The concept of 'bling' might not tally with the image of the archetypal Belgian 'hardman', but Michael Matthews sees himself as a true cobbled classics rider – and potential winner of the Tour of Flanders – in the future, and will clatter onto the Flemish cobblestones this week as he sets the wheels of that process in motion.
The Australian, who earned his nickname thanks to his penchant for jewellery, finished second in the U23 version of De Ronde back in 2010, but has since made just three appearances at cobbled one-day races across his six seasons as a professional. Having joined the Sunweb team from Orica-GreenEdge at the turn of the year, he will line up at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday to get a feel for the style of racing, even if he won't be hanging around for the big one next weekend.
"I really want to go for the Tour of Flanders in the future, so doing these races this week is a good starting point towards building up to that," Matthews told Cyclingnews in Waregem on Tuesday.
"Flanders is not something you can go straightaway and try and win. I don't want to do that to the team where I go in and say 'I'm just going to see how I go' – it's not really nice for me to say that and take a role of someone who could do a good result."
Matthews is a rider in the mould of Peter Sagan, able to climb better than most who could outsprint him and able to outsprint most who could out-climb him. As such, he has shone on hilly or punchy days, finishing on the podium of Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold Race in recent years, along with the runner's-up spot behind Sagan at the 2015 World Championships in Richmond.
And it was that day that cemented his desire to transition to the cobbles.
"It's been in the thought process for a while, but the Richmond Worlds, where we had those cobbled climbs there, people said it was a clear indication that I would be quite good at Flanders," Matthews said.
"I really wanted to ride these classics in the past but we had a team at GreenEdge that was specifically focused on these races, so there wasn't really room for me to just go in and try them out. So I missed a few years there maybe without that opportunity."
Matthews may have traded in the family feel of the overwhelmingly Australian GreenEdge set-up, but what he gets in return is the experience and know-how of a team composed largely of Dutchmen and Belgians.
"They're willing to teach me how to ride these races, because I don't know too much about them, I don't know the roads like I do Amstel, where I know every piece of road. All the riders here know every section of road so I can really learn a lot from my teammates about how to race these races," he said.
"It's one thing having the legs to be able to do it, but it's another thing knowing the roads, knowing where to be, knowing when to use your energy and when to relax. So I can learn a lot this week and see where I can go in the future with these races."
'I'm not in the sport to win one race more than once'
Matthews, who signed a three-year deal with Sunweb, has pencilled in 2018 for his Flanders debut, but he explained that he hasn't set himself a specific time frame for this new direction, which will instead depend on how he fares later this spring in the Ardennes.
Somewhat perversely, victory at Amstel wouldn't convince him to continue to pool his resources there – quite the opposite.
"I'm not really in the sport to win one race more than once," Matthews said.
"I want to go through all the different races, and try all the different ones to win, rather than winning one race lots of times – I don't find that too exciting. Once you've won it you have the feeling of winning it, you're a past winner, you've made history in that race, and it's time to move on to something else.
"The plan for this year was to tick off the goals I've had in the last few years, and then move to some different goals next year. If I have a really good Ardennes this year, then I will change it up to more of the Flemish Classics. But I have to see how this season goes, and if I don't tick off those goals, in the first year with the new team, I guess I try again next year."
Should all go to plan – green and rainbow jerseys, at the Tour de France and World Championships respectively, are the other items on the 'to do' list this year – the cobbles and bergs of northern Belgium will become a key part of Matthews' career in the coming years.
"It's racing that suits me, and it's racing that I really enjoy," he said, recalling in detail his rides at the U23 Flanders, where he let Marko Kump get away but won the sprint for second, and at Gent-Wevelgem with the pro's a year later.
"That [Flanders] was a really fun race actually," he said. "I didn't know what to expect so maybe that's why I did so well, because I didn't overthink it – I just raced."
As for Gent-Wevelgem, "It was my first year in Rabobank, and I was on Cavendish's wheel because the DS said he was the fastest here so just follow him. We were on the narrow roads not far from the finale and I think Cavendish slipped out on a corner and I went over the top. That was race over. Before that I think everything was going well – I was in the front, so it must have gone well to that point."
Despite the lack of experience, there's clearly a natural affinity with the cobbles.
"I started off in motocross so I guess I have that feel for bumpy roads, I guess my body can withhold those vibrations for a while," he added. "I've done it my whole life, basically, without really knowing it."
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