After an interrupted start to the season, Michael Matthews scored a reward for a fine team effort in stage three of the 106th Giro d’Italia with a sprint win in Melfi.
– By Rob Arnold (Photos: Stefano Sirotti)
Twelfth place in the time trial on the opening day was a promising start for the Jayco-AlUla team’s versatile leader Michael Matthews. He has been categorised as a ‘sprinter’ but there’s more to the package than pure power and a rapid finish. At 32, he is a rider who excels on all kinds of terrain and in all kinds of situations.
If there’s a hill and some technical elements to the route, Matthews knows how to manage it well. In stage three of the Giro, when the road was also a little slippery after some rain, he showed his experience and strength with a perfectly timed surge out of the final bend to take his third victory in the Italian Grand Tour, his first since 2015.
Matthews win in Melfi brings his tally of Grand Tour stage wins to 10 (three in the Giro, three in the Vuelta and four in the Tour). He knows how to finish off the job in style, but he’s also a rider who thrives when the conditions bring some of the biggest names in cycling to the fore.
When it’s a pure sprint, other riders shine but Matthews is never far behind looking on, trying to work out a way that he could improve his position. He also knows never to concede – and it’s this attitude that won him a bronze medal at the world championships in Wollongong last September.
Victory in the worlds in Australia eluded him a day before his 32nd birthday last year, with Remco Evenepoel the rider who thrived on the challenging finishing circuit. But Matthews remained committed all the way to the end despite not knowing if he was in with a medal chance or sprinting for 30th place on a day when radio communication between team car and rider wasn’t part of the deal.
On the road to Melfi, Jayco-AlUla managed the tactical requirements perfectly, monitoring a break of two riders through to the undulating end of the second-longest stage in this year’s Giro.
Jayco-AlUla policed the escape and even set Matthews up to contest the race for points at the intermediate sprint around the halfway mark of the 213km stage. He was fifth over the line, with the two escapees absorbing maximum points for the maglia ciclamino, 1:43 ahead of the peloton which was spearheaded by Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) and Arne Marit (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), with Matthews taking fifth and four points for his effort, one place ahead of stage two winner, Jonathan Milan (Bahrain Victorious).
The Australian’s reputation as a sprinter is highlighted by the green jersey he won at the Tour de France in 2017 when the points classification was targeted by Matthews and his team at the time, Sunweb.
At the peak of Peter Sagan’s domination of the points classification, Matthews interrupted the Slovakian’s acquisition of green jerseys; 2017 was the year Sagan was disqualified from the TDF and never got a chance to challenge for another title.
Back then, Matthews often went head-to-head with the triple world champion, sometimes triumphing… but often just missing out on victory.
Fast-forward five years and, in 2022, instead of competing against the likes of Sagan and the Belgian strongman Greg van Avermaet, the competition who rose to the challenge on the kind of course that suits Matthews again included some of the world’s best riders. Early in last year’s Tour de France, for example, the whiff of victory was snuffed out several times: first by Tadej Pogacar in Longwy (stage six), then by Wout van Aert in Lausanne (stage eight).
When you’re up against guys like Evenepoel, Sagan, Pogacar and van Aert, it’s easy to feel demoralised by the close calls but Matthews is persistent, committed and manages to remain optimistic when others may concede.
If he is beaten in a sprint against the elite, as was the case in those stages of the Tour de France of 2022, then try a different approach. That’s what he did at the end of the second week when he went on the attack early and muscled his way into a breakaway on the road to Mende.
With a brutally steep climb in the final kilometres, it wasn’t a sprinters’ stage, per se. But that didn’t bother Matthews in stage 14 when he paced his effort on the difficult terrain and scored a fine triumph for the team that was branded BikeExchange-Jayco in 2022.
He knows how to win and has been able to do that plenty of times, with his success in Melfi bringing his victory count to a total of 40. But, since his last stage win in the Giro back in 2015, Matthews has finished second in 22 races and third 25 times.
In stage three of the 2023 Giro, he hit the mark and pushed the pace high all the way to the line to earn a fine victory and the huge sense of relief that he’s still a rider capable of winning in the biggest races.
Sprinting early and savouring victory
“We rode all day today and my team-mates were fully committed for me to win the stage,” said Matthews in Melfi after beating Pedersen and compatriot (and former team-mate) Kaden Groves (now racing with Alpecin-Deceuninck) in stage three.
The early break was monitored closely by Jayco-AlUla with Campbell Stewart and Michael Hepburn setting the pace back in the peloton. When their time at the front was over, the team’s two Italians at the Giro, Alessandro De Marchi and national champion Filippo Zana, took over.
As the race arrived at the climbs in the closing parts of the long stage, Callum Scotson was on hand to assist Matthews and ensure he was in with a chance at the finish in Melfi.
The technical nature of the final kilometres worked in favour of Matthews who seemed intent on starting his sprint early.
While Trek-Segafredo had the weight of numbers after the flamme rouge, Matthews bided his time on the wheel of Pedersen, winner of the points jersey in the most recent Grand Tour, La Vuelta of 2022.
Cautiously they took the turns leading to the line, making sure the wet road didn’t claim any victims but keeping the speed high enough to ward off any last-minute attacks. Then, coming out of the final left-hander, Matthews pounced.
With about 300 metres to go, he was where he wanted to be: racing for victory… but there was still work to do to ensure he didn’t succumb to the inevitable challenge by Pedersen and Groves. Out of the saddle and with real force on the pedals, Matthews moved from the left-hand side of the road as the Dane made his final challenge.
The line came just in time for Matthews to salute another victory… and relish a sense of satisfaction after months of frustration in a season in which he has again been impacted by COVID.
“I heard that Pedersen was dropped on the climb so I was hoping that he would be a little bit pinned for the sprint,” explained Matthews. “I knew I just needed to go a little bit early and get the jump on them and yeah, it worked out.
“It’s been a rollercoaster for me, so I just came here to this Giro to have fun, enjoy riding my bike and enjoy being with my team-mates. Today it was such a team effort that win. That was for the boys.”
With the time bonus for the victory shaved off, Matthews moved up three places in the general classification in stage three and there are now two Australians in the top 10, Matthews in eighth and Jay Vine (UAE Team Emirates) in ninth.
Remco Evenepoel continues to lead the GC standings and stage four promises to be a race which could shake things up but the Belgian seems in control of the maglia rosa with an advantage of 32 seconds over Joao Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) and 44 seconds ahead of Primoz Roglic.
The spoils for stage three go to an Australian on an Aussie team and it’s a result that should help give the Giro some attention. Those who know cycling understand that this is a victory that’s well worth celebrating.
– By Rob Arnold