• Aussie rider Michael Matthews won the 2017 Tour de France green jersey (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Michael Matthews ‘coming home’ in his words - back to WorldTour squad Mitchelton-Scott - is the return to Aussie roots the team and Australian cycling needed.
By
Jamie Finch-Penninger

31 Aug 2020 - 11:01 PM 

In case you missed the news, Matthews sought a release from his Team Sunweb contract, citing tactical differences (read team leadership opportunities) as the reason he moved on from the squad. He was immediately announced as returning to Mitchelton-Scott, a return to the team with which he first signed within the professional ranks, where he took 18 victories as the bright young talent of Australian sprinting and classics riding.

Come 2016, the differences between him and the squad had become apparent. Matthews was at odds with an ageing Simon Gerrans for leadership roles at key races, and with the increasing general classification focus, the team was taking with the Yates brothers and Esteban Chaves. While Gerrans stuck around for another year at the Australian team, Matthews moved on to pastures new with Sunweb.

"I think it just comes down to the direction the team (Mitchelton-Scott) is going at the moment,” said Matthews of his move at the time. “They really want to focus on GC in stage races and Grand Tours. For me to evolve, I have to go somewhere else to get the best out of myself.”

Getting the best out of himself is a key tenet throughout the course of Matthews’ career, few would accuse the Canberran of taking things easy at any point throughout his racing history. Perhaps my most lasting memory of his career wasn’t a win, but how deep he went during the 2015 Amstel Gold to stick to Philippe Gilbert’s wheel on the Cauberg.

After the race, Matthews was just slumped over and clearly had no energy left, and I remember GCN analyst and former professional Simon Richardson saying something along the lines of  ‘looking at Matthews makes me wish that I’d tried harder during my cycling career’.

It’s that application and bloody-mindedness that has been brought back to the squad, as the Australian squad returns, a least a little bit with this move, to what made the squad attractive to the public. Local riders that people could identify with racing on an Aussie team against the best in the world. Reactions from social media since the news have all been very positive, the most negative it gets is saying that the team shouldn’t have let him go in the first place.

The fact that the squad did so was a contentious point at the time, the sign of a shift to a more cosmopolitan team that could win Grand Tours, attract overseas sponsors and become ‘more’ than the Aussie flavoured team of battlers that thrived around ideals of mateship, and a focus on Australian talent. In that regard, the impact about Dan Jones can’t be understated, the author of Backstage Pass made the irreverent behind-the-scenes video series that took fans inside the team structure and allowed fans to get to know its riders. He also gave the team a personality outside the race action and media interviews.

Though the squad had plenty of athletes from overseas, the ones featured in the videos and often on the results sheet had laidback Australian sensibilities. Daryl Impey, Svein Tuft, Christian Meier, Pieter Weening and Colombian kangaroo Esteban Chaves were the heroes of those early teams, of the Backstage Passes and eventually the documentary All for One.

Now Jones has moved on, the team has morphed over the years into one fronted by the reserved Yates brothers, with another Australian star in Caleb Ewan moving through the squad in a similar manner to Matthews after finding that he wasn’t the first choice for the biggest races.

Fast-forward to 2020 and the team has a Grand Tour winner in Simon Yates, and it’s been 957 days - at time of writing - since the team last had an Australian win anything at a WorldTour level race. There are no Australians on the roster at the Tour de France for the first time in the team’s history.

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Matthews back with Mitchelton-Scott after seeking release from Sunweb
One of Australia's premier riders, Michael Matthews, has been granted a release from his contract at the end of the season with Team Sunweb, and has immediately announced that he'll be rejoining Australian squad Mitchelton-Scott.

Perhaps the biggest betrayal of the Australian focused ideal was the departure of Jack Haig, surely the very rider that the new Grand Tour-focused set up should be developing into one of the best in the world. Instead, Haig will go off and presumably win lots of races with Bahrain Mclaren in the future.

It was a team that was very nearly sold off to Spanish hopefuls Manuela Fundacion, and that would have put an end to the Australian nature of the squad entirely. Maybe not that year or the next, but eventually it was certain.

Instead, owner Gerry Ryan, motivated by thoughts about legacy, saved the team built with his money and his companies’ names. Saved it for what? It seems with the Mattews move that at least in part it will be to return to its Australian roots, with Ryan said to have played a personal role in securing the move.

For appreciation of cycling in Australia that is a good thing. Matthews is maybe not the epitome of the Aussie battler, the larrikin, the laidback joker, or any of the tropes of Australian culture, but there are few with more respect in the current peloton. While he’s literally flown the flag on the Champs Élysées for Australia on Team Sunweb, his return to Mitchelton-Scott is one that will bring back the Australian public to their team.

“I’m definitely happy to be coming back,” said Matthews of the move. “I have some amazing memories from GreenEDGE. Gerry Ryan supported me through my under-19, under-23 days and also in helping me turn professional, so it just feels like coming home.”