for the team and I learned a lot from Gerrans to be honest, both mentally and physically. I can only thank him for what I learned from him over the years.”
And while many of the personalities have changed on the team over the last few seasons, Matthews recognises that the ethos and spirit have remained relatively intact. It’s partly those aspects that encouraged him to return to the team in the first place.
“There are obviously new people here, that’s for sure, but I think that the team has really kept the culture the same,” he adds.
“They’ve kept that Aussie relaxed but hard working feeling and for me that works. I don’t like the extra stress of additional meetings and all the things that aren’t necessary. Here we just ride our bikes as hard as we can, recover, and just focus on the bike.”
It cannot be forgotten, however, that Matthews is back at Gerry Ryan’s team because the rider and Sunweb agreed to terminate his contract a year early and that BikeExchange had the financial power to sign him after Adam Yates had agreed terms to move to Team Ineos. The split between Matthews and Sunweb came down to a clash of mindsets and approaches, and while much of the blame has been placed on the fact that the rider was not selected for the Tour de France in 2020, the reality is that tensions has been simmering for some time after the team moved Matthews away from his personal coaching team a year after he joined.
“Lets go back to 2017,” he says.
“That year I basically repeated what I did at GreenEdge and I had my own crew around me that supported me. I had my own coach and my own nutritionist. At the end of that year, we went with their plan at the team and changed everything. It didn’t work for me. For a lot of guys it does work but in 2020 we changed it back to having my own crew around me and they just focused on me. That’s what works for me. I like that really specific way of working that’s just around me and not the group,” he says.
“In 2018 and 2019 I lost a bit of motivation. There wasn’t a clash in 2020 but we just came to an agreement in the end. I wanted to do things differently to the team and they didn’t agree. I knew the way they worked when I joined, that they had a lot of protocols, and that has worked for a lot of riders. They’ve turned some guys who didn’t have big names before into superstars. I don’t have anything negative to say, they do a great job, but for me personally, it just didn’t work out.”
Matthews isn’t the first high-profile rider to leave Sunweb in this manner. Warren Barguil, Marcel Kittel, and Tom Dumoulin all left in similar circumstances, while Marc Hirschi made a shock transfer from Sunweb at the end of the year to UAE Team Emirates. Hirschi and his former team have remained tight-lipped on the matter, with the squad only confirming that Hirschi’s contract had been terminated but Matthews says he could see the move coming, although at a later date.
“I wasn’t that surprised. I know him quite well and he probably didn’t fit the mould either. He likes to do his own thing, like I do, and he knows what works for him. He wanted to go to a team that can support him and where he can prepare himself for races and get the best out of himself with the group that he has around him. I was surprised that it happened now but I was expecting some news of a team change during the year.”
With a settled environment, however, Matthews is hoping to rediscover the form that saw him become one of the most exciting one-day riders in the world and challenge for honours in both the Classics and stages in the major Tours. The Spring races, and especially Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders, will be his first major test but the Tour de France has also been marked on his calendar. There he will target stage wins and help support the team’s GC challenge, but whichever role he is asked to fill Matthews will do so with a new lease of life and a spring in his step.
“I thought that last year was going to be my year in Milan-San Remo but I’ll definitely continue to fight for that win. From there you see the guys who win that race and they just shine, like Wout van Aert did last year. Hopefully I’ll do that but if not then I’ll continue to fight, I’ll continue to have fun and smile. Just like I always do.”
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