The Tour of Flanders has been a long time coming for Michael Matthews (Sunweb), but eight years after turning professional he finally made his De Ronde debut. Having finished second at the 2010 under-23 Tour of Flanders, racing the real deal was everything that he had expected.
Cycling is a religion in the Flanders region and De Ronde is a pilgrimage for the fans. From the crowds packing the Grote Markt in Antwerp to those lining the sides of the climbs along the route, it is hard not to be awed by it, even for someone who has ridden many Tours de France, Milan-San Remo and World Championships.
"It was definitely as fun as I'd have hoped," Matthews told Cyclingnews as he rode back to his team bus in Oudenaarde. "It was a beautiful race, the fans were amazing, especially on the Kwaremont and the Koppenberg. I couldn't even hear myself thinking at some points. It was a beautiful thing to be a part of. I think that I'll remember this day for the rest of my life, for sure."
The Australian had been preparing to ride the race for the past two years after adding a few cobbled races to his programme in 2017. He had hoped to contest Flanders last season, but a shoulder injury prevented him from doing so.
Matthews had told Cyclingnews at the start in Antwerp that he was equal parts nervous and excited for his first Tour of Flanders, but he got stuck in with the more experienced Classics contenders. As the group whittled down, he managed to hold onto the coattails of those contenders.
The final climb of the Paterberg saw him distanced and he had to chase hard to make it into the group that would contest the minor podium places. Matthews had a go in the sprint but was at the end of his reserves. Nevertheless, he couldn't be anything other than happy with how things went for him.
"Sprinting for a podium in Flanders on my first shot, I think it's a good day," he said. "I didn't quite have the legs on the Koppenberg, but I made it over, just. I was thinking that I might try to do something in the final, but I think I had a bit of a target on my back. I tried for the sprint, but I had nothing left."
It was clear at the finish line that Matthews had given everything that he could as he rolled down the slope from the finish line to the busses, forearms on his handlebars and mud splattered over his face. It was a tough race for all, but Matthews has had a small taste of the special atmosphere that De Ronde engenders, and he hopes to come back for another bite next year.
"I think that this year I showed that it's a good race for me and I hope that I'll get the support next year that I had this year."