Last November, one who is wise in the ways of cycling made a long term forecast: “Michael Matthews will win Milan-San Remo next year. It’s his race,” insisted the anonymous tipster, a former rider and one who knows how to pick a winner. “Get in early and make sure there’s an interview with him about it.”
We’ve been biding our time but with the race on this Sunday there it was now or never. And so, two days after he won the green jersey in Paris-Nice, Matthews got in with an early morning Skype call. He was in his kitchen in Monaco along with his fiancée, Katarina, as well as his coach Brian Stephens.
A day earlier, Michael – who has a well-known nickname, but one we prefer not to perpetuate – had been out motor pacing. Even though he’d raced over 1,000km the previous week in his first competitive bout of 2015, he didn’t even rest for a day. There was work to do.
Before going to the gym, I was allocated 10 minutes to chat about the week that was, the days ahead, and why he believes he can win the first of cycling’s ‘Monuments’ of the season.
Click the Soundcloud file to listen to the exchange and/or read the transcript below…
RIDE: I’ve got the ‘tape’ rolling, Michael Matthews, and I’m talking to you after you’ve won the green jersey at Paris-Nice and won stage three. There’s a big objective coming up this weekend. The first race for 2015 is behind you, but the big one is coming up on Sunday. What have you got to say about Paris-Nice versus Milan-San Remo?
Michael Matthews: “I guess Paris-Nice was my first race of 2015 so when you come into a race like [that] without racing, it’s sort of difficult to know how your form is. You know you’re going well in training but after such a long time without racing it’s difficult to judge where you’re at.
“I went into Paris-Nice with an open mind, just seeing what I could do there and try and get a result here and there. But I didn’t expect to really have the success that I did in the end.
“I guess it shows that I am in probably better form than I knew in my head that I was actually in. So, leading into San Remo, I’ve got high hopes for it really. I know I’ve done everything possible to be in as good shape as possible and now it just needs to come together on the day.”
I heard from Katarina yesterday, early in the morning on the Monday after Paris-Nice, and you were already out motor pacing on the course for Milan-San Remo. Is that right?
MM: “Yep. That’s right.”
So there’s no rest. There’s no Tour Down Under-style post-race party is there for Paris-Nice?
MM: “No, no, no. We went to Pino’s, a nice restaurant in Menton the night after with Richie Porte to celebrate our two jerseys until about 10.30 and then it was back in bed and gym the next morning. There was not too much time to really soak it all up and enjoy it.
“I think after San Remo, I’ll have a bit more time to really enjoy Paris-Nice and hopefully enjoy some sort of success from San Remo.”
You’ve got a little over 1,000 kilometres of racing in your legs and you’ve got almost 300 kilometres coming up on Sunday. Brian, I wonder if you could just jump in here and just tell me what you’ve seen from Michael that makes him different and why we should consider him a favourite for the race on Sunday…
Brian Stephens: “I think it’s a race that suits his characteristics anyway. We’ve been looking at [Milan-San Remo] for a couple of years now… and this year Michael had a bit of freedom to have some input into his program and we decided the he was better to miss the national championships and Tour Down Under and just base his preparation more about preparing for this period.
“He’s been able to do a bit of a slower, more gradual build-up and his training in South Africa just before Paris-Nice showed that he was well ahead of where he’s ever been before.
“We were pretty confident that Paris-Nice was going to be a good race for him and, for me, hopefully good for his confidence for this weekend and Milan-San Remo… and a few [other] races coming up – a few races in Belgium.”
You’ve gone through [the off-season] in the old-school style of basically not seeing a summer… except for the couple of weeks in South Africa. How different is your body because of… being based in winter?
MM: “I think it just makes it stronger in the end. And a bit more relaxed too going into the season and not having to do 10 different things in one day like when you’re in Australia. Like we just trained here and then in the afternoon it was just totally relaxed.
“I guess training in the cold – when you haven’t trained in the cold for six years or something – it’s only making your body stronger.
“If you can get through those cold days, and then you’ve got to race in them in the early-season, it makes it a hell of a lot easier. I think that was probably the key part of staying here and building up to a higher level where I got more time to use the long training camps and the long months to prepare myself a lot better than if I only had one month before I had to start racing after my off-season in Australia.”
I know when we reference power in these interviews we get a lot of good reaction because people love to hear about it. Brian, when you’re motor pacing, do you have an SRM on the scooter?
BS: “Ah, no I don’t.
“I don’t spend enough time here with him to set that up but I just listen to what Michael is telling me from behind.
“He’s doing efforts of up around 450 watts – sustained efforts at that, so that’s better than he’s done before. It’s pretty decent power for a sustained effort over a climb.”
I reckon, given that the Poggio descent is so pivotal in the race, you would have been up and over that quite a few times. Can you give us a hint of what you’re doing when you’re on that climb. What sort of wattage is it? And is it consistent through to the top?
MM: “In the race situation, it’s quite high because we’re going quite fast but also behind the [motor] bike [in training]. You’re probably averaging almost 400 for the whole climb after six hours of racing.
“It’s fairly high power considering you’ve been racing for so long and it’s been such a long day.
“Depending on the weather, obviously, it depends how fast you go up the climb but I’d say it’s up around 400 watts for both the climbs (the Poggio and Cipressa).”
