This day last year, Michael Matthews was forced to withdraw from Orica-GreenEdge's Tour de France selection just 24 hours shy of the start in Leeds due to the lingering effects of a training crash in the build-up to the race.
Twelve months on, however, Matthews is set to make his belated Tour de France debut, where he will spearhead his team's bid to land a stage win after drawing a blank in his absence last time around. The Australian arrives at the Tour on a high after stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de Suisse in recent weeks, and a spring campaign that included podium finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold Race.
"Last year, I had a lot of stress going into the Tour de France, and it could have been one of the reasons why I did end up crashing," Matthews told reporters in Utrecht on Friday. "This year I've had a lot of consistent results so I don't have extra, added pressure on me. I know I have the form, I know I've done everything right and I'm in a really relaxed state, so now it's just a question of getting to the start and seeing what comes."
The punchy opening week of this Tour certainly offers several opportunities for a finisseur such as Matthews, though he pointed out that he would not be expecting to go head-to-head against the pure sprinters in mass finishes on the flatter stages.
"I think this year we're not going to target the flatter sprints because it's hard for a rider like me to beat people like [André] Greipel and [Mark] Cavendish," Matthews said. "We'll go for the hillier finishes where there's a reduced bunch because that suits the characteristics of our team."
As at the Giro, Matthews will share responsibilities in such finales with his stable-mate Simon Gerrans. A broken collarbone and a broken elbow hampered Gerrans in the spring and he arrives at the Tour eager to make up for lost ground, though he acknowledged that a repeat of 2013, when he and teammate Daryl Impey enjoyed stints in the yellow jersey, might prove beyond him on this course.
"Unfortunately, I think the yellow jersey will be out of reach, for me at least, because of the very long time trial at the start, whereas for the last couple of years, it's been a real goal in the early stages," Gerrans said. "But after that, it's on to what this team and I do best: chasing stages. A stage win is a real goal and a very achievable one."
Despite the presence Simon Yates – 5th at the Dauphiné and 6th at the Tour de Romandie this season – and his brother Adam – 6th at last year’s Dauphiné – in the Orica-GreenEdge line-up, directeur sportif Matt White insisted that his squad approached the race with no general classification aspirations.
"It would be irresponsible to put GC pressure on the Yates brothers," White said of the 22-year-old twins. "We're here for stages, not GC. The biggest thing for us is to leave an impact on the race. One stage win would be pleasing, multiple stage wins even more so."
Simon Yates explained further when the question about the overall classification was put to him, "I haven't even finished a Grand Tour yet. Mentally and physically, I'm not ready."
The plan instead for the youngsters will be to target a stage win when the race reaches the high mountains, the tacit assumption being that they will already have conceded sufficient time in the opening week as to be given free rein to go on the offensive.
"If the winds up and it goes in the gutter, I think everybody outside of the top 20 or 30 guys is going to lose a lot of time," Adam Yates said. "I'm not even 60 kilos, so I'm one of the weakest guys there, so I think it'll be difficult to stay up there. It's not like I'm going to sit up and lose time on purpose, it's just the natural course of the race will do it for me."
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