Michael Matthews knew that he had to try something different to win a stage at this year's Tour de France. On the punchy finishes where he used to excel, he has been beaten by two of the best bike riders in the world, in Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) at this year's race.
Essentially, the BikeExchange-Jayco rider needed to get somewhere where one of these two couldn't challenge him — up the road. This is exactly what he did on Saturday's stage 14, infiltrating the day's massive break, which mostly consisted of climbers, not men of Matthews' build. But he kept the faith, even attacked the men he was with with 50km to go.
It all came from a conversation he had with his wife last night, where she told him he needed to gamble, throw something out there, try something different, in order to breakthrough.
"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," Matthews explained in his post-stage press conference. "That was my goal for today to try something different and surprise people. It worked well."
It is five years since the Australian last won a Tour stage, five years during which there has been a lot of change; the 31-year-old has gone from challenging the likes of Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), and Marcel Kittel, who has now retired, to the new generation, the likes of Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel, and Pogačar.
"It’s been difficult," Matthews explained. "The Tour de France is such a special race. Everyone comes here with a certain goal, and unfortunately you don’t get to choose the stages, they’re laid out for you. Nothing has been suited to me very well, and I've always come up second best, third best."
"I think, sometimes you go through more difficult periods, you go through a dry period, and you haven't got a victory for a while, and you sort of start to doubt yourself a little bit, perhaps," his directeur sportif David McPartland. "But everyone knows that Michael is such a class bike rider. He looks for opportunities in different ways. Today, it's just proven that he can adapt to it, and he can win from breakaways."
Matthews pointed out the statistic that he is the rider with the most podium finishes, top five finishes, and top ten finishes, without a win in the Grand Tours since 2019. It has clearly been playing on his mind.
However, on the road to Mende, the Australian proved that he still has it, unlike his old rival Sagan, who has looked a shadow of his former self at this year's race. It just took a different approach, something different. Surprise people, as he said.
"I think the most exciting part there is, is he went on the attack, he wanted to do that, and he made it happen," McPartland said. "He's understood that to win, he can take different ways to do it. And he has made it happen himself.
"He's special, he can do anything on his day, he can sprint, he can climb ride crosswinds, he can do everything."
At this year's Tour, Matthews has very much been going for punchy stages - he finished second behind Pogačar in Longwy on stage six, before finishing second in Lausanne behind Van Aert. However, it was still a shock to see him climbing so well on Saturday.
"I think I’m still the same rider, but sometimes you need to adapt to the role you’ve been given, especially at the Tour de France," he said. "I knew we’d have Dylan [Groenewegen] as our flat sprinter, so I adapted my training to be a better climber. I’m still the same rider, but needed to adapt a little bit to this Tour de France too."
The Australian spoke emotionally about the sacrifices his family have given up to help him get to this point, to support his life at the top of such a tough sport.
"My wife and daughter were going through my mind the whole day," Matthews said. "I just wanted to make them proud of me. They sacrifice so much for me, we don't get to spend enough time together, because we want to make our dreams come true. Hopefully today my wife and daughter were proud of me.
They were going through my mind, especially on that final climb when [Alberto] Bettiol passed me. I knew I couldn’t give up, I wanted to show my daughter this is why I race so much. This is what we sacrifice for. Hopefully she’s proud of me."
The way he returned from being overtaken by EF Education-EasyPost's Bettiol on the final climb was impressive to watch, and spoke to the way he had trained for this kind of thing. Once he had got into a hard-fought break, he knew he had to make it count. First the attack from afar, and then charging up the last climb of the day.
"The final climb was the longest 2km of this Tour de France," Matthews said. "The fans were screaming so loud that I actually couldn’t feel my legs. The emotions, being first in the Tour de France, on a climb, I knew I couldn’t give up.
"I had Matty Hayman on the radio, cheering me on, to say mate, ride as fast as you can from the bottom to the top and you will win, I just had to believe. When Bettiol caught me, I had a little bit left, but not much, I had to pace it, so I had to keep him within reach.
"When I get close to the top of a climb I can go very deep. I knew I needed to attack him straight away. It worked out. I don’t know what to say, it was a magical day."
One of the people to congratulate the always-popular Matthews after the finish line was Pogačar, the man in the white jersey taking time to celebrate his friend. The Australian benefits from that relationship, explaining that today's stage was just like one of their training rides.
"Seeing how he is at this Tour de France, he has been exceptional," he said. "He’s going to fight for that yellow jersey all the way to Paris. Seeing him never give up is inspiring to me to never give up also. He’s an exceptional talent, he's an amazing guy. After the finish line, when he saw me, it felt like his win also. When he won, when he beat me, I felt it was my win.
"Our relationship is that when we’re racing we’re racing, but everything else is pure friendship. We don’t feel like we’re training, we don't feel like we're working, we just feel like we’re two kids going out and racing with each other. Today felt like that, but obviously he was in the bunch so thank god."
Matthews knew that to win, he had to be clear of Van Aert and Pogačar, and that's exactly what he did. The conversion to a breakaway artist suits him well.
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