BS: “We can’t do the descent [in training] at race pace because there’s traffic on it.”
That was my next question because you would really like a clear road for a bit of practice, wouldn’t you?
MM: “Yeah, definitely. It would make it a lot safer but as long as you know the corners and you know which ones are tight and which ones you can take full-gas, that’s probably more the key anyway – rather than risking it through traffic and stuff… it’s not really worth it.
“There’s not really much traffic on the climb but you could come into a corner and there’s a car there so it’s not really worth it.
“It’s just better to ride it and memorise it and then you know for the race day.”
It’s just the Cipressa and Poggio again, is it? Have they popped the other [climb] in that they wanted to include?
MM: “No, it’s still the same as last year.”
So, Cipressa with – let’s say 23 or so kilometres to go – and then Poggio with 6.3km to go, is that right?
You’d know that stretch of road pretty well, I’d imagine…
MM: “Yeah, I’ve ridden it a few times. I think I know every pothole along the road…”
BS: “We’re going to have another look tomorrow just in case.”
What is a ‘few’ times? Is it 10 or 100?
MM: “Ah, it’s 100.”
What are you going to look out for Brian? And where do you spend the day on Sunday? Are you going to have some involvement with the team or you just have to sit on the sidelines chewing your fingernails.
BS: “Yeah, chewing my fingernails.
“I’ll go to the start, give Michael a pat on the back and wish him all the best. And then go and find a TV.”
Who is calling it? You’ve got ‘Whitey’ in the driver’s seat?
BS: “Whitey. Yeah.”
He’s helped ‘Gerro’ win that in the past. Just tell us what his feedback has been for you Michael…
MM: “Um, I’m not really sure yet. I’ve got to wait and see…
“I guess it’s depending on the weather, [that will decide] what will be the plan on the race.
“The way they’ve won it in the past… there’s a good chance that it might be the same this year again… (Note: both Australian winners, Matt Goss and Simon Gerrans, they’ve been in a small break along with a super Fabian Cancellara… who drove it from the Poggio to the finish before beating him in a sprint.)
“Or we can wait for the sprint.
“I guess the nice thing is, we have options which is on our side and hopefully it pays off.”
BS: “I think the big thing for this race is that, being so long, there’s 250 kilometres of waiting because it all happens in a small, tight block at the end so you need to save as much and keep focus but not taxing yourself for so long… and be ready to fire right over those last two climbs.”
They call it ‘a sprinters’ race’ and last year it was definitely a big bunch coming to the finish. I know you’re talking about the weather playing a factor in how you manage the tactics but do you anticipate that you’ll be ‘waiting’ for a sprint or being aggressive on the climb? You’re a bit versatile – you can do a bit of both, can’t you?
MM: “It depends what happens really. I’ll have to be around the guys who could possibly attack on the climb and then, if no one really goes, then we have to wait for the sprint.
“Hopefully I’ll have some guys left with me to try and position me in the right spot and then it’s up to me to try and finish it from there.
“I’m fairly confident in all the work I’ve done in the last few months to be able to put me in the best position – with the most power – to be able to finish off the job.
“It’s been a long off-season and I’ve bee working in the gym a lot, doing a lot of training camps and hopefully it can all come together on Sunday.”
Do you think the lack of racing has jeopardised… ah, a lot of guys are used to the race environment. You felt comfortable, obviously, in Paris-Nice – you’ve come away with some success there – what did you take home from how you saw others riding last week in France?
MM: “I was a bit surprised myself. I went into it a little bit worried but I think, from the first stage, I was always able to move up in the bunch, there were never really times where I felt worried that I was going to miss a split or something… I had all the bases covered.
“I don’t think the lack of racing is going to be the problem. I’m fairly confident in that from the way myself and my team raced in Paris-Nice – we were always around each other and always helping each other out 110 percent which is really nice from your team –coming into your first race, they’re 100 percent committed to you… to do the job for you and always be around you and place you in the right spot at the right moments.”
Just finally… it was Jens Keukeleire who was before you in the lead-out for your win in France, wasn’t it?
That was one of the best lead-outs I’ve seen in a long time. It was precision work. There were three of you who could have picked the win that day. Is it going to be Keukeleire with you on the podium or what’s the sequence with the team, do you know?
MM: “Keukeleire’s not riding San Remo, he’s focussing on the Belgian Classics so this year he’s going to miss the race. But [Daryl] Impey also had a really key role in that lead-out that we did the other day in Paris-Nice. He’ll be a key guy for me on Sunday because he’s going really well also. Like you said, he could have also picked off the stage that I did…
“If you saw how he rode, he pretty much did the whole climb the day that I won and then Jensie came around him with maybe under 500 metres to go. It was precision really. It was a text book lead-out. I don’t think we could have done it any better really. Every team came up to us the next day and said, ‘That was unbelievable how you guys actually sorted that out.’
“So, Impey, in San Remo will probably be my most key guy in the final.”
There are a few days to go, a few sleeps and I think we’ll all be sitting up in the wee-small hours in Australia cheering you on – and everyone else involved… and hoping we see a good racing in some reasonable conditions. All the best mate, and give ’em heaps.
MM: “I’ll give it a go and try and bring home the trophy.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold