Giro d’Italia stage 3 winner Michael Matthews let out a huge shout of joy as he crossed the finish line in first place in Melfi, but as the Australian explained later, his latest victory, and there are plenty of them, had been no ordinary triumph for him.
As recently as a fortnight before starting the Giro d’Italia, Matthews, 32, had been entertaining thoughts of retirement, he told reporters afterwards, after a very tough start to the season.
But instead, he turned things around in dramatic fashion at the Giro d’Italia, claiming his third Giro stage win and tenth in a Grand Tour almost as early as possible for him in the race. If Matthews was ever away, he’s certainly back now.
“To sum up, it’s been a roller coaster this season,” Matthews told reporters. “After last year with a stage win of the Tour de France and getting bronze at the Worlds, I had a really good end to last season and I wanted to stay on a roll. I wanted to start this season like I ended last season.”
“Instead, I had Covid at Paris-Nice, so I couldn’t do some Classics like Milan-San Remo and then I crashed badly at Flanders.”
“With the team bringing me here, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but they backed me 110% riding from kilometre zero. I can’t thank the team enough for this opportunity.”
“The boys did a time trial of 212km today. For them, for Gerry [Ryan, team owner], for Brent [Copeland, team manager], for the whole team – this win was me showing my appreciation back to them.”
Overcoming the doubts
Matthews explained that such had been the dip in his performance, he had even begun to think about taking early retirement in mid-April. But instead, he battled on.
“I think a couple of weeks ago, I was contemplating whether I wanted to do this anymore. I had a few weeks off the bike to assess my situation and spoke with some people to help me with my decision.”
“But I knew that cycling is my sport, my goal, my hobby, my dream. I wouldn’t want to do something else. I’m getting emotional, now but this isn’t just another win. it’s something special.”
“On the podium, I heard it had been eight years since I’d won a stage of the Giro, that makes me feel very old, unfortunately.”
“To come back and win in the Giro like I did here on a tough parcours – it’s not just another win, it’s a win for the whole team. And it’s a win for everyone involved in helping me get back to the top level of my sport.”
That Matthews could come back to the pinnacle and take such a big victory is in fact anything but surprising. This may be his first win since the Tour de France stage in Mende last year, but his last non-WorldTour victory was his 24th of 40 to date when he clinched the category 1.1 Vuelta a la Rioja race in Spain way back in 2016. In fact, only 12 of Matthews’ 40 wins to date are not at the WorldTour level. In that sense, a victory at the Giro was only to be expected.
A team game – and having fun
But while it’s his name in the Giro d’Italia winners’ palmares, Matthews paid fulsome tribute to his teammate, team and staff for helping to lay the foundations of his victory on Monday.
“A lot of guys on this squad have been together for a long time, pretty much since the start of my career and I consider them all like my family, it’s like mum and dad, or my brother and sister,” he said.
“Everyone has had their little bit in my career, they’ve all seen what I’ve been through in this year so far. They’ve seen how much effort I’ve put in, But I’ve never given up.”
“A lot of other guys in a similar situation to me would have just given up. But I never do. The team knows how much it means to me to get that victory.”
Matthews singled out Italian national champion Filippo Zana, who played a key part in shredding the peloton of its out-and-out sprinters on the two late classified climbs. That way Matthews, as an allrounder with a fast turn of speed in his legs, had a much better chance of going for the win.
“He put a lot of people under big pressure on that climb, including me. I knew I needed to suffer as much as I could. I knew how well he was going on the climb climbs from the Tour de Romandie where he was riding very well for Eddie [Dunbar], and they did a great training camp leading into this Giro.”
“It was incredible for him to commit to me like he did today when he had the tricolore on. I sometimes forget and then I look up and realise we have the Italian champion’s jersey in our team during the Giro, which is really cool. I can’t thank all the guys enough, but he, in particular, rode amazingly well on the climbs.”
After that, it was up to Matthews to finish off all his team’s hard work, and if he fulfilled that part in proceedings to perfection, it was anything but planned, he said.
“I don’t even know where I was in the final corner, maybe in third wheel?”, he asked rhetorically. “Going into this Giro I just wanted to have fun. I’d missed the fun in the sport this year so far and I’d put too much pressure on myself.”
“Today, I just turned my brain off and let my natural instincts run wild Instead of thinking where I needed to be.”
“I had a smile on my face around that last corner because I knew it was possible to go for it. I felt like I was in a sprint at training with my friends, sprinting for a sign on the edge of town, except this was with a crowd watching the Giro.”
Asked how important it was to have fun in order to be able to win, he replied “good question.”
“If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, you’ll never win. So having a good team, wanting to be in the race and wanting to fight for it – that’s the attitude you need to have.”
“So it’s fun first, win later.” And if that win comes at the Giro d’Italia, then so much the better.