Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) is under no illusions as he heads towards the start line of Milan-San Remo on Saturday. During the winter, the versatile Australian had selected the first Monument of the season as a major spring goal but a crash in Paris-Nice robbed him of vital racing and, with just one day of racing in his legs, the 28-year-old is not among the favourites.
In fact, Matthews only made the selection for Milan-San Remo on Wednesday after a last-minute medical confirmed that his Paris-Nice injuries were not as serious as first thought.
"The recovery has gone surprisingly well, and faster than I ever imagined," Matthews told Cyclingnews from Milan on Thursday evening.
"Last week I was told that I would be off for three months, and now it's Thursday and I'm here for Milan-San Remo. It's been a fast turnaround. There are two or three fractures around my eye. On the original CT scan they thought they were bigger than originally thought, but then a week later I had another scan and they turned out to be just hairline fractures. I'm able to race without any side effects or problems."
Under normal circumstances, Matthews would be considered a prime favourite for the race. He has the pedigree to race in events that push towards 300 kilometres and has two top-10 finishes in San Remo to his name. His best result came in 2015 when he was third behind winner John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff.
However, this year has seen Matthews endure bad luck on two separate occasions. Although he finished 12th at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, his race was defined by a crash that left him chasing for close to 70 kilometres. In Paris-Nice – a race at which he has previously won three stages – he failed to make it past the first stage due to his fall. The preparation for an event as difficult as Milan-San Remo has been far from ideal.
"It's not what I had planned. I had a good day at Omloop and then headed to Paris-Nice to get in some important kilometres. It didn't work out according to plan, but, all things considered, I feel good. I don't have that one week of racing that the rest of the peloton has, but it is what it is. I'm just happy to be on the start line, and I'll take it for what it is.
"I'm not taking Milan-San Remo as a big goal anymore," he added. "It's just good to be with the team and to get another race under my belt. It's 300km, so it's going to be another long day on the bike."
Last year, Matthews went through a similarly difficult start to the campaign. A crash in his first race left him with an injured shoulder and saw him chase form throughout the first half of the year. He would eventually find his best condition towards the end of 2018, but he admitted that his comeback after a rocky spring had been a major test, both physically and mentally. This time around, he believes there has been no rush, and that the training he put in during the winter means he still has the needed condition, if not the finishing touches.
"I've not rushed anything and I'm fully capable of racing. Nothing has been rushed and it's not a maybe that I should be here. I've been training for three-and-a-half months, and, OK, I'm missing a week of stage racing, but I still have good shape. I'm just hoping to show that on Saturday – all that hard work that I did in the winter."
Sunweb arrive at Milan-San Remo with a talented squad that includes Tom Dumoulin and Søren Kragh Andersen. The team had failed to win a race this year until earlier in the week, when Cees Bol took victory at the Nokere Koerse, and confidence is high as a result. They have cards to play in Milan-San Remo, and although Matthews will have to remain patient and see how his legs respond, he believes that Sunweb's strength in depth will be a valuable asset.
"We'll take it step-by-step in the race and see what happens. We have Tom and Søren. The original plan was for me to be the leader, but with these two guys, it definitely gives us more options. For me personally, it's about taking it step-by-step through the race. Either I'm good to race or I'll help them out with their plan. Having them in the team takes some of the pressure off me, and we've got options."