Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) could barely turn the pedals over as he warmed down on a pavement on Vanackerstraat after Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, and he still wore a thousand-yard stare as he climbed unsteadily from his bike and made his way gingerly up the steps of the Sunweb team bus. It was that kind of an afternoon amid the cobbles and hills of west Flanders.
The results sheet never lies but only because it steadfastly refuses to tell the whole story. Printed in black and white, Matthews' 13th place in a group sprint won by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) might read like a defeat, but given the injury-hit start to his season, the Australian's performance felt like a victory of sorts, even if he downplayed the notion when he spoke to reporters outside Waregem on Monday morning.
"I'm always disappointed not to get a result. I knew I wasn't good enough, but I'm not a rider who gives up," Matthews said. "I came on the bus yesterday with absolutely nothing left. I didn't think, 'Oh I should have done more or I could have done this' because I really gave everything I had. I think it took me a good hour before I could actually breathe again after that race. I was absolutely empty. It was everything I had."
A crash in his first race of the season at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad left Matthews with a broken shoulder and ruled him out of Tirreno-Adriatico. Remarkably, he returned in time to finish seventh at Milan-San Remo, and then tackled E3 Harelbeke on Friday. He started Gent-Wevelgem at a distinct disadvantage given his meagre diet of racing days thus far in 2018.
"Yesterday I obviously wasn't as good as I wanted to be, but it was only my fourth race day of the year," Matthews pointed out. "I figured out last night that every race day I've done this year has been over 200k and I've done four one-day races in a row, I think it's quite difficult for any professional to go into racing like that. I was meant to do Strade Bianche and Tirreno to get a few more race days before last weekend, but with my shoulder it was impossible to ride those races."
The Cobbles and the Ardennes
Not many riders have the ability to chase results both on the cobbles and in the Ardennes, and fewer again attempt to combine the two in the same year. However, after joining Team Sunweb last season, Matthews began to add cobbled Classics to his race programme, and he made Gent-Wevelgem an early target this year before throttling back to prepare for his principal objective of Amstel Gold Race.
In the aftermath of the Omloop crash, he considered laying aside his cobbled programme for this year and going to the Volta a Catalunya to amass some steadier racing kilometres, but ultimately, he opted to stick to the preordained schedule and line out at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. As planned, Matthews will skip the Tour of Flanders, and race the Tour of the Basque Country as a final tune-up for the Ardennes Classics.
"What do you do? Do you get thrown in the deep end for the Classics and get everything out that you can, or do you take an easier option and go to Catalunya? I don't really know what the answer is, but I think we've got to be happy with the decision we made," Matthews said.
"I knew deep down that it was going to be really difficult to get a result in these last two races, at E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, but in the end, I was still there. I don't think there are too many professionals in the peloton who could do what I did in the last two races from no racing. I think it was just pure determination. I didn't really have good form or good legs, it was just mind-set that got me to that finish yesterday."
Matthews' build-up meant that he was not Sunweb's leader for Gent-Wevelgem, but he was the lone rider from the team to make the decisive selection that formed after the final ascent of the Kemmelberg. The team's designated sprinter Edward Theuns had been chasing the race rather than participating in it since getting caught out on the plugstreets, while Matthews, cramping severely in the closing kilometres, knew he would be unable to climb from the saddle to deliver a sprint of his own.
"I think it would have been possible to do a lead-out for Eddy, but to get out of the seat and accelerate to sprint myself was impossible," he said.
"Unfortunately, Eddy made a bit of a mistake before the plugstreets and stopped for a nature break probably at the wrong time. I was trying to slow the bunch and give him a chance to come back, but with four Quick-Step guys and guys like Van Avermaet and Naesen there, they weren't going to let the race come back."
Matthews continues his season at the Tour of the Basque Country next Monday, and ought to be in the mix at Amstel Gold Race, where he placed third in 2015, and at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he took a notable fourth a year ago.
On the outskirts of Waregem on Monday morning, however, his Flemish hosts were keener to know when he would ride the Ronde for the first time as a professional.
"I was second at the under-23 Tour of Flanders [in 2010 – ed.] without cobbled experience," Matthews revealed.
"We arrived the day before and rode the finish, and I thought, 'This is cool, sounds good.' So I think it does suit me quite well but you can't do everything. You don't see too many guys going from Flemish Classics to the Ardennes and doing well in both."
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