All spring, Michael Matthews found himself playing catch-up after falling and breaking his shoulder at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Come the Tour de France, the Australian had fought his way back into shape, only for a sudden bout of illness to force him out of the race ahead of stage 5 in Lorient.
Twelve months on from wearing the green jersey on the Champs-Élysées, Matthews spent the final Sunday of the Tour thrashing his way around the RideLondon-Surrey Classic course in relative anonymity as he looked to right the ship for the final phase of the season.
"The illness at the Tour was more of a one-day thing, actually. I was totally 'man down' that day, and then the next day I woke up feeling OK, but still not able to ride my bike," Matthews told Cyclingnews at the BinckBank Tour, where he lies fifth overall ahead of the decisive final weekend.
"I ended up having a total week off after that, and then I tried to recover and think about the next part of the season. It was quite difficult, obviously, after last year's success at the Tour de France. I really had a lot of mental problems after that, which I needed to try to get over and then re-focus for the last part of the season. It was really difficult."
After the abrupt end to his Tour, Matthews must have wondered if his season was irretrievably doomed. It would have been understandable had he begun to shift his attention towards next year, but there are still miles to ride and promises to keep in the final weeks of the current campaign. Matthews has just one win to his name in 2018 – the prologue at the Tour de Romandie – but the GP Plouay and the WorldTour races in Canada offer a chance for some redemption.
"It's been really difficult this whole season, just getting knocked down and trying to find form again. I'm not exactly sure where I'm at anymore. I'm so confused in my season that I don't even know how my form is. Basically now I'm just racing with my heart and trying to get something out of this season," Matthews said.
"I'm still loving bike riding this season, but a lot of bad luck has made it super-hard for me. I think it's really one of those seasons where it's about just learning how to get through those hard times. Last year went so well, pretty much through the whole year. This year it's not going that well. It's pretty hard on the head, but I'll have Plouay after this and then on to Canada for the races there. I really enjoy those three races, so that's a massive motivation."
Chasing the GC at BinckBank
With prizes still on offer, it is perhaps a little premature to pick over the black box of the season to date, although Matthews wonders now if he was a little rash in returning to action so quickly after his crash at Omloop. The Australian was determined to stick to his original plan of testing himself on the cobbled Classics, and so he returned to action in time to place seventh at Milan-San Remo. He proceeded to take 13th at both the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, but riding three tough Classics without a stage race in his legs beforehand took a toll.
"It was basically damage control after that crash. Maybe I came back too fast. I probably should have taken a month or two off and tried to re-focus again, but I knew I had really good legs; it was just my shoulder that was holding me back," Matthews said. "It's still sore now. I haven't really had time to do a lot of rehab on it and get it back to 100 per cent."
An untimely puncture ruined Matthews' challenge at the Amstel Gold Race, but he followed that disappointment with a surprising fifth place atop the Mur de Huy at Flèche Wallonne. That result and an aggressive showing at the Rund um den Finanzplatz Eschborn-Frankfurt were rare clearings in the woods.
"Looking back at the season, I don't really have too many highlights, but I think Flèche was one of them. I didn't expect that and it was a race that I really enjoyed doing," he said. "Then at Frankfurt, I had a bit of a free role to attack and I still managed to come in second in the sprint [to Alexander Kristoff – ed.] after attacking for half the race."
Matthews will hope that the upturn in his fortunes begins this weekend as the BinckBank Tour reaches its denouement with a Classics-themed doubleheader. On Saturday, the race crosses into Dutch Limburg for a stage with the distinct flavour of Amstel Gold, while the final stage brings the peloton into the heart of the Flemish Ardennes.
A strong showing in the stage 2 time trial and a clutch of bonus seconds in the days since have left Matthews just 30 seconds off Matej Mohoric's overall lead, while his teammate Søren Kragh Andersen (eighth at 37 seconds) could be a most useful foil.
"I've been just going day by day to keep up there on GC and focus on staying out of trouble with Søren. It's the first time for both of us going for GC, so we've never really experienced anything like this before," Matthews said. "For tomorrow, I guess like everyone says it's a mini Amstel Gold. And if it's mini, then it's probably not hard enough to really get rid of the guys in front of me. I think it's going to come down to Sunday."
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