Michael Matthews will switch from Orica-BikeExchange to Team Sunweb (formerly Giant-Alpecin) for 2017, unafraid of leaving a familiar and somewhat cosy position in the Australian team for a more prominent leadership role and more responsibility with the Dutch-German team next season.
Matthews will in some ways replace John Degenkolb, who has moved to Trek-Segafredo, with the musical chairs in big-name leaders coming about as Orica-BikeExchange focus more on the Grand Tours with Adam and Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves. Team Sunweb has reduced their interest in the Cobbled classics to back Tom Dumoulin in the Grand Tours. Team manager Iwan Spekenbrink is convinced that Matthews can win sprints and hillier Classics like Milan-San Remo, Amstel Gold Race and other one-day race that offer a haul of UCI WorldTour points.
Canberra born Matthews turned 26 in late September and is arguably at the very peak of his career. He has proved his pedigree with a run of 25 increasingly more important victories since 2011. He first showed his potential as an under 23 rider the year before, with excellent results in Europe and victory in the under 23 World Championships in Australia. That secured him a place at the Rabobank Development team and then a privileged position at Orica.
Now, Matthews has no problem cutting his Australian umbilical chord after four years with Orica-Bike Exchange. He is hungry for success and felt he had to move on from Orica to pursue his career goals.
"I live in Europe the whole year but I'm obviously a proud Australian and that's never going to change. However, for the moment, I live in Europe and that's where my life is now and for the next few years," he explains to Cyclingnews in an exclusive interview. "Orica is a team where I was comfortable in and it would have been easy to stay, stick it out and see what happens. But I always want to win and the best way for me to keep winning and win more is to go to Team Sunweb with the support they're going to give me.
"They have a good plan for me for the next three years. It's nice to know they have a long-term plan for me and where they see me developing. They want to achieve what I hope to achieve. The structure they have also suits my style, so I'm really looking forward to riding with them."
Matthews is careful not to criticise Orica-Bike Exchange in any way and publicly thanks his former teammates and staff at the end of the season. It was an amicable separation after the two realised it was time they went their separate ways.
"It was nice to be part of an Australian team, and everyone is amazing at Orica, but if I want to keep evolving in my own career, I had to go somewhere else. Sunweb had the right opening at the right time for me," Matthew says choosing his worlds carefully. "I think it just comes down to the direction the team is going at the moment. They really want to focus on GC in stage races and Grand Tours. For me to evolve, I have to go somewhere else to get the best out of myself.
"I'll be moving from an international Australian team to an international Dutch-German team. They have riders from all over the world and even have talented young Australian Chris Hamilton in the team for 2017. They also have Australia's Luke Roberts as a sports director, so I'm sure it will feel quite comfortable for me right from the start."
2016: A season of results, disappointment and setbacks
Matthews finished second in the World Championship road race in 2015 and has forged a career as a sprinter who can compete in the Classics and other one-day races. He can also time trial -a skill he displayed by winning the prologue in Paris-Nice, which was his first race of 2016. He won another sprint stage and led the French stage race for five days. However, a nasty crash at Milan-San Remo left him battered, bruised and disappointed. He came back to finish fifth at the Amstel Gold Race and won the stage of the Tour de France to Revel ahead of Peter Sagan but 2016 proved to be a season of suffering.
"Things started off really well with me winning the first time trial and then the stage and taking the green jersey [at Paris-Nice]. But it didn't go according to plan from there," he explains. "I crashed pretty hard in Milan-San Remo and then later in Amstel Gold Race, I didn't go with the attack on he Cauberg as I should have done. It was hard since then. A lot of the goals during the year I just wasn't able to take. Whether it was just due to a crash or a bit of bad luck.
"To get a stage win at the Tour de France was a big highlight because it's been a massive goal of mine for a while. But it took a long time to get it. The season just wasn't as good as I planned and hoped as good as I'd trained so hard for."
Despite the strong of disappointment and setbacks, Matthews managed to keep his head, keep training and raced through to the very end of the season. He accepted the leadership role for the Doha World Championships despite never having raced in the wind and on the desert roads of Qatar.
"I expected more from myself this year but it wasn't out of lack of trying," he argues. "I tried all the time but had a lot of bad luck. Sometimes you create your own luck but that didn't happen this year. But that's the way it goes. I feel I still have more to give. Hopefully I can have more luck in 2017 and out do the results of the 2016 season.
"During the difficult moments I manage to push on because I know that hard work always pays off and I know how to work hard. Knowing how many sacrifices my wife and I have made for my cycling career is a massive motivation to keep pushing through any barriers.
"I feel I just need that one big win to step up a level. I think I'm knocking on that door and hope to get that big win soon. Then the ball will keep rolling after that."
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.