This Tour de France is upending almost everything we thought we knew about cycling. Farmers’ sons from West Flanders are winning time trials. Climbers are dropping classics specialists on cobbles. Sprinters are winning sprints, hilly stages and even in the middle mountains. Olympic mountain bike champions are winning at L’Alpe d’Huez. Tadej Pogačar is attacking on the first climb of the Mende stage, with 180km to go. Anyone can win, anywhere. It’s gone absolutely bananas.
So why wouldn’t Michael Matthews win stage 14, which finished at the top of the steep climb to the aerodrome above the Massif Central town of Mende? By reputation and physiological predisposition Matthews is a sprinter for the kind of stages that finish with groups of 40 or 50. However, he got into the break of the day (no straightforward matter), attacked solo from the break with 53km to go and was later joined by Luis Léon Sánchez, Felix Großschartner and, temporarily, Andreas Kron. He dropped Sánchez and Großschartner, both Grand Tour top-10 finishers, on the final climb. He was then caught and passed by Alberto Bettiol.
There’s a Samuel Beckett quote which has been doing the rounds in Silicon Valley, LinkedIn, Brainyquotes and self-help books for years: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” What the wellness gurus don’t usually say is that Beckett’s conclusion is pessimistic: “Sick of the either. So on. Somehow on."
Matthews had tried, failed, tried again, failed again and failed better as he was outsprinted in Longwy by Pogačar and by Wout van Aert in Lausanne. Imagine coming second on two different days to two of the biggest freaks ever to race the Tour. But somehow on; somehow Matthews slowly, painfully pulled Bettiol back; somehow he dropped the Italian; somehow Michael Matthews won alone in Mende.
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Michael Matthews has about the least appropriate and most annoying nickname in cycling, ‘Bling’, which makes me roll my eyes. He’s always quite liked it, because he does have quite expensive taste in watches, jewellery and cars. But his personality is not at all nickname-correct. He’s a quiet individual, extremely polite, who comes across if not as naive then kind of innocent, and an Australian cycling insider told me years ago that he was “26 going on 15”. On the other hand, he’s spent a career getting involved in tough tussles against unusually talented cyclists - in the first part of his career, Peter Sagan; now Van Aert and Pogačar. When I interviewed him for Procycling in late 2016, the impression I got was of a boy in a man’s body.
Yet on Mende, he surely dug deeper than any other rider on the climb, surely fought harder, surely endured more exquisite agony. Watching him climb, I had a physical reaction to watching his effort. He was making a back-breaking effort, and I twisted involuntarily in my seat in the press room as I watched because it looked so painful and also so futile. But what he did went against what I’ve learned from years and years of watching cycling - my experience tells me that when a rider gets caught from behind on a final climb like that, after having been away for a long time, there is normally no way back. He’d spent more watts than Bettiol, who’d had two other team-mates in the break while Matthews had none and would therefore have been fresher. Bettiol finished ahead of Matthews on La Planche des Belles Filles, in Châtel, in Megève and on the Col du Granon, and is 40 minutes ahead of him on GC, which suggests he has been climbing better over the course of the Tour. And Bettiol started the climb around 30 seconds behind - if he’d ridden the first half of the climb 30 seconds faster than Matthews, and both riders were on their limit, the trend favoured the Italian. Fresher, faster climbers beat more fatigued, slower climbers, every time.
Matthews said in his post-stage press conference that one of his physiological weapons was able to dig particularly deep at the end of climbs. Bettiol caught him with 1.4km of the climb to go, then attacked him 200m later. Matthews responded and hung on grimly, just two or three bike lengths back, for another 250m. Bettiol went again and drew further clear, and the gap held again at 10 bike lengths. But then Matthews pulled back the Italian with less than 500m to go and immediately attacked. In that 500m he punched each pedal about 80 times, and changed up gears twice, as the gradient eased. The pain must have been unimaginable. But maybe the pain of getting narrowly beaten twice already this Tour also wasn’t insignificant.
There’s one more thing about Michael Matthews. When he talks about his cycling career, except the actual racing itself, he very often uses the word ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. His wife Katarina is the Slovak daughter of one of Peter Sagan’s early mountain bike team sponsors, and she gave up a job at Shimano to help run Matthews’ life and career. It’s caused friction at times in the past between Matthews and his employers; at the same time, it’s now 2022, the Australian’s 12th year as a professional, and Team Matthews is still running things in a way that brings him success.
Michael Matthews did not give up on the climb above Mende, which was how he won the stage. But he also did not give up when he was outsprinted by Tadej Pogačar in Longwy. He tried again - better - in Lausanne, when he was just rolled in the last 50m by Wout van Aert and did not give up then. This time, sick of failing, somehow he won.