Matthews (Sunweb) commenced his Ardennes campaign at Amstel Gold Race on Sunday placing 54 seconds behind winner Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) for 16th with Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege still to come.
The 28-year-old has been clawing his way back from the traumatic setback at Paris-Nice with trademark determination and newfound composure resulted from injury hindrances that derailed his 2018 spring.
Matthews finished sixth on senior debut at the Tour of Flanders earlier this month, evidence he may be more than an ‘Ardennes guy’ when it comes to the classics moving forward.
The puncheur believes he has competed without apprehension since the crash at Paris-Nice because he suffered a concussion and can’t recall the impact that left a team mechanic who witnessed it fearing the worst.
The Australian had sidled alongside his team car so the mechanic could fix a loose bolt on his bike in Stage 1 when crosswinds threw them off balance and Matthews’ tyre got wedged between the wheel and wheel hub of the team car.
“I just front-flipped over my handlebars at 40-45km/h and landed on my face, unfortunately. I remember the crash, I remember how it happened but me hitting the ground I don’t remember and getting into the ambulance I don’t remember,” he recalled in a phone interview with Cycling Central.
“There are two fractures in my orbital, which is the bone around my eye, one on the side and one just next to my nose. I had seven stitches in my eyebrow. I had four stitches in my eyelid. I had a broken front tooth and I had seven stitches in my lip. I had skin off other parts of my body, but the face took definitely the biggest hit.
“I think if I remembered the whole thing maybe it would be a different story, I would have some fear of racing my bike but for the moment I can’t remember that few minutes of what actually happened. In my head, I just woke up with some fractures and a lot of skin off. In the end, the biggest fear about crashing is the actual crash and I don’t remember that.”
Matthews consulted with about 10 medical professionals including a team doctor, surgeons and specialists to devise a quick but safe recovery, adamant that he would be on the start line at Milan-San Remo just 13 days later.
“Kat [Matthews’ wife] was telling me the whole time, you’re not riding San Remo, you won’t be back in time, stop thinking about it. I always said to her I’m not thinking about it, but in my head, I was totally thinking about it the whole time,” he said.
Matthews not only started San Remo but finished a respectable 12th, not that far off his seventh place from last season.
The former Tour de France green jersey champion then substituted E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem for the Tour of Catalunya, in which he won two stages, before the notable debut at the Tour of Flanders that even rivals including Heinrich Haussler (Bahrain-Merida) praised.
“You have to be a big talent and have a big motor to do that,” said Haussler. “It’s not like he has the strongest team either, he was very early by himself, so for him to do that was very, very impressive.”
This time last year Matthews was frustrated, desperately trying to salvage something from a crash and injury-marred spring campaign in which he fractured his left shoulder in a stack on season debut at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and never fully recovered. Whereas he is now practical and unperturbed.
“I learnt a lot mentally of how to deal with some setbacks like from what happened last year. Happening again this year, I always stayed positive. I think I healed a lot faster from the positive attitude that I had the whole time. Instead of stressing and making silly mistakes about what you’re going to do to fix it, we stayed a lot calmer this year, talked a lot with people on the team and tried to come up with the best plan possible for the situation that I was in,” Matthews said. “I’m racing off pure heart at the moment.”
That was perhaps bolstered at Flanders, an experience the young family man hopes to repeat in future.
“It was always my dream to ride Flanders since I was second there in 2010 [as an under-23]. I was super excited to go back and never really got the opportunity to do it. I was always the Ardennes guy and if you’re doing the Ardennes, you can’t do the Flemish [classics],” he said.
“The other teams I was in, I had to choose one or the other. I chose the Ardennes purely thinking I knew them better because I lived around the area. But now after eight years of being professional and finally getting to be on the start line, it was something special. I will definitely remember that day for a very long time. Going to the sign-on podium, the crowd there was just unbelievable. We all felt like rock stars – and that was just the sign-on for the race.
“From the start to the end, I had probably the biggest smile on my face I’ve had the whole year. All the climbs, I couldn’t even hear myself thinking there were people screaming so loud.
“It was an experience I’ve never really had before. There is the Tour de France but Flanders, the fans are more pure passion people for the sport, they live, eat, sleep cycling. You can feel that passion from the crowd,” he continued.
“To be a part of the race, which was more than I was expecting, how deep I went into the final, and still be able to have some sort of sprint after the lead-up I had, I was over the moon. To be honest, I felt like I won the race. When I got back to the bus everyone was super happy with the job that we did. It’s the best result this team has ever had in Flanders so that’s also a bit of a win for the team.”
The result has also encouraged Matthews to entertain the idea of a future debut at Paris-Roubaix, with some cycling experts this year questioning why he was a non-starter especially after Flanders.
“I was always told Roubaix was for the heavier guys and the Ardennes are for the lighter guys. I’ve never done the race before, not even in juniors, so I never really knew. But now I see the guys winning it, they’re all similar weights to me. In the end, I think it’s purely about power. You don’t need to be 80-85kg to have power, you can also have power at 70kg,” he said.
“I think next year, depending on what the programme is or what team I’m in, I’d definitely like to give it a shot.”
For the remainder of this spring at least, Matthews will resume his position as the Ardennes guy.
“Obviously without the preparation that I would have really liked to have had, I’m not exactly sure where I’m at in an Ardennes classic at the moment,” he reflected before a fourth-place finish at Brabantse Pijl last week.
“I know I can fight through a Flanders, but an Ardennes classic is also a different type of bike race.
“In Flanders, you’re racing the Flemish guys, and in the Ardennes, you’re racing more against climbers, punchy guys. It’s a different field and it’s also a lot different climbing on cobbles than smooth road. I enjoy both. I don’t know which one I like better yet, it’s too early to say, but I enjoy them both.