For three quarters of the 2019 UCI Road World Championships men’s road race in Yorkshire on Sunday, Australia played their cards perfectly.
Rohan Dennis put in a sterling effort on the front of the peloton in the early stages, before dropping off once the team reached the circuit. Road captain Rory Sutherland remained composed and made several important efforts when called upon. Mitch Docker was the perfect deputy, shuffling around the peloton as he ran errands in the torrential rain.
So far, so to plan – literally these roles and the order of the rider’s intended exits followed an Excel spreadsheet shown to each team member the prior evening.
But the best-laid plans are rarely a match for the arduous nature of a brutally long world championship road race, particularly when the conditions conspire to create one of the most gruelling editions for years. As Luke Durbridge, Simon Clarke and Nathan Haas were each dropped within eight kilometres, the Australians were all but ready to fold.
While Jack Haig and Michael Matthews fought on, neither had the legs to follow the late moves – ultimately Matthews would be the only Australian rider to complete this year’s course.
Having targeted this race all season, the disappointment etched on the Canberran’s face following the race was stark. From a perfectly executed race plan to a disaster in the space of barely a few kilometres – life comes at you fast in the middle of the Road World Championships.
“We did everything right,” Matthews reflected afterwards. “I don’t think it is about anything I or we did wrong; we could not have done much in the scenario. It could have easily been an entirely different situation.”
With only Haig for company and a breakaway up the road, Matthews had been forced to sit and wait while they willed on other nations to chase. “I thought another nation would panic and ride hard, so I could go with them,” he said. “It did not happen, and I simply didn’t have the strength for the final climb.”
Cycling Australia’s performance director Simon Jones was eager to move forward on a positive note.
“On a day like this I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said. “The lads did their best. Of course, it is disappointing, but we now need to move onto the next one.”
The iconic rainbow jersey of a world champion has eluded Matthews, ever since he won the U23 equivalent in 2010 in Geelong. In 2015, the now-29-year-old claimed silver among the elites in Richmond. Two years, the cooler climes of Norway were host as Matthews again go close, albeit this time ending with bronze.
Sunday in Yorkshire was supposed to be third time lucky. A decade after Cadel Evans won Australia’s first-ever World Championships road race gold medal, it appeared an opportune moment for the Sunweb rider to claim those elusive rainbows. But it was not to be. “I just didn’t have the legs,” he admitted.
Matthews may now need to bide his time. He is a possible Australian team leader at the Tokyo Olympics, although the extensive climbing metres involved could weigh against him. Similarly, the Toblerone-esque climbs of Switzerland for next year’s Road Worlds might see the Australians opt for a climbing leader.
It might not until the 2021 Road World Championships, to be held in Flanders, that Matthews has another opportunity for success in national team colours. The Team Sunweb rider has demonstrated his calibre in races across the region. Further afield, the 2022 Road Worlds will bring cycling’s best riders to New South Wales.
Victory in three years at home in Australia would no doubt be the poetic ending to Matthews’ hunt for gold and rainbows. But the peloton cares nothing about sentimentality. If Matthews is to have any hope of winning the Road World Championships, whether next year or in the years ahead, he will need a well-executed plan and considerable good fortune.
Australia played a varied hand in Yorkshire on Sunday to considerable effect but ultimately came up short. As national team coach Brad McGee quipped afterwards, “sometimes that’s just bike racing.”