“Michael’s main quality is: he’s a massive fighter.” Nicholas Roche is on the bike, cooling down outside the Team Sunweb bus, offering his appraisal of his team-mate. He got there a few minutes after Michael Matthews, who had already spoken with some journalists, pulled off his jersey and gone into a post-stage debrief with team director Aike Visbeek.
Roche had a glowing review of the Australian’s performance. He was second in Épernay, besting the rest of the peloton in a tough uphill sprint. It was only the cunning rider of the moment, Julian Alaphilippe, who stopped Matthews from truly celebrating.
He wasn’t quite glum but, had it not been for Alaphilippe, he’d have been elated.
Within 30 seconds of crossing the line, Matthews seemed to have caught his breath. He rolled towards the bus with Geraint Thomas in his wake and said, “Walk with me and we can talk.”
Immediately he spoke about his nearest and dearest, “It’s all heart that’s pushing me at the moment,” he said, “I was sprinting, thinking of my wife and my baby there in the final – this is for them.
“My form isn’t great but I’m just trying every day.”
He’s won at the Tour before on a climb similar to the one in Épernay; that’s when he’d trained specifically to do just that. In stage three he relegated Jasper Stuyven, Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan to third, fourth and fifth respectively. Yep, all heart indeed.
"I was not where I would have liked to have been today," said Matthews. "I was trying to convince myself that I wasn't tired but I was destroyed."
"I'm not happy with my shape. I really struggled today and it's only the third day. I didn't really enjoy that."
There were only 26 seconds between the Frenchman who now wears the yellow jersey and the runner-up in stage three. Only a select few were able to follow Matthews, with only ten other riders finishing on the same time as the Canberra local. Even Geraint Thomas conceded a further five seconds, finishing 13th, on a day which race organisers promised would cause splits in the peloton.
We’re not yet in the mountains but there are plenty of hills in the Champagne region, hard enough to even challenge a quality climber like Matthews.
Roche explained how Sunweb had to play it, and the reality was that the pursuit had to be carefully managed: too fast, and the team risked blowing the designated leader out of contention, too slow and even a champion like Matthews sprints for second-place, not the win.
“The bunch was quite reduced at that moment Alaphilippe attacked,” said Roche, “so there was just a point where I had a chat with Michael and we just weren’t quite sure what to do.
“If we’d have gone faster, we were also putting Michael at risk… he would not have had time to recover. And at that point, to be honest, myself and Wilco were already quite on the limit and I don’t think we could have helped too much in the chase.
“Alaphilippe was just a step above everyone today.”
No one was looking for excuses but the difference in mood because of 26 seconds was evident. Matthews didn’t sulk or get angry. He just explained that the training he’s been doing hadn't been designed for him to be sprinting up steep, short hills like the ones on which he usually prospers.
Until it became apparent that Tom Dumoulin wasn’t going to contest the Tour in 2019, all the work Sunweb had done was to ensure a support cast for the GC / TT specialist. Then the team announced that he wouldn't be coming to the Tour and the training methods that had been used by Matthews almost became a hindrance.
“Normally I go to Livigno all the way up until the Tour de Suisse,” said Matthews. “Most of us went to Teneriffe together as a team [and] it’s just different to what I’m used to doing before the Tour.
“I’m used to doing a lot of speed training and sprints and small kickers. But now we did a lot of really long climbs, so I think my speed on a long climb is really good but my punchy speed on these ones today is not ideal."
“I’m not super happy but I was giving it everything I have and I’ll keep fighting every day until we get that win.”
Roche, however, was impressed – especially given the last-minute change of priorities.
“Today he suffered and it’s only normal that, after the finish line, he’s a little bit disappointed,” said Roche, “but come on: second in a stage of the Tour de France in this type of sprint? Chapeau!”
“We saw today that he doesn’t give up. He’s a champion. He’s in trouble on the steep climb but he’s just not letting go – there’s no letting go! And that’s his big strength.
“He’s just capable of going that much deeper, that’s his star quality: to be able to go and get that precious energy, that’s what makes him get results like today. He’s just amazing.
“On one climb, with 20km to go he’s struggling in the leader’s group and the next thing he wins a sprint up a steep ramp, so he’s some champion.”