Michael “Bling” Matthews is one of the good guys. He works so hard, feels losses deeply, but never gives up, and when he wins, he wins big.
The Australian’s solo victory on stage 14 of the Tour de France on Saturday was not just a testament to his resilience but also well deserved.
The peloton withstood extreme heat on the 192.6km run from Saint-Étienne, through the Massif Central to Mende. It’s not the big mountains that break riders at the Tour, rather such highland regions that can bring a man to his knees, because there is not let up.
All day, Matthews (BikeExchange-Jayco) was on it. From the gun he raced out of the saddle, darting from the bunch across to a front group of riders with purpose but also grace.
He never relented.
Matthews’ name thereafter was constantly mentioned on race radio, updating his position, always at the front of affairs.
The contest for the stage win came down to him and Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost).
In the final three kilometres Bettiol got a gap on the 31-year-old and threatened for a moment to relegate him to another minor place.
“Story of my life,” Matthews said.
Every champion has fierce rivals, but Matthews’ opponents have been once-in-a-lifetime type talents – Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), and, at this Tour, defending title champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma).
“It’s been a rollercoaster of a career for me because when I came into cycling, when I came into pros, I was battling with Sagan, and now I’m battling with these two super freaks,” he said.
In the first week of the Tour the 2017 green jersey champion went toe-to-toe with the “super freaks”, finishing second to Pogačar on stage six and second to van Aert on stage eight.
Neither are his traditional rivals. Matthews has always typically been a versatile sprinter. He won the under-23 UCI Road World Championships in Geelong, Australia after conquering a steep, uphill drag to the finish line. He targets the Ardennes Classics every season, was fourth at Milan-San Remo this year and has nine individual Grand Tour stage victories to his name.
Matthews befriended Pogacar when the defending Tour champion first moved to Monaco and they regularly train together.
“Training with him feels like I’m back in Australia, 17, 18 years old, fresh to cycling and just enjoying every moment,” Matthews said. “We don’t consider it as work when we’re together, we’re just enjoying every moment that we get to spend on the bike, we feel privileged that we get paid to ride our bikes for a living and we appreciate that moment, for every second that we get the opportunity.”
However, there is a distinct point where their respective physiology diverges. Matthews isn’t going to win atop Alpe d’Huez, but that he is keeping his friend come rival humble on smaller climbs at the Tour is noteworthy.
(Image: James Startt)
BikeExchange-Jayco sports director Matt White compares Matthews’ development to that the “God of Thunder”, Thor Hushovd, who ironically won the elite men’s road race at the 2010 Worlds.
“Bling has developed a lot over the years. He’s changed as an athlete. Most of those guys do. Thor Hushovd for example, he was very, very fast when he was young and at the end of his career just got stronger and climbed better and was more versatile,” White says.
“It’s very, very hard for sprinters to hold that pure speed for a long period of time. And Michael has never been a pure sprinter anyway, uphill sprints and reduced group sprints have been his go-to.
“For him to be up there boxing on with some of the world’s best climbers, plus one of the most versatile athletes in our sport, Wout van Aert, it is encouraging sign, and we knew coming in here he was in good shape.”
Matthews entered the Tour as a co-leader alongside pure sprinter Dylan Groenewegen this year, and the shared leadership allowed him to focus on terrain he is more naturally adept to, as opposed to trying to cover all opportunistic bases for the Australian-registered team.
He lost a bit of his top-end speed in sprints as a result of his tweaked training, but, clearly, strengthened his climbing skills.
“Different rider maybe not, I’m still the same rider,” Matthews said post-race on Saturday.
“But you need to sometimes adapt to the role that you’ve been given, especially at the Tour de France.”
Matthews respects how grounded Pogačar is, and it is a quality White has observed in him since he returned to the team last season.
“He’s had a child; he’s got a family. He has matured over the last couple of years, or since the period between when he was on the team before, and he’s come back. People develop and they mature at different speeds and ages, and we did definitely notice that when he came back,” White said.
(Image: Getty Images)
Asked what was going through his mind when Bettiol got a gap on him on Montee Jalabert, Matthews recalled a phone conversation he had with his wife, Kat, on Friday night and Saturday morning.
“I’ve been consistent, which is good, but you need to win. I think for today, after the chat I had with my wife, she just said to me if you want to win, you’ve got to gamble, you’ve got to throw it all out there, try something different, something they won’t expect from you.
“It worked well.
“My wife and daughter. They were going through my mind the whole day. I just wanted to make them proud of me.”Cover Images by Getty Images