It has been five years between wins at the Tour de France for Michael Matthews but in stage 14 of the 2022 race, he proved what a class act he is.
– Tour de France: stage 14, Saint-Etienne to Mende (192.5km)
There’s a kind of running joke in my household when there’s an anticipated bike race coming up. “Who’s going to win?” They ask, almost knowing what my answer will be.
It’s a reply that I’ve given often over the years for all kinds of races, and I’m sincere with my prediction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a stage of the Tour de France or a one-day Classic, Matthews has the qualities of a rider who can win here, there or anywhere. He has built his reputation as a sprinter but there’s more to ‘Bling’ than speed alone.
“I just wanted to show everyone that I’m not just a sprinter,” said the 31-year-old from Team BikeExchange-Jayco after arriving at the aerodrome high above Mende as the winner of stage 14 of the 2022 Tour de France. “I can also ride like I rode today.”
He claimed his fourth stage win with a true fighting spirit and the judges of the ‘Combative’ prize agree, which is why he’ll race stage 15 with a red dossard, denoting his status as the previous day’s ‘most aggressive rider’.
Still, there is every reason for Matthews to feel demoralised; he’s a genuine star who has been consistently good for over 10 years at the top level, but there is often another rider who is better on the day. There’s a long list of close calls, podium places in all kinds of races, that remind us that he should always be considered a favourite, but the wins have been hard to come by of late.
In this year’s TDF there have been a few stages that suit Matthews’ characteristics well, they also happened to be days when other superstars from the peloton were in the mix for the win.
In the longest stage of this year’s race, from Binche in Belgium to the uphill finale in Longwy on the first Thursday, Matthews was on form, well supported and capable of living up to his reputation as a sprinter who thrives when there’s a climb at the end. He put in a bid for victory in stage six only to be eclipsed by his good mate Tadej Pogacar.
On that day in Longwy the stage winner turned a white jersey into a yellow one, reminding us that Matthews was not only beaten in a close sprint contest, but beaten by one of the most dominant cyclists of this generation.
Two days later, when the Tour visited Switzerland and another uphill finale was presented in Lausanne, Matthews was again in the mix. He sped up the climb, all power and conviction, and it seemed as though the win was his for the taking… until Wout van Aert put in one last-ditch effort to beat the Australian to the line.
Twice a runner-up in tough stages, Matthews could review his efforts with a mix of emotions: satisfaction in knowing that he’s still got a good kick in the sprints, but frustration from the fact that the finishes that suit him also lure in the best riders in the world.
Second place to Pogacar or WvA in stages of the Tour de France highlight how good Matthews is but those results can quickly be forgotten because he missed the win.
“I learnt from two days ago that I really need to start my sprint first,” Matthews said in Lausanne. “I gave it a shot from the front and started my sprint first but just got beaten by Wout on the line. I honestly don’t think I made a mistake… I did everything I could, there was just a stronger rider in the bike race today.”
Still, the glass remained half-full for Matthews and, as he so often does, he bounced back from frustration and saddled up again hoping that he’d one day get a chance to showcase his talents. That happened in Mende. He would get his win. He would prove his pedigree. And he would demonstrate that there’s power in those legs, enough to push him up a brutal incline like the one leading to the aerodrome where he’d celebrate a solo victory after a tactically brilliant performance.
“I was just thinking of my daughter on that final climb,” said Matthews after soaking up the atmosphere on a hot day in the middle of the Tour. Kaia has grown up in Monaco and she too would share my regular predictions with family.
Who’s going to win the race today? “My dad,” she might say. And yet, although she’s now old enough to understand the images she sees on the TV screen, it’s not often that Kaia has seen her father take a victory. She’s four, and it has been five years since Matthews won two stages and the green jersey at the TDF in 2017.
There is evidence of his accomplishments all around their apartment and although it’s Michael who does the racing, his pro cycling life is a family effort. Before, when he won his stages at the Tour, Matthews jokingly dedicated his victory to Gigi, the long-hair miniature dachshund who was on site in Paris to see him collect the green jersey five years ago. (No one will ever know what the dog thought of that conquest but she certainly did seem pretty happy that Sunday on the Champs-Élysées in 2017.)
This year it was different. The victory in Mende was achieved by Michael but dedicated to Kaia and her mum, Katarina.
They are who he thinks about when he’s suffering, who he credits with making a victory like his in Mende possible. They are who he thought about “all the way up to the finish”. They are who inspire Matthews to get back on the bike after one close-call after another and to keep on striving for victory.
It’s a family effort, he says, and he was quick to point out “how much sacrifice they make for me to make my dreams come true”.
There’s a reason why Matthews can be nominated as a potential winner for so many races. He has a huge engine and a passion for racing. He can sprint. And, as he showed on the road to Mende, he can also climb. He can come back from disappointment and deliver on the promise of success. “Hopefully today,” he said before going to the podium to collect the stage winner’s medal, “I showed them the reason why we sacrifice so much.”
– By Rob Arnold
Zac Williams Galleries
Follow this Australian photographer on Instagram: @z_w_photography