With bike racing set to begin again in the coming weeks, it’s interesting to note how pro riders have coped during lockdown. RIDE Media spoke with Michael Matthews to find out about his training, his form, and who he’s been riding with in Monaco now that cycling outside is allowed again…
There could be worse places to be than in an apartment in Monaco but when you’re a pro cyclist and that’s where you’ve got to do all your training, it would be understandable if you went a little stir-crazy.
For a couple of Team Sunweb riders, Michael Matthews and Nico Roche, the usual tradition of training together took a dramatic change in March 2020. Instead of meeting on the street and setting off for a few hours in the nearby hills, they met on Zoom while sitting on a home trainer. It wasn’t ideal, but it helped with motivation and broke the monotony of pedalling for hours while going nowhere.
Within a minute of talking to Matthews, he nominated those sessions as a saving grace.
Others would join them too – often it was Nico’s brother, sometimes it was Richie Porte and/or another pro cyclist or two… the good news is, those sessions got them through lockdown and now they’re riding as per usual: on the road, in the sunshine of the Côte d’Azur, and with intent.
The big rendezvous of the season is 65 days away and, if all goes to plan, Matthews and his peers will set off for the short trip to Nice for the Grand Départ of the 107th Tour de France.
– RIDE Media is the publisher of the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition) –
Last year he was motivated to race as part of a support cast in a bid for a GC win by Tom Dumoulin, but plans changed quickly after the Dutchman injured himself at the Giro d’Italia and forfeited a Tour start. Suddenly, Matthews was elevated to leadership status and he was expected to sprint for stage wins again.
With a different training program, he lacked the top-end speed he wanted and didn’t get to add to his tally of stage victories which stands at three (from five Tour starts).
We eventually talk about Le Tour 2020, but this interview focusses on the adaptation required by a pro cyclist during a pandemic.
Matthews continues to train with Roche and Porte and, occasionally, he rides with another Monaco resident, Chris Froome. They are all thinking of 29 August when the delayed Grand Départ is scheduled… but first they’ve got to get used to riding their bikes outside and adjusting to the sensation of being on the road again.
– Below is a verbatim transcript of the Q&A with Michael Matthews –
RIDE Media: I’m talking with Michael Matthews. I thought we’d catch up because he’s about to get back into racing after a long hiatus. You did do Paris-Nice. And now you’re getting a blood test so you can go off to a training camp, is that a correct summary of your status at the moment?
Michael Matthews: “Yeah, exactly right. My last race was Paris-Nice and it was quite a strange atmosphere to be in. Every day people were gossiping about the race being cancelled, or some people having coronavirus…
“In the end they decided to cancel the last stage and, from there, it’s definitely been a rollercoaster – not just for us, but for everyone around the world.”
RIDE Media: And the curiosity of 2020 continues. You’re in Monaco; can you just paint a scene of what it’s like there? Are there really strict enforcements of social distancing? How is it playing out there in June?
Michael Matthews: “If you look outside now, it’s a semi-normal day. It’s getting back to ‘normal’ life here a bit.
“Obviously, going into shops and stuff, you still need to wear a mask which I think is great.
“In public spaces a lot of people are wearing masks, which is also really good but it’s obvious that summer is here, and the beaches are pretty much totally full. So, if you were to black out what’s happened the last few weeks and months, you could look outside now and be of the belief that nothing really happened.”
RIDE Media: But in March and April, it was an entirely different picture. You were doing Zoom/Zwift group ride sessions every morning with Nico Roche and a couple of others. Can you talk us through how that all played out, and what kind of routines you were doing in the mornings on these curious new bunch rides?
Michael Matthews: “We were having chats off the bike, and some of us were doing interviews while we were on the bike in our apartments. And we were like, ‘What if we just made a group chat with the four of us…?’ Sometimes Richie Porte came along also, which was nice…
“So, we just made an iPad set-up in front of us – with a laptop that had Zwift going – and we could see each other and talk as if we were riding together on the bikes.
“It’s much more motivating, if you organise a time on a home trainer, to meet your friends. Like when you’re meeting out on the road, there’s a little extra impetus to force you to do it. You know?
“Sometimes, if you’re doing it by yourself, you don’t have that real push of someone being there, waiting for you. And I think it helped us all to really get into a routine and enjoy riding on the home trainer for two-and-a-half months.”
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RIDE Media: Do you know the tally of kilometres you did inside between real road rides? Or did you count your hours? How did you log your training?
Michael Matthews: “To be honest, I tried not to think about it too much because it was really big. If I started thinking about how many hours, or how many kilometres I did on the home trainer, I probably would have blown my brains out towards the end.
“I would definitely like to, in the next few weeks, look back on how much we actually did because, to be honest, it was pretty impressive especially with all of the races that we did through the lockdown too.
