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Michael Matthews eyes tilt at pink jersey on opening weekend of Giro d’Italia

PLOUAY FRANCE AUGUST 25 Arrival Michael Matthews of Australia and Team Sunweb Celebration during the 84th Bretagne Classic OuestFrance 2020 a 2478km race from Plouay to Plouay GrandPrixPlouay GPPlouay on August 25 2020 in Plouay France Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images
Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

It’s not quite the last dance of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, but the Giro d’Italia brings the curtain down on an era at Team Sunweb, with Michael Matthews, Wilco Kelderman and Sam Oomen all lining out in their final race for the team before they depart for pastures new in 2021.

Matthews’ omission from Team Sunweb’s Tour de France squad precipitated his departure from the team a year ahead of the expiration of his contract but he has shown no signs of simply running down the clock ahead of his return to Mitchelton-Scott next season.

The Australian took the sprint for third at Milan-San Remo in his first race following the lockdown, won the Bretagne Classic in late August and placed seventh on an exacting course at last weekend’s World Championships in Imola. 

Speaking on Friday morning, 24 hours before the Giro begins with a time trial in Palermo, Matthews insisted that Team Sunweb’s trio of departing riders will not want for motivation during the next three weeks.

“Not at all,” Matthews said. “I think we’ve all made a decision to leave, but until the end of December, we are with Team Sunweb and I think the guys we have at the Giro are fully committed to the end of the year.

“I think it’s given us more of a boost: to really finish on a high with the team, to finish with some great memories of a fair few years in this team. We all want to show we’re fully committed and capable of winning here on the Giro.”

Kelderman, who joins Bora-Hansgrohe next year, sets out from Palermo with podium aspirations, while the Jumbo-Visma-bound Oomen admitted that he is still finding his way back to his best after undergoing iliac artery surgery last year. 

Like Matthews, the Dutch pair missed the Tour de France and prepared for the Giro at Tirreno-Adriatico last month.

“We know each other really well and that’s going to make a difference in this Giro,” Matthews said. 

“We’re really like a unit, I think no one’s even thinking we are leaving the team next year. We’re just fully committed to the end of the year and then, obviously, the three of us will go off to different teams.”

Agrigento calling

Matthews is part of a deep field of sprinters at this year’s Giro that includes Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Elia Viviani (Cofidis), Arnaud Demare (Groupama-FDJ) and Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates).

The Australian also has the rare ability to thrive on rolling stages and uphill finishes that are beyond the reach of most fast men, as his track record at the corsa rosa demonstrates. 

On his debut in 2014, for instance, he landed the uphill finish at Montecassino with the pink jersey on his back.

His display in Imola last weekend suggested that Matthews’ aptitude for climbing has not been dampened despite his limited diet of racing miles since the season resumed in August. He was one of just two riders to place in the top 10 of the Worlds without having ridden the Tour de France immediately beforehand.

“I think my climbing legs are going really well,” Matthews said. 

“I probably exceeded my own expectations at the Worlds to be up there with the top 10 riders in the world on a course that didn’t really suit me too well. That gave me a lot of confidence coming into this Giro.”

Sunday’s uphill finish in Agrigento should present Matthews with an early opportunity to shine on the Giro. 

The stage ends with a four-kilometre climb at an average of 5%, a finale tough enough to burn off the pure sprinters but not quite steep enough to reward attackers. 

“It’s for a finisseur or a Classics man,” race director Mauro Vegni told BiciSport

Matthews will be in the mix for stage honours and perhaps the maglia rosa, depending on how he fares in Saturday’s opening time trial from Monreale to Palermo.

“It’s something that’s going through my head a lot in the week leading up to the Giro, whether it’s really important to go full gas in the TT to maybe try to take the jersey on day two,” Matthews revealed.

“I think it would be quite good not to lose too much time on the winner and then see what happens in the next few days. I’ll have another chat tonight with the team and we’ll see what we’re going to do. Fingers crossed, I can have a good time trial if I push hard for it, then on stage 2 it might be possible to take the jersey so we have to see what we come out with after tomorrow.”