BIGGER AND BETTER things are being tipped for Michael Matthews, the Australian star of the Tour de France. From Paris, JOHN TREVORROW reports:
THERE AREN’T many better judges of a cyclist’s potential — especially a sprinter – than retired champion Stuart O’Grady, and in his expert opinion Michael Matthews could become Australia’s best-ever road racer. And that’s knowing he is unlikely ever to actually win the Tour de France, or even try to.
“Michael Matthews is just getting better as he matures,” O’Grady said. “I think he has the talent to become Australia’s best cyclist over the next few years and there are no limits to just where he will go. I can’t see a classic he can’t win. The world title is just a matter of time. OK, he is not going to win the Tour de France but he is going to win a hell of a lot of bike races.”
Matthews finished 11th behind Dutchman Dylan Groenewegen in the final stage of the Tour in Paris to ensure he kept the prestigious green jersey for best sprinter, a prize that narrowly eluded O’Grady, who finished second to the great Erik Zabel three times – once while actually wearing the jersey into Paris only to have it ripped off his back literally at the last minute.
The great sprinters are not normally in contention for the general classification and it is generally assumed that for all his versatility, Matthews will never be either. But not everybody is convinced of that. Another good judge, Matt White, the head coach of the Australian outfit Orica-Scott, said Matthews could morph into an overall challenger. “He has the ability to be world champion,” White told Fairfax Media’s Rupert Guinness. “If they (Sunweb) have the right team around him supporting him, his characteristics do suit a lot of world championship courses. Long-term and depending on how he chooses to develop, he could genuinely ride for general classification.”
He would have to improve a lot in the big mountains, but another who believes there is much yet to come is highly-respected coach Dave Sanders, who says Matthews is the greates natural talent he has ever seen. That’s saying a lot because Sanders, in his previous life as Victorian Institute of Sport head coach, had a lot to do with Cadel Evans, the only Australian to win Le Tour.
Matthews had his share of luck during an eventful race with world champion Peter Sagan being banished in the first week and other high-profile rivals in Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel crashing out, but nobody disputed his right to wear the green garment with pride and satisfaction. It was a brave and classy performance and while we will never know what Sagan might have done, there is every reason to believe that he would have run down Kittel, who had won five stages and was leading the category when he came to grief.
Matthews certainly lapped up the biggest moment of his career, walking onto the podium with the Australian flag wrapped around his shoulders and staying there so long that officials eventually had to order him to climb down. “I was trying to soak it up as much as I could,” he said before heading off to party. “Hopefully we can really enjoy it and we can even get better from it. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point and cycling in Australia has helped me also to get to this point.”
It was a fascinating Tour with Kenyan-born Briton Chris Froome cementing an illustrious place in the history of the sport by winning for the fourth time after spending 15 of the 21 days in the famed yellow jersey that denotes race leadership. He looked vulnerable in the middle week but got stronger as the Tour progressed and, as expected, rebuffed all challenges in the time trial on the second last day. He said there was “something magical” about riding up the Champs Elysees after thinking about it for three weeks. “Each time I’ve won the Tour it has been so unique. So different and such a different battle. This year, I think, will be remembered for being the closest and most hard-fought battle between the GC rivals.”
With pre-race equal favourite Richie Porte exiting after a horror crash in stage nine, Australian fans were also hoping for something special from Orica-Scott. For the first time, the team set out with the GC as a target, with Englishman Simon Yates and young Colombian Esteban Chavez the nominated hopes. Chavez started his first TdeF with a compromised preparation because of an earlier injury and was never a threat, but Yates performed strongly to finish seventh overall, six minutes behind Froome, and win the white jersey for best young rider – just as his twin brother Adam had done the previous year..
Team owner Gerry Ryan was happy with that result as he works to firm up the team’s future and search for a major sponsor to replace Orica. So was White, who said: “Our Tour de France campaign has definitely been a success. “It’s Simon’s first time targeting the general classification. We knew if we won the white jersey that it would put us in the top 10. The development Simon has shown these last few weeks has been a big step up. We Are proud of how all the boys have ridden. We had a very specific focus and we weren’t shy in stating our goals.
“It has been a gradual process for our team to kearn how to ride for the GC in the past 18 months. We know our leaders can podium and they are only going to get better. Now we also know that no matter who is at what race, we have different combinations to support them.”