“I was getting some of my highest numbers, the best I’ve ever seen on the bike, so it was definitely an experience.”
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RIDE Media: An experience you probably hope you never have again… but, for the everyday punter, if they spend a bit of time on the indoor trainer, and then they get back out on the road, it’s quite a shock. The improvement in fitness is obvious. I say that from a personal perspective, as the last few months of training have served me well… so, can you talk to me about when you did get back out on the road. Did you feel like you’d gained, or you’d lost form? What was your appraisal of fitness after that time?
Michael Matthews: “I’ve been riding a bike pretty much every day of my life since I was a three-year-old. So, it was definitely a strange feeling with braking and turning and stuff like that.
“It was the longest time I’ve had off the bike since I could ride.
“For me it was quite awkward to be on the road again. It felt like it took maybe a week to really feel, ‘Okay, I can do this…’
“I’m not sure if it was my mindset or fitness, but once that first week had gone by, I could start to train better on the road – and I started to feel amazing. But straight away, I honestly didn’t feel too good.
“I think I was still in a bit of shock at being allowed back out on the roads. And I was still wondering, ‘Should I be on the road?’ ‘Is it the right thing to do?’
“There were a lot of sensations and emotions going on in that moment. But two-and-a-half months on a home trainer translates to a strange feeling when you’re out on the road again.”
RIDE Media: I’ve had some contact with Nico too and he obviously had some good racing in the virtual world – I think he was second in the (virtual) Tour of Flanders, is that right?
Michael Matthews: “Yep.”
RIDE Media: So, he has been smashing out the hours inside as well. You can gauge his form because you’re riding with him now in person, and you’ve also done the virtual training. Is it going to be strange when you’re all back in the peloton? Do you think that there’s going to be an equilibrium or have some people gone a lot harder than others…? What’s the gossip in the peloton? How do you think it’s going to be?
Michael Matthews: “It’s a difficult to answer because riders in a lot of countries didn’t have to ride the home trainer, so they’ve been out on the road pretty much the whole time.
“In Holland and Belgium, those guys had a sort of lockdown but not to the extent of France, Italy and Spain.
“So, I’m not really sure how it’ll play out.
“You can see that the guys who were riding outside were definitely fit. They’re not lagging behind us guys who had to do the work on the home trainer. And I don’t think we’re lagging behind them either.
“I think it’s just a different approach. We’re all professional cyclists and we needed to get on with our job and getting the work done. We have the best coaches in the world to guide us in the right direction to try and get the best out of whatever session we’re doing.
“But, to go back to your question about the gossip in the peloton, I don’t think anyone really knows exactly where they’re at. I’d say this is the longest time for any one of us without a bike race. I think everyone is just training their arse off and waiting to see what kind of form they have when we finally get back to racing.
“It will definitely be interesting to see how people gauge their form and if they go into the first race absolutely flying, or if it takes a couple of races to get back up to speed. I guess no one really knows.
“For me personally, I think I’ve done quite well the last few years where I’ve started [training] late and come in swinging once I’ve started racing.
“It’s an unknown element and that makes it interesting for us riders, and also the people who are watching cycling.”
RIDE Media: When you did come out of lockdown – and there’s a fair group of pro cyclists in Monaco, let’s be realistic – you’d get an impression of each other’s form. Have you seen Chris Froome, for example? Or can you talk to me a little bit about the observations you’ve made of Richie Porte, or Nico, or even just your own physical sensations on the climbs? Are you getting a good taste of how it could be when you’re racing again?
Michael Matthews: “Yeah. I think everyone I’ve seen here looks really good. I don’t think anyone is lagging on fitness.
“I’ve ridden with all of the three guys you’ve mentioned, and I think everyone is just appreciating being back out on the road now. And they are probably appreciating it more than before we got it taken away from us.
“Now we can do it again, freely. So, I think everyone is in great spirits and really happy. That’s also a really good sign.
“It’s been such a tough situation for everyone but Froomey is in really good shape. He’s really skinny and riding well.
“Richie is definitely moving very fast with his preparation also: skinny and flying up hills. And Nico is the same, he’s ripped to shreds and killing us all out training.
“Those three guys are definitely on at the moment, so it’s nice to be surrounded by them too. We are all using it to our advantage and we’re trying to build on it so we can come out of all these going even better than before.”
RIDE Media: Let’s talk about the sequence you’ve got to go through in the next little while, before your next race. You have to have a blood test to go to the training camp, is that right? And then what are the protocols put in place by Team Sunweb to allow you to get back to racing?
Michael Matthews: “Today I have some tests: this morning it’s just the one where they take a sample from the nose, and then the blood test later in the day.
