Thus far, the 2017 Tour de France hasn't unfolded the way Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) expected. The Australian sprinter came as close as second place in the first six stages, but the 26-year-old came to the race with ambitions of standing on the podium's top step at least once.
Cyclingnews spoke with Matthews after stages 5 and 6 to learn how he was going in his third Grande Boucle.
"The stage win is always the priority," he said. "We came here with the idea of multiple stage wins. I have the legs to do it. I just need to be in the right position."
This year is Matthews' first Tour in the colours of Team Sunweb, which he joined for the 2017 season, and it's clear that the lead-out train isn't quite on the rails just yet.
"The legs are really good. The head is really good," Matthews said while sitting on a bench in the shade after an extremely hot sixth stage. "We just need to be in a better position in the big sprints, because I'm not really a guy that's gonna go crazy in the last few Ks and risk my life for being a top five or a top three. We really need to work on nailing that lead-out. That's how I'll get the best result in the sprint."
After stage 3, with the uphill finish in Longwy, Matthews hinted that with a good lead out he might have scored a win. At the bottom of the climb he was back quite a distance from the head of the peloton. His teammate Simon Geschke was unable to close the gap himself, forcing Matthews to close it and then sprint.
Despite reaching a higher speed than eventual winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Matthews fell just short of the win. The fourth stage didn't work out well. Matthews was fifth among the sprinters at the intermediate sprint and seventh at the crash-marred finale in Vittel.
Early during stage 5, while contesting the only intermediate sprint of the day, Matthews was given a great lead-out and won the bunch sprint behind the breakaway group of eight riders, scoring seven points. Some might claim that not all the sprinters are racing flat out at the intermediate sprints, but Matthews disagrees.
"I think every sprint is at 100 per cent," he said. "I don't think anyone is soft-pedalling into an intermediate sprint. With the amount of points that you can get at intermediate sprints, everyone is going for it. I think we showed that we really have a strong lead-out. The last two flat sprints we've done, we got a little bit lost. We had a big chat about it last night [Tuesday] and we showed today [Wednesday] that we do have it. If we do nail that lead-out, I have the speed to win those sprints."
Chasing a green dream
Speaking with Cyclingnews after stage 5, the first mountain-top finish in this year's race, Matthews reflected on the previous stages, especially the news that Sagan had been disqualified and would not add a seventh consecutive green jersey to his collection. Matthews admitted he never believed Sagan was the hands-down favourite.
"To be honest, the green jersey [competition] was always wide open. I don't think there really was one guy. I think a lot of guys have showed that they're really going for it. I think it's still the same at the moment."
The main goal for each sprinter is winning a stage, obviously, but capturing the green jersey as winner of the points competition is a secondary goal. For Matthews, wearing that green jersey in Paris would be massive.
"It would really be a dream come true," he said. "Every sprinter's dream is to win that jersey. I'll turn myself inside out a thousand times to try and get that in Paris. I definitely have the legs. Now we have the team to support me too, so hopefully we can get it all together and nail some of those sprints."
To get the green jersey, Matthews needs to win a stage, but the Australian rider might lack the speed to win a flat stage with 50 points at stake for the winner. It's a big ask against powerhouses like Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) and André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal). Then again, Matthews might score where other sprinters are long gone, namely in the intermediate stages with only 30 points for the winner.
"Unfortunately, there's not so many," he said. "There's three stages that suit me really well. On the other stages, we need to try and position ourselves as good as possible, and clearly target the ones that suit me.”
During stage 6 from Vesoul to Troyes, Matthews again tried to score points for the green jersey. At the intermediate sprint, things were going well. He finished second to Arnaud Démare in the bunch kick behind a three-rider breakaway and collected 11 points for fifth.
"I was happy with that," he said. "I was in a good position to start my sprint and I had good speed. I had good confidence after that for the final sprint, but like every other time, in the start I was too far back."
During the final kilometre of the sprint in Troyes, Matthews was on the wheel of eventual winner Kittel, both seemingly in a lost position for the victory. That was until the German powerhouse unleashed his devils. Kittel won, Matthews was seventh.
"I think in sprints like this, you really just got to take a lot of risks," he said. "We're doing everything we can to suit my kind of sprinting. A fair few times it worked out so far, but I think we need to keep working on it. We need to try and perfect it each day to be up there consistently.
"The competition is obviously really high. There's so many sprints and there's so many big sprinters here. There's a lot of opportunities for the green jersey. Like I said before, there's not so many intermediate stages like in other years in the Tour de France. It makes it a little harder for a rider like me, I guess."
When asked who he felt was the top favourite for the green jersey, Matthews didn't come up with a name.
"There's not just one," he said. "With so many flat sprints, there's so many big sprinters here, so they can collect so many points on the flat stages. I don't think there's really one stand-out rider."
Matthews lost 20 points on Arnaud Démare in stage 6. He's third in the points classification with 96 points, trailing leader Démare by 74 points and runner-up Kittel by 47.