Even amid the ecstasy of cheering and applause at the end of the final stage of the BinckBank Tour in Geraardsbergen, Michael Matthews made himself heard. The Australian’s repeated, guttural cries of ‘Yeah’ started as he crossed the finish line and continued as he slowed to a stop and unclipped from his bike.
Lest any of his Sunweb teammates were still unsure of the result, Matthews held the microphone of his radio close to mouth to make one final exclamation, before he sat, exhausted, on the cobbles of Vesten, the thoroughfare through Geraardsbergen that serves as the anteroom to the Muur itself.
Matthews’ 2018 season has been more endured than enjoyed to this point. A crash in his opening race, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, rather tempered his Classics campaign. A puncture cost him dearly at Amstel Gold Race. A suspected bout of food poisoning forced him out of the Tour de France in the opening week.
Come the BinckBank Tour, Matthews was a man in search of himself: earlier in the week, he confessed, “I don’t really know where I’m at anymore.” Sunday’s finale in the Flemish Ardennes provided a reassuring answer. After three fraught laps of circuit that included the Muur and the Bosberg, Matthews produced a rasping uphill sprint to overhaul Greg Van Avermaet and claim his second victory of the season, and his first in a road race.
"I finally showed that I still am capable of winning with all the setbacks I've had with my shoulder and being sick and having crashes all through the season," Matthews said afterwards. "I had no results, but it wasn't because I had really bad legs, I was just unlucky. This week I've tried to switch my head around, stay focused and finish it off with a good result, whether it was me or Søren Kragh Andersen. To come out and win the sprint today after Søren sacrificed himself for me to bring that breakaway back is the icing of the cake. For the team to believe in me, to believe that I can still win, it’s really special."
Matthews delivered a typically solid performance in Tuesday's 12km time trial – his other win this year was the prologue of the Tour de Romandie – and he entered the weekend within 30 seconds of Matej Mohoric's overall lead. He moved onto the podium following Saturday's hilly leg in Limburg.
After the final time up the Bosberg on Sunday, a vista of overall victory briefly opened up before Matthews, who went off the front with Tim Wellens, Oliver Naesen and Zdenek Stybar, but Mohoric proved a redoubtable adversary. All afternoon long, the front group expanded and contracted like an accordion, but Mohoric was able to carry a tune all the way to the finish, and he came in 13th on the stage, 13 seconds down on Matthews.
When time bonuses were factored in, Mohoric held his green jersey by 5 scants seconds from Matthews, who gently dismissed the notion that he and Andersen could have done anything more to wrest overall victory away from the Slovenian.
"I don't know what else I could really do," Matthews said. "I was racing the race the last two days to win the overall. I wasn't too focused on stage wins. I tried to attack Mohoric every second I could, but he was just too strong. We thought when he had no teammates left we could really isolate him, with me and Søren attacking him, but in the end, he was too strong for us.
"On TV, maybe it didn't look like we were going for the overall, but every moment where I could attack I was attacking with the best guys to try to get rid of Mohoric. In the end there's only so much you can do because you have to focus on getting to the finish and making sure you don’t lose time also. After seven days of racing, when it comes down to five seconds. That’s pretty close. Hopefully we put on a good show."
During his post-stage press conference, Matthews admitted that his abrupt departure from the Tour had affected his morale considerably in the days and weeks that followed. "I had a week off after that, and tried not to watch the Tour de France, because it was really scarring to watch my competitors doing really well and achieving their goals while I was sitting at home with something I had no influence on," he said.
The healing process began in earnest this week at the BinckBank Tour, and there is life in Matthews' season yet. "I’m a little bit emotional that it finally came true and I got that victory that I was looking for," he said. "And next weekend, I have Plouay, then the Canadian races."
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