Moving to a new team with different targets has opened up a whole host of possibilities for Michael Matthews. The 26-year-old Team Sunweb rider changed up his spring programme with a trip to the cobbled Classics and a ride at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, where he finished fourth despite riding for Warren Barguil throughout the race.
The Belgian monument was not a race on Matthews' radar – he finished 128th in his last effort in 2013 – so to come out of it so close to the podium has given the Australian pause for thought heading into the Tour de France.
"It makes me a more versatile rider," Matthews told the press in a pre-race press conference on Wednesday. "When you've got flat stages, and you can also go for the intermediate stages, for sure it gives you more chances to go for wins. It gives me more confidence too that I can get through the intermediate stages with the climbers and still have a chance in the final. It opens up more opportunities for sure.”
With so many flat or hilly, rather than mountainous, days in this year's Tour de France, there are abundant opportunities for riders with a fast finish that can also make it up the shorter climbs. During the week, US publication Velonews proposed that world champion Peter Sagan has 11 chances at victory. When that number was put to Matthews, he thought perhaps there were even more chances to add to his palmares in the coming three weeks.
"I would have to say about the same as Sagan," said Matthews. "We're pretty similar riders but maybe he sprints on the flat a bit better, and I climb a bit better. I think maybe about the same, 11 stages and maybe even more. I haven't really calculated how many stages I could get. We'll get through the first week and then we'll see how everything is going."
Sagan will be Matthews' chief rival, with the two having such similar skill sets. Their ability to both climb and sprint could see them going head to head in the competition for the green jersey. Sagan has dominated the classification in recent years and is going for a record-equalling sixth after winning it in each of the past five editions. Matthews is likely to be one of the few riders who can even consider taking the fight to Sagan in that competition, but he says that it will not be at the forefront of his mind in the opening days.
"I think that you have to see where you are after chasing stages for the first week and how it's all been going," he said. "With Sagan being so dominant over these past few years it's hard to be too focused on that. We're just going to focus on stages and see where we are over the first week."
Matthews has not had the best relationship with the Tour de France. He missed out on his debut after crashing during a training ride in the days before the 2014 race. The following season brought another crash, this time during the race, and he had to battle through with broken ribs. He would finish the race and take a couple of top 10 places, but it wasn't what he had come to the race for.
Last season brought a breakthrough for the Australian when he won a dramatic stage 10 to Revel, beating Sagan in the process. Knowing what victory at the Tour de France tastes like has given him increased motivation in 2017.
"I guess the pressure is still the same but having the feeling that you've won a stage of the Tour de France is really motivating," explained Matthews. "If I'd come back here without winning a stage last year then there would have been a lot of pressure, but now I know what it is like to win one and I know how it is possible to win one and I think that is more motivating now. It's definitely easier to come back."
This year's race will be the first for Matthews with his new team, after riding for Orica-Scott for the past four years. For the first time, he will have a focused effort behind his bid for stage wins with a proper lead-out train to guide him to the finish line. He and Nikias Arndt have developed a strong working relationship, which was evident in Matthews' stage win at the Tour de Suisse earlier this month. It will be a different experience for Matthews having pretty much a whole team behind him.
"In other teams, I sprinted a lot more by myself where I didn't have a clear train that wasn't going to help me in the sprint, so I just went into it and followed wheels and saw what came out of it," said Matthews. "In this day and age, you need a lead out train to get to the finish in the best shape possible and to be able to do the sprint properly because they're crazy sprints now. I think that's what we practiced in Swiss, and hopefully we can really nail it here at the Tour."
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