Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
When you think of the Tour of Flanders, Australian contenders don’t really spring to mind. No Australian has ever won an edition of the men’s race since its inception in 1913 and outside of cycling specialist media and livestream channels the Monument barely if at all rates a mention in mainstream press here.
Traditional cycling countries have long had a stranglehold on the race. Belgian riders have won it 69 times. Italy and the Netherlands are the next closest at 11 a piece.
Only one British racer, Tom Simpson in 1961, has celebrated a victory there and Americans, like Australians, have never been able to breakthrough.
However, on the back of a season where scripts were torn up and WorldTour teams competed as if every race were the last, there is evidence to argue that Flanders too could deviate from the norm.
Michael Matthews was one of the WorldTour riders selected to compete in a virtual, lockdown edition of Flanders last year amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The Australian was well-placed before he suffered what was reported as a ‘mechanical’ (read: IT issue) at the base of the Oude Kwaremont and it was game over.
Technically it was Matthews’ second career appearance at Flanders, following a proper debut in 2019 when he placed sixth – 17 seconds adrift of winner Alberto Bettiol.
In that edition Kasper Asgreen, who won E3 last week, and Alexander Kristoff rounded out the podium, with Mathieu van der Poel fourth.
Van der Poel on Sunday will enter Flanders as defending champion and as one of the ‘big three’ including Wout van Aert and world champion Julian Alaphilippe. The trio have been waxed lyrical about all spring and touted as the men to beat, with few looking beyond that. However, the classics have so far thrown up some surprise winners (hello Jasper Stuyven at Milan-San Remo) and adopting a broader scope is warranted.
History suggests it’d be pushing it to include Australians within that scope, sure. But after last season and on the back of a highly competitive spring so far then why not entertain it?
Matthews last year, before the season was suspended for almost five months, told Cyclingnews about his desire to one day podium at Flanders.
Flanders from memory has never been raised nor referenced in my interviews with the 30-year-old, whose early season focus typically revolves around Milan-San Remo and especially the Ardennes.
I’d more associate, if anyone, Heinrich Haussler, also down to start, with Flanders than Matthews.
Yet the latter appears to have made a seamless transition from Sunweb (now Team DSM) back to BikeExchange this season and embraced a fresh start, as results suggest.
Matthews has been in touch with the touted top favourites from Paris-Nice, where he marked a stint in the yellow jersey, to Milan-San Remo, where he was sixth, to E3, before cramps spoiled his day, and placed fifth in the lead group at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, which van Aert won. There, Matthews subtly pointed to a tilt at Flanders.
“There were seven of us left in the final for the kick and I didn’t have the legs to win the sprint unfortunately, but I gave it my best. The team did an awesome job today, so I’m looking forward to next weekend now,” Matthews said after Gent-Wevelgem.
The former Tour de France green jersey champion was literally coming down a mountain with a soigneur he has employed full-time when I last spoke to him before his season debut at Paris-Nice in early March. He’d been at a “full gas” three-week altitude team training camp in Sierra Nevada, immediately after which he’d admitted he was “pretty f—ked”.
“Everything was arranged around my cycling so I could just train, eat and sleep,” he’d said.
“All the signs are pointing to some good, hopefully, results. I’m excited, let’s say.”
The soigneur is supporting Matthews throughout the season and now lives next door to him.
“It’s definitely helping a lot with everything to do with training. The transition has been much easier now too, just try enjoy life and focus on the right things to focus on with cycling, without thinking about Sunweb all the time,” he said.
Above all, Matthews appears to be prospering from the dynamics at BikeExchange after experiencing apparent frustration with the internal workings of his former squad.
Team DSM, and previous incarnations of it, has a celebrated history of developing young, lesser known riders into stars. However, there is a list, think Marc Hirschi, Tom Dumoulin, Marcel Kittel, John Degenkolb, who have, after rises to fame with the team, left well before their prime years were over.
“I’m used to Sunweb where we’re bloody having thousands of meetings every single day on training camps. And even when we’re not on training camps, we’re having calls a couple of times a week about certain strategies and things like this,” Matthews said.
“Whereas this team is a lot more the opposite, it’s a bit freer for all and sort of get yourself ready, which works for me because I’m normally one of the guys that puts in a lot outside the team, to make sure I’m ready. So hopefully the guys around me are also ready.”
Matthews at the onset of the season didn’t fear that new teammates and those he has reunited with wouldn’t be ready.
“Everyone is very professional. I saw at the camp everyone is making sure that they’re doing everything possible,” he said. “Here it’s more like there’s trust in the riders that they have their plan of how to get to where they need to be, and they do it.”
Matthews has returned to BikeExchange not only as a more celebrated puncheur and outright leader but also as an older rider of the squad, looked at to set the tone.
“It’s the same sort of feel. We’re missing some of the older Aussie guys that sort of created that culture that we had in the team but in the end us guys now are the older Aussie guys that need to create that culture ourselves,” he said.
“Between me and Durbo [Luke Durbridge], Heppy [Michael Hepburn] and these sorts of guys, we need to be those guys that create the culture that sets the tone for everyone.”
If ever there was a year for the tone to be reset at Flanders, it is perhaps this.