In the arc of 17 days, Britain’s Matt Walls has combined Olympic gold and silver in the Omnium and Madison on the track with his first-ever professional road win with Bora-Hansgrohe at the Tour of Norway, confirming he is one of the names to watch in the next generation of sprinters.
Walls is following in the slipstream of Elia Viviani, Benjamin Thomas and Lasse Norman Hansen, using his talents and speed to win big in the velodrome and then transferring it all to road racing, and winning there too.
Peter Sagan will move to DirectEnergies in 2022 and Pascal Ackerman to UAE Team Emirates, opening up protected sprint slots at Bora-Hansgrohe. Sam Bennett returns to the German team and will have a dedicated sprint train but Walls is likely to be given far more opportunities to show his finishing speed.
Walls has used Under-23 road racing to lay the foundations for his success on the track. Now he will tip the balance the other way, building on his Olympic Games success and status to forge a WorldTour career. The spring Classics and sprints are a natural next step in 2022 for the 23-year-old from Oldham, near Manchester in the north of England.
“I race because I enjoy the competition of it all. Now I want to give road racing a good go,” Walls tells Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview.
“I hope to try and mix road and track like Elia Viviani and Benjamin Thomas do. I was fully focused on Tokyo in the last six months but now I need to think about it all and see where my career goes from here. For sure I want to keep on sprinting and see what I can achieve.”
Walls first showed his road sprinting talents in the Flèche du Sud in 2018 and even more so in 2019 when he won a stage at the Under-23 Giro d’Italia and then finished second to Dylan Groenewegen on a stage at the Tour of Britain.
Those results, combined with a win in the Omnium World Cup in London ahead of Viviani and other strong rides on the boards in the Omnium and track endurance events, eventually secured him a three-year contract with Bora-Hansgrohe.
The COVID-19 pandemic wrecked Walls’ 2020 season and he did not race on the road but he was patient and the delaying of the Tokyo Olympic Games gave him an extra year to develop and get his career back on track. Even catching COVID-19 in the spring could not stop him.
Walls tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the E3 Saxo Bank Classic while riding a series of Belgian Classics in the spring. He had to isolate in a Belgian hotel and Bora-Hansgrohe had to fight with Belgian medical authorities so that they could ride the Tour of Flanders.
“I was stuck in a hotel for two full weeks, not able to do anything. I then had to do medical checks before training again and so had three weeks off the bike,” Walls revealed to Cyclingnews.
“It was a blow to my Olympic plans and I had to get back up to fitness but with help of Bora-Hansgrohe and British Cycling I got there.
“I always go well on the track off road races, so I then raced as much as I could with Bora-Hansgrohe and they helped me ride the Tour de Suisse in June and then the four-day Sibiu Cycling Tour in Romania in early July.
“I think my road racing has helped me develop massively as a rider. I feel stronger and it all helped me with recovery between the four Omnium events. When it was five events they were across two days, now the four events are on the same day, so recovery is a big part of the event.”
Walls did lots of track work with the Great Britain team when in Manchester, and not racing on the road for Bora-Hansgrohe, but had not raced on the track since the 2020 European championships. He was lean and on form, earning the voted spot in the Great Britain Olympic team for the Omnium, but was just a little track rusty.
“I could sense I was going well on the road in Romania but I didn’t know how it would translate on the track,” he explains.
Yet when the four-event Omnium started, it was clear Walls was a contender and his rivals soon realised it too.
Walls won the opening Scratch race, was third in the Tempo Race and then second in the Elimination Race behind a resurgent Viviani. Those results made him favourite for the gold medal if he could control his rivals in the final Points Race. He did more than that, taking a lap to extend his lead and force his rivals to race for the minor medals.
“Winning the Scratch gave me the confidence for the rest of the Omnium,” the shy 23-year-old said, his inner competitive spirit shining through.
“I started the Points Race with only a four-point lead but I managed to get a lap, got some sprints and so had a pretty big lead. It was then about maintaining that and not letting any of my closest rivals score too many points or get a lap.”
The British tabloid newspaper immediately headlined Walls' success as Wonder Walls, a play on words of the popular Oasis song Wonderwall.
Walls laughs quietly in awe as he recalls taking on and beating 2016 Olympic champion Viviani and world champion Benjamin Thomas as he took gold, with New Zealand’s Campbell Stewart taking silver with a late attack and Viviani bronze.
Two days later he backed it up with a silver medal in the Madison with close friend and flatmate Ethan Hayter, who also returned to road racing at the the Tour of Norway and won two stages and the overall classification for Ineos Grenadiers. The two clearly inspired each other and enjoyed a special moment of celebration together.
Hayter had already shown his road racing potential with several victories in 2021. Walls showed his with victory on the final stage in Norway after a superb lead out from teammate Nils Politt. He came off his wheel to beat Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Daniel Hoelgaard (Uno-X) in Stavanger.
“It was incredible to win, I was at the Olympic Games just a couple of weeks ago and so it’s mega to come away with a win, my very first as a pro,’ Walls said.
“It was a hectic finish and then Nils took me to the front and basically lead me for two kilometres. I just had to come round with two hundred metres to go and hold them off.”
Walls’ end of season race programme with Bora-Hansgrohe depended on his riding at the Tour of Norway and so he is surely to get more opportunities to sprint for victory.
He is now an Olympic champion and pro winner but his modesty keeps his ambitions in check.
“I’m just hoping to get a fair few races in, just to finish off the season,” he said.
“I’m thinking about track worlds but still I’ve not made a decision. Riding the road race world championships depends on selection.
“I’ve got some big results on the track, I’m Olympic champion, but does that really change who I am? I’ll probably still have to fight in the sprints and I know I’ll definitely have to do the same work in training, if not more. But that’s OK. It’s what I’m here for.”
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