Life is full of emotions; some good, some bad – some just average. It’s absolutely human to be happy or sad, frustrated or elated, and if we didn’t experience a spectrum of moods we’d be automatons without a care in the world.
Pro cycling is a sport of emotion, and the riders expose their feelings upon crossing the finish line, often suffering from both physical and psychological exhaustion.
So it was that Australian rider Michael Matthews sat in a gutter, trying to keep to himself, after finishing seventh place during Wednesday’s sprint into Colmar. Matthews’s Sunweb team had ridden the front in the final 20 kilometers, hoping to set him up for the win. He was fast, but six riders finished ahead of him. And he was upset, dreadfully upset in fact.
But Matthews is a professional, he needed to cool down after a hot stage, and so that’s what he did. Eventually.
He put his hands in his face and possibly even shed a tear. He’s done that before and he’ll probably do it again. Matthews takes his racing seriously and makes all the sacrifices he has to in order to be the best he can possibly be.
When it goes wrong, he takes it personally.
While the media waited to get a few quotes, he avoided the stares and just looked down, reflecting on the work of his Sunweb teammates, and what had happened only minutes earlier. The team was entirely committed to his cause. But in the sprint, another one won by Peter Sagan, things didn’t go well. The simple fact is, he stuffed it up.
Others shrug their shoulders and tell us, “That’s cycling.” Some even bore us rotten with that ragged old quote: “We’ll just take it day by day.” But Matthews, although sullen, morose even, didn’t have to say much for us to realize how personally he took the loss.
“At the moment,” he said, “I’m getting a bit confused in the sprints for some reason.”
Watch the replay, read the race report, discover more details of what happened but to paraphrase the scene in relation to Matthews, the stage went roughly like this:
When the route was announced, he saw stage five and thought: “Perfect. Ideal for me.”
Just after the Tour de Suisse, team staff drove the stage 5 course, took notes, and planned their attack.
When the bunch arrived on the last of four climbs, a sea of red Sunweb jerseys flooded the front of the peloton and set a solid pace.
Down the hill. Onto the streets of Colmar. Speeding to the finish, around a few corners and through a roundabout, and then it was time to sprint.
Until the 3km-to-go mark, everything had gone right for Matthews. The closer it got to the sprint, however, the more it started to unravel. He said he was “quite good,” that there were “some crazy moves,” that he was “pushed back,” that it was “a washing machine.”
Matthews’s emotions were on display. And Michael had to sit there on the bike, cooling down with his head tilting down, wishing he didn’t see the scrum of people ready to tackle him with questions.
He didn’t hide but he wasn’t happy.
“I just need to get my head in the right place and keep trying but this is definitely not what I wanted today,” he said.
It was a scene reminiscent of stage 10 in 2017. Back then, during his first year with Team Sunweb, he turned up at the Tour fully motivated. In peak form, he was the outright leader. He never hid his intentions: he wanted to win the green jersey. And when he faltered his emotions were on display.
That stage in 2017 was, “really one of the days where we needed to nail it. We didn’t.”
It is the Tour and he is ambitious, well supported, and capable. But it’s bike racing and things don’t always go right, not every day. It’s like life.
We all deal with setbacks in our own way. Michael Matthews happened to find himself searching for answers at exactly the time when cameras were lined up and journalists were asking questions.
“I’m just a bit confused,” he repeated. “I’m a bit annoyed. I’m a bit upset.”
A couple of years ago, he was in the doldrums at the halfway mark. At the finish in Paris, he stood on the podium in the centre of the Champs-Elysées, collected his green jersey, and grinned like he was the king of the world.
“They kept asking me to get off the podium,” he told me later, “but I stayed up there as long as I could. I overstayed my welcome and I didn’t care, I’d won the green jersey!
“I worked so hard for that moment, I wanted to soak it up.
“When a plans comes together, it’s impossible to explain the sense of satisfaction.”
Cycling conjures all sorts of emotions. There was frustration in 2017 but also elation.
To appreciate the highs, you need the lows.
Matthews isn’t an automaton. He’s a rider who knows what he’s capable of and when it doesn’t happen, confusion reigns. But that doesn’t mean his race is over.