When you consider Michael Matthews’ prestigious palmarès a stage win at the BinckBank Tour is uninspiring, but it was everything to the Australian in a plagued season.
That success along with second place on the general classification preceded victory at GP de Quebec and GP de Montreal, which quashed lurking demons and allowed Matthews to relax into the off-season and focus far forward.
“It was more than a win. It felt like so much weight off my shoulders. I’d been working so hard, committing everything, our whole lives to get something out of this season,” Matthews says from his family home in Monaco.
“You create your own opportunities but for everything to go fairly smooth it was quite emotional when I was crossing those finish lines in first on those three races, especially BinckBank. I had the confidence after that.”
They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and Matthews was the personification of that this year.
“It’s strange that it’s actually done, it felt like it was three seasons in one. It was definitely a rollercoaster,” he says.
The 29-year-old entered the 2018 season on the back of an ultimate high, having won two stages and career first green jersey at the Tour de France last year with Team Sunweb.
Momentum carried into pre-season and Matthews was confident of a breakthrough win at the classics where he instead raced on unrelenting determination over form.
He fractured his left shoulder on season debut, crashing out of February’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad from when a chorus of modest hits and marquee misses played on repeat.
“From then on it was damage control, try and get out of it what I could. I look back now and think I should have taken some time off and try and come back with a better shoulder because it’s not really possible to be a sprinter when you can only use one shoulder,” he says. “I am still suffering from it now, I still can’t move it properly. I will do a lot of physio in the off-season to try and get it back to normal. It hurts even more that it’s still not good.”
Matthews’ gumption showed with a fifth place at Fleche Wallonne and then a prologue stage win and stint in the leader’s jersey at the Tour de Romandie, which he later abandoned due to illness.
The versatile sprinter powered through the Tour de Suisse to start the Tour de France with an aim to vie for stage victories and support overall contender and eventual runner-up Tom Dumoulin. Matthews appeared healthy and relaxed in the opening days before overnight food poisoning. He travelled in a team car to the start of stage five, which he was a favourite to win, deliberating over condition. But with nothing in his stomach and a fever, Matthews had to call it quits.
“At this point my head was not in a good space. It was quite difficult to deal with something like this. I’d never really had this situation happen to me before, especially all in one season. It was really hard to get my head back in the game again and learn to fight again because I thought the season was just done,” he says.
“But then Richie Porte was also out of the Tour de France with another crash, so we used each other to get really motivated for the second part of the season. We were out training at 5 o’clock every morning, smashing ourselves for about two or three weeks there.”
Matthews, as an increasing number of Australian and international pro cyclists are doing, was consulting with a sports psychologist in addition to the outings with training partner and compatriot Porte (BMC Racing).
“At the start of the season I was trying to use my bad luck as motivation I guess. Eventually that sort of wore out a little bit as nothing was really going according to what I had planned at the start of the year,” he says.
“Towards the middle of the year I started talking to a sports psychologist about how to get my head in the right place. I’ve never really done it before, I’ve never really had that much bad luck in one year. I think it was super helpful just talking to someone totally out of my circle that has no real influence on the team, on my performance, on anything.
“It was nice just to hear from the outside and try and do some exercises on relaxation and stuff. He [sports psychologist] was trying to make sure I could relax at the right times and go into races with a cool head instead of racing on emotions all the time.
“That side has worked out especially after the Tour, we’re already talking before the Tour which went the way it went. After the Tour was where we really worked together a lot and he got me back in the right head space to continue fighting. I think it was also a big help.”
Returned to the winner’s circle, and on stable footing in the ring, Matthews is in the process of formulating a blue print for the 2019 season likely to include a favourable World Championships in Yorkshire, England. When you consider what he was able to turnaround this year, anything now seems possible.
“We’ve already been talking a lot about it [World Championships], and the Olympics also. It’s not just about this year, it’s also looking forward to the future. It’s a big goal of mine for the next two years, those two races. I think I’ll have a lot of support to do my best in those two races,” he says.