“We’re going to leave for the training camp on 25 or 26 June, so all those tests have to be done before I go. And basically, that’ll have to be clear – and then we can go on the training camp.
“As for when I start racing… I don’t know the answer to that yet. I’m still waiting for the tests and then I can see when I start – but also don’t have my race program yet. We’ll have to wait and see but it is a very complicated sequence of procedures that need to take place before we get back to racing.
“There are so many protocols from the team and from the UCI that we need to stick by, which is great because they’re trying to protect us from the virus obviously. Hopefully that can all go smoothly and we can get back to racing.”
RIDE Media: I’m not asking you to make a judgement call on bigger issues but do you feel – based on the events of the last couple of weeks, where people are settling back into a rhythm, that it will go back to bike racing as we knew it? Or do you think there might be a hiccup, and a pause once competition does get moving again?
Michael Matthews: “Well, if you listen to the news, it seems obvious that people have moved too quickly, with the thought that the COVID-19 pandemic is over… when the lockdown measures were eased, everyone ran outside and didn’t take it as seriously as I think they should have.
“We see that the virus is ramping up again.
“I just hope that everyone takes it seriously enough that we can try and kill this thing and move on.
“Everyone says the ‘second wave’ is coming, but the first one didn’t actually finish…
“Obviously it’s summer here now and everyone wants to have their holidays, but this virus is definitely not done quite yet.
“I’m certainly worried that things will get delayed even more, and that’s based on nothing more than watching the news a lot. But, fingers crossed that everyone does take it as seriously as they did during the lockdown and we can try and squash this thing and move on.
“But if you look outside like I’m doing now, here in Monaco the beaches are full and not one person has a mask. I’m not sure how it is in Australia but from what I’m seeing, I’m scared about a recurrence of the virus.”
RIDE Media: I don’t mean to keep going back to other people but, given that you’re not out and about in the bigger, broader world that you’re used to seeing, do you talk amongst yourself – like Chris and Richie and Nico – and start contemplating what it might be like if there isn’t any racing this year? And have any of you nominated that something like that is a prospect?
Michael Matthews: “It’s definitely a hot topic. All of us are obviously hoping it doesn’t happen – that racing doesn’t get cancelled – but it’s something we all need to think about, and maybe even prepare for. It could happen.
“Obviously we’ve discussed it. I think the biggest problem with the racing not happening this year will be sponsors for cycling, not for us as individuals. The big problem will be trying to retain sponsorships and the money that keeps the sport alive.
“It’s something that’s out of our hands. We can’t do too much about it.
“Obviously we can do the social media things – like we are – to help our sponsors out, to try and get them as much coverage as possible. But, at the moment, all we can do is hope that racing does start.
“No one actually knows what’s coming once we start racing again.
“We have the CPA, the pro cycling union, that is trying to figure out what we can do to help the cyclists, to help the sponsors, to help the teams… Nico is our team’s rider representative with the CPA. He knows a lot more about that; he’s been in all the meetings and he’s been trying to feed as much information as possible through to me. And, from my perspective, it seems quite positive but nothing is set in stone at the moment.”
RIDE Media: It’s a whole new set of challenges. It was already difficult enough trying to prepare for something like the Tour de France, but in 2020 it’s all different…
Michael Matthews: “Yeah. First of all, you have this lockdown. And then you’re preparing for something which you’re not even sure is going to happen…
“You’re training your arse off. You’re sacrificing your life for something that may – or may not – happen. I guess you go through hard days, and there are better days too, but I think it’s now about looking at the big picture and trying to be prepared.
“If it does happen and racing resumes like we’re all hoping it will, I want to be on the start line and be ready.
“And if it doesn’t happen, well at least you’ve done all the preparation and you get some experience of preparing again and use that for something else.
“In the end, you only benefit by trying to think about the positives… obviously that can’t change the situation, but it takes much more energy to think negative than positive.”
RIDE Media: We’re coming up to the crucial question for me, in the context of my business as publisher of the Official Tour de France Guide (Australian edition), and that is: do you anticipate being at the Tour? I know you don’t know your full program but are you likely to be one of Sunweb’s eight again? We would assume so…
Michael Matthews: “Yeah, that was the talk at the start of the year: the Tour and the Classics were the big goals of the season. With the worlds being in Switzerland, it is not a massive target with the course probably being way too hard for me.
“So, the main goal was to get a good Classics period and another good Tour de France like the team had in 2017.
“Hopefully I can say, in the next couple of days, what my race program will be.”
RIDE Media: We’ll know more in the next little while but thanks for having a chat and giving us an overview of what life is like for you in an extraordinary year.
Michael Matthews: “No worries. Thanks for the call. I have a lot of communication with Aussies back home and if anyone has any more questions, just keep them coming through. I always like to interact with everyone at home, especially when I’m not home enough these days.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold