An uninterrupted pre-season, a win already in the bag and confidence sky-high, has Australian Matt Goss fearing nobody ahead of his first big objective of the year, Milan-San Remo.
It's going to be tough. I hope it comes down to a sprint where we can just go head to head against each other, the best man wins.
"There were a couple of close calls at Tour Down Under, a couple of second places, and then second again in Oman," Matt Goss tells Cycling Central after a coffee ride in Monaco. "But to go into my first European road race and to come away with a win. It's great for the confidence, for the team and for myself ahead of my first big objective of the year, Milan-San Remo."
It's a marked turnaround from 12 months ago, when Goss was struggling to be regularly competitive in his first season with Orica-GreenEDGE. A shadow of his 2011 self, the Australian lacked form from January, battling through the Santos Tour Down Under, before riding a fairly anonymous spring.
Though he did break through once, at the Giro d'Italia in May, the frustration of seeing a dozen podium finishes failing to translate into wins was a sign that things weren't clicking last year for the 26 year old.
Goss was, as he describes, “chasing his tail”, never quite able to get the requisite form to crack a string of results together that could've made the 2012 season so different. Teething problems in a newly-formed team, illness, and a different pre-season build up all compounded things, but Goss makes no excuses for what was an underwhelming year.
But the 2011 Milan-San Remo champion looks to be back on track this season. He trained through the European winter from Monaco before arriving back in Australia shortly before the Mars Cycling Australia Road National Championships, where he carved a noticeably leaner figure than he had in 2012.
He was second three times in Adelaide, the most impressive performance coming with a powerful kick on the day to Sterling where he finished ahead of world champion Philippe Gilbert, and narrowly behind stage and eventual overall winner Tom-Jelte Slagter. A “rebuilt” Goss says he's a completely different rider to last year.
"The preparation has been really good. I've had no injuries, I haven't been sick at all. So the whole build-up, the whole pre-season has been really solid. In terms of fitness. I think I'm at a pretty similar level to what I was in 2011, almost the same."
Confirming his form was Goss's recent Tirreno-Adriatico triumph. It was important for morale but also proved a point that he can win against the best sprinters on his day. Mark Cavendish, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan were all present in the bunch dash at Indicatore, and Goss bettered them on a rainy 232km stage, with parcours and conditions not radically different from Monday's (AEDT) La Primavera.
Overcoming Peter Sagan
Of course, the day after, Sagan put him and the rest of the Milan-San Remo contenders to the sword, and on Stage 6 of the Tirreno-Adriatico, ending in Porto Sant'Elpidio, the Slovak made himself an almost unbackable favourite. Sagan's only hiccup in 2013 so far has been a mild illness, which forced him out of the Tour of Oman midway through. But it's a minor blip on an otherwise impeccable season.
"He's a phenomenal bike rider," says Goss of the wunderkind.
"Everyone knows that, and he's going to win some very big bike races over the next few years. He's been up there a couple of times at San Remo already and at the moment he just seems to be in super-form.”
The problem for Goss is that as versatile as the Australian is, Sagan matches him. They're the same kind of rider, and that'll make it hard to manufacture a favourable race scenario for Goss to take an advantage of Sagan before the San Remo finish.
"But it's definitely possible to beat him," Goss says adamantly. "The most dangerous thing is coming to the finish with him in a small group, if we can avoid that situation, I know I can and have beaten him before.
"If I didn't think I could win, there wouldn't be much point in me going into the race I don't think.
"It's going to be tough. I hope it comes down to a sprint where we can just go head to head against each other, the best man wins."
One area Goss does have renewed faith in this year is his team. Defending champion Simon Gerrans and Michael Albasini give Orica-GreenEDGE options to throw up the road should it need to, while Daryl Impey, someone Goss can't speak of highly enough, will be beside the Tasmanian from race start to hopefully the final 500 metres. If Goss does need an edge to beat Sagan, the roster may be it.
"It's going to be one of those things where hopefully I'll have team-mates like Impey at the finish and that'll give us the upper-hand on numbers," he says.
"For me it's important that if I have someone that's there to help me in the sprints they're there at the finish all the time. Impey is like that. He's super reliable and we work together really well.
"That might be the thing that counts against Sagan. You can be the fittest person in the bike race but you still have to have things go your way, have a good team around you. I'm lucky enough that I do have a good team here, and I think we can win in any situation the race throws at us."
Milan San-Remo will be broadcast live on SBS ONE and streaming online, Monday 18 March, from 12.35am AEDT.