If Svein Tuft, the first overall leader at this year’s Giro d’Italia, was relatively unknown to casual cycling fans, then his Orica-GreenEDGE teammate Michael Matthews is, if anything, even less well-known. But whereas Tuft is nearing the end of his career, the Australian is still in the formative years of his. And yet he has already made a significant impact in his two grand tour participations to date.
The story so far
He won’t turn 24 until after this year’s Vuelta a Espana, but Matthews has already built an impressive palmares. He started competing on the UCI Oceania Tour aged 18 and was third in his national championship time trial three years running between 2009 and 2011 – no small achievement given that Australia is to time-trialists what Spain is to 60kg climbers.
His strength in road racing soon emerged. On home soil at the 2010 Road World Championships, he won the under-23 road race against a field of considerable quality, beating John Degenkolb into second place, with Taylor Phinney tied for third.
From there, he spent two seasons with Rabobank, marking his debut for the Dutch team with fourth overall and a stage win at the 2011 Tour Down Under, and a stage and the sprints jersey at the 2012 Tour of Utah.
He joined Orica-GreenEDGE at the start of last year, returning to Utah where he showed terrific form in winning two stages and finishing as top sprinter again.
That led him to his grand tour debut at the Vuelta, where he notched up two wins and a third place in a gruelling race in which he was the only sprinter to win multiple stages.
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This season he has underlined his potential in undulating classics-style races, winning a stage in the Basque country, finishing as runner-up (behind Philippe Gilbert) at Brabantse Pijl and recording a respectable 12th place at Amstel Gold.
As a sprinter, Matthews is more of a Degenkolb or a Gerrans than a Kittel or Cavendish. He’s fast and can win flat finishes on his own merit, but he can also get over medium climbs well and is at his best on long, uphill sprint finishes where his sustained power trumps the top-end acceleration of the fastest sprinters.
As far as this Giro is concerned, Matthews will hope to retain the maglia rosa until at least midway through next week. He has a good time cushion over the other recognised top sprinters which can absorb any bonus seconds he loses out on. Only Alessandro Petacchi is within 20 seconds, and the veteran Italian has stated his focus is working for Omega Pharma-Quick Step GC leader Rigoberto Uran. Marcel Kittel is 46 seconds adrift.
Barring misfortune, he should have little problem negotiating today’s flat stage to Dublin, ensuring he will carry the pink jersey into Italy. Stage four is pan-flat, and if his climbing legs are good he will feel confident about holding on over the two cat 4 climbs near the end of stage five.
If he’s still in pink, he will probably relinquish the jersey at the summit of the concluding cat 2 climb to Montecassino the following day – although there’s every chance that he could pass it on to another Orica teammate such as Pieter Weening.
Beyond the Giro, he is already showing signs of developing into a classics contender. With his climbing ability, he may end up better suited to the Ardennes than Milan-San Remo or the cobbled classics, although he has the potential to do well at either.
He won’t beat Kittel, Cav and Greipel often in a straight-up sprint, but he’s good enough to win against the next tier of fast men, particularly where the road tips slightly uphill. And with a double monument-winning teammate in Simon Gerrans alongside him, he has the opportunity to succeed his countryman as the next great Australian classics rider.
Be absolutely sure: this isn’t the last we’ll hear of Michael Matthews.