Just under 12-months ago Michael Matthews' Tour de France dreams were cruelled by a training ride accident that saw the Orica-GreenEdge rider attend the team presentation in Leeds covered in bandages forcing him to forfeit his place for Christian Meier. The 24-year-old has that memory firmly in mind as he puts the finishing touches on his preparation for the 102nd edition of the race that starts Saturday in Utrecht with a 13.8km time trial.
"I try and steer clear of roads that I know are dangerous for starters and just be a lot more careful and know that anything can happen at anytime and be ready if a car pulls out, or something jumps out in front of me when training that I am ready for it," Matthews told Cyclingnews.
In 2015 Matthews has reached another level with the enviable record of claiming a win in all four stage races he's started, and finishing on the podium of the three on-day races he's finished. The only blemish being a DNF at La Flèche Wallonne which provided Matthews with an important test of the Mur de Huy which features on stage 4 of the Tour.
While appreciating his run of form, Matthews knows his luck can change at any moment and isn't taking it for granted.
"It's a nice statistic that everyone is mentioning at the moment and it's been really nice to win a stage in every tour I've done so far," he said. "When you think about it seems pretty unreal. I am not really thinking about too much about it. I put a lot of stress on myself ahead of last year's Tour and had a big crash the day I was meant to leave.
"This year, I know I've done all the preparation and at this stage its just relax as much as possible until the race starts. We've basically devoted our whole season to be the best for now and we know that I am going well so we just need to try and get to start line and see what happens."
Matthews' last race was the Tour de Suisse, where Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb had also decided to test their legs pre-Tour, which provided the "hard race days" he required, the opportunity to scout his rivals, and a stage win to cap it off.
"For my confidence, it's nice to get one over Sagan in a sprint as well going into the Tour. I have never really done that before so it's nice to get that done heading into my first Tour," he explained of the rider he sees as being one of his "biggest competitors at the Tour de France.
"It would have been possible but I got out of Suisse what I wanted which was a lot of good training and if it was possible, to go for a win but I wasn't putting any pressure on myself to get a win and I was just fortunate that I had really good legs on that day to go for the win but it was never really planned."
Watching Sagan claim two stage wins on TV after leaving the race, Matthews added that "it "would have been nice to go for a few more wins but I guess I have to take out of there that I got the win and had really good training also."
Eleventh place in the Suisse prologue also gave Matthews a confidence boost ahead of the Tour's opening time trial as his recent history of eighth in the Paris-Nice prologue and first in the 2014 Tour de Slovénie opening test the against the clock suggesting that another high finish could be just around the corner in Utretch.
"It's definitely always in the back of my mind the Utrecht time trial, I don't think its possible to win the first time trial but it would be nice to be around the mark and close to the yellow jersey in case something happens in the next few stages and I can attempt to get the yellow jersey. It's more about trying not to lose too much time really," he said.
Grand Tour record
Matthews made his grand tour record at the 2013 Vuelta a España, taking just five stages to claim a maiden win in Lago de Sanabria, moving into the points jersey the next day. He then repeated his stage win with victory on the final day circuit around Madrid. The run continued at the 2014 Giro d'Italia with Orica-GreenEdge winning the team time trial in Belfast and Matthews moving into the maglia rosa after stage 2. He then won stage 6 as the race leader before bowing out several days late.
Putting the disappointment of missing the Tour behind him last year, Matthews returned to the Vuelta and got back to winning ways on stage 3 to move into the red leader's jersey. There were four more top-fives but no more stage wins. It would be deju vu for Matthews at the 2015 Giro with GreenEdge repeating the dosage as they rode to victory in the team time trial with Matthews pulling on pink, getting a stage win in the leader's jersey for a second straight year and extending his grand tour stage winning streak to four.
The first week of the Tour is where Matthews' sees his best chances for victory but with a balanced Orica-GreenEdge squad set to be chosen for the race, isn't yet sure when exactly he'll have his opportunities.
"There are a few stages that really suit me but it comes down to the team's decision as we have a few guys with the same capabilities so it's up the team to make the decision on who we ride for," he said. "Stage 8 is looking really good and before then, I am not really sure what the team wants to do but we'll see what happens."
Changes to the sprinter's green jersey competition in 2015 will reward stage winners in comparison to the last few years although it's sure to be a hard fought tactical battle all the way to Paris for the winner. Capable of consistently challenging for intermediate and finish line points on offer, Matthews points to his team's depth for the Tour, explaining he'll be just one of several protected riders.
"It's hard to target when we have a few different guys going for different stages," he said. "The green jersey needs to be one outright rider going for stages and if you have a few different riders going for those stages, it makes it difficult because you need to be going for every single point you can along the road at the finishes. It's a long race and it can change very fast."
Depending on how he gets though the mountainous third week, Matthews might just emulate countryman Baden Cooke's feat of snaring the jersey on the final day.
"That's the goal for sure, it's all the way to the finish as it would be really nice to finish my first Tour," he said. "The Champs-Élysées the day after the final climbing stage is going to be very difficult for the sprinters to get through and then to try and sprint is going to be very hard so hopefully that gives me the upper hand over the really fast sprinters in that sort of a finish."
Nine Australians have won stages at the Tour, six have worn the Tour's yellow jersey while just one has won the race overall. Matthews won't be wearing yellow on the Champs-Élysées but is every chance to become the tenth stage winner from down under as his grand tour record suggests.
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