After crossing the line at the end of stage 2 of the Giro d’Italia, Michael Matthews rolled to a halt at the side of the road and waited to be guided to the podium area. When no chaperone emerged from the throng on Belfast’s Chichester Street, he simply took matters in hand himself, and pedalled back under the drizzle towards the rostrum to claim his pink jersey.
There may have been a degree of confusion in the race organisation as to who precisely had taken command of the overall lead following the bunch sprint, but there was no such misunderstanding in the Orica-GreenEdge camp. All along, the tactic had been for Matthews to take over from his teammate Svein Tuft, he duly did so by landing 8th place in the bunch sprint behind Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
"The plan was to win the team time trial with the team we brought here, because we brought our strongest team for this discipline," Matthews said.
Matthews was a relatively late addition to Orica-GreenEdge's Giro line-up but given his team’s prowess against the watch, he knew there was a chance that he would spend time in the maglia rosa during the opening week of racing. Their emphatic victory in Friday evening’s team time trial – allied to Alessandro Petacchi’s apparent unwillingness to contest sprints – now means that the prospect of a long stint in pink is opening up before Matthews.
"After I found out that I was doing the Giro, the plan was to try to get the pink jersey," he explained. "I had high hopes coming in, but you never really know. Things can go terribly wrong.
"But we did really well in the team time trial yesterday and put a big gap into the teams behind us, so we should be able to keep the jersey for maybe a week. That was the goal from the start and we’ll definitely do everything to protect it for as long as we can."
Matthews announced himself on the international stage in 2010 when he landed victory in the under-23 world championships on home roads in Geelong, where he beat John Degenkolb into second place. In the sprints at the Giro, however, Matthews must face the might of Degenkolb’s fellow countryman and Giant-Shimano teammate, Marcel Kittel.
The German laid down a marker for the remainder of the Giro by emerging as a resounding winner in the rain in Belfast, and Matthews acknowledged that getting the better of him in a straight sprint is a nigh on impossibility. Asked what he needed to beat Kittel, Matthews was to the point: "Some hills, I think."
Kittel made light of the rain and cold of country Antrim on Saturday, but Matthews is hopeful that a brace of hilltop finishes in southern Italy during the week – at Viggiano and Montecassino – might prove sturdier obstacles for him to surmount. After opening his grand tour account with a brace of stage wins at last year’s Vuelta a España, the Australian is looking to add to his collection in Italy.
"Kittel is definitely the fastest guy in the bunch here, he showed that today," Matthews said. "No matter whether it’s warm or cold, he’ll be there in flat sprints. I think I’ll just try to be around him as much as possible and hopefully conserve some energy for stages 5 and 6, which are my goals in the Giro this year as they’re the ones that suit me best. I’ll be focusing on them."
Svein Tuft spent most of his sodden day in the overall lead with the precious garment covered by a black race cape, but Matthews sat down for his press conference with his pink jersey swollen by the heavy jacket – hastily borrowed from press officer Brian Nygaard to guard against the chill – that he was wearing underneath. It remains to be seen if conditions will allow for Matthews to show off his jersey all day tomorrow, but simply taking possession of it will suffice for now.
"I wore the green jersey at the Vuelta last year after winning my first grand tour stage, which was pretty special," he said. "I don’t think there’s much further I can go from here. In my first Giro d’Italia to wear the pink jersey it’s truly a dream come true."
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