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Matthews finding it 'mentally difficult' to adapt to Tour de France leadership

Michael Matthews (Sunweb)

Michael Matthews (Sunweb)
(Image credit: Bettini Photo)

After losing team leader Tom Dumoulin to a knee injury before the Tour de France, Team Sunweb's July plans were thrown into disarray. With a team – including sprinter Michael Matthews – built entirely around the objective of winning the race, the Dutch squad were forced to pivot to other objectives at short notice.

In the wake of Dumoulin's withdrawal, Matthews was elevated to team leader, a role which he was far from prepared for. At the Tour de Suisse he explained that he had foregone sprint training in order to focus on helping the Dutchman, and that he "didn't know what to do" after hearing the news.

In light of that admission, the first week of the Tour has been a positive one for the 2017 green jersey winner, and for the team as a whole. Matthews has racked up four top-10 finishes so far, including second behind Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) in Épernay, while the team took fourth in the Brussesls team time trial.

"I'm happy and unhappy at the same time," said Matthews before the start of stage 7. "Obviously you come here to win, but I thought my stages would be coming down the road a bit more.

"The first week is always hectic but it was more to look after Tom and make sure he was safe. But now it's been on since the start, so it's mixed feelings, I guess."

Despite his relative lack of sprint preparation, Matthews has been consistent through an opening week that he expected to race a lot differently. The change in objectives has been hard, though, more on the mental side of things, but a sprinter never forgets how to sprint, after all.

"Physically it's not so bad but mentally it's quite difficult," he said. "It's been totally flipped, so I think I'm doing a good job, considering. A few weeks ago, I targeted two to three stages, but this'll be the sixth, so it is mentally difficult but I'm taking it day-by-day.

"The Tour isn't a race where you can just change things a week before the race starts and expect to be winning so, all things considered, everything is going ok at the moment."

Still, despite the positives, including lying second and 46 points down on Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the fight for green, there have been tough aspects to the opening week. That's no surprise at the Tour de France, where the battles through each stage are tough and unforgiving, especially in the sprints.

"If everything is going to be this aggressive then I'll do the same thing back," Matthews said, referring to his seventh place in Colmar, where Sagan took the win.

"Obviously there's no real respect in the peloton these days. Even if you do ride on the front all day, no one cares in the finale. It's every man for himself."

The almost-daily battles for position and sprint finishes so far will be taking their toll on every sprinter, and perhaps Matthews more than most considering how he has been forced to alter his mindset.

But he's been enjoying the race so far and the fact that, paradoxically, the first mountain stage of the Tour allowed him to take a break and rest – as much as that's possible while racing over seven categorised climbs.

"I think [La Planche des Belles Filles] was much easier than I had imagined," he said. "It's only the deep final where it accelerated a lot, so for me it was a nice rest day – for both my head and my legs a little bit.

"I'm just out here having fun, enjoying the ride. Like I said, it's a totally different Tour de France to what we expected a few weeks ago. But we have a really strong team here and I think we haven't shown what we're capable of yet."