Cycling has been as aggressive as ever over the last 12 months.
From breakaways sticking it out until the end, to GC favorites rolling the dice and going long, there has been a lot to love about racing recently.
The unpredictability has not gone unnoticed within the peloton. Michael Matthews believes that the uncertainty and disruption caused by the COVID-19 have changed the mentality of some within the peloton, resulting in much more aggressive racing.
“I think guys are not giving up now. Before maybe, if guys weren’t super good, they would back out and wait for another day but now guys want to fight for everything,” Matthews told VeloNews. “I think everyone is stepping up their level and being more professional in lots of different ways and pushing themselves to their absolute limit every single day.
“I’m sure it’s making the racing really exciting to watch on the television and that’s the main thing.”
Matthews returned to Team BikeExchange over the winter on a two-year contract that will see him on the Australian squad through 2022. While he has the relative security of a multi-year deal, many do not and they have had limited opportunities to demonstrate their talents.
As well as uncertainty within the calendar, Matthews believes the financial impact of the pandemic and the resulting effect it has had on teams has had an impact on the way races are ridden.
“There’s a lot more pressure in the peloton, I think that guys are really fighting for their contracts,” Matthews said. “I guess with the Covid times and some teams folding, everything has been turned upside down so the racing is getting a bit more aggressive and there is a bit less respect in the peloton.
“It is pretty sad, but at the same time, you understand because everybody is fighting for their contracts like it’s do or die. It is what it is, it’s just the period of time we’re in at the moment.”
One of the abiding memories of racing during the coronavirus pandemic will be the empty roadsides. While there is a growing number of spectators turning up to watch races as many countries ease their COVID-19 restrictions, it is far away from the scenes we have been used to as fans.
The Belgian and Dutch races during the spring classics were the starkest contrast with pre-pandemic with large swathes of the courses closed off completely to fans. Climbs that would usually be packed three or four deep with screaming spectators were completely empty.
The silence was almost deafening.
“It’s definitely not as enjoyable for us riders. I was speaking to some guys after the Amstel and the last time up the Cauberg you normally can’t hear yourself thinking because there is so much screaming and people having a great time and people enjoying what you are doing on the bike,” Matthews told VeloNews.
“The last time up the Cauberg, this year it felt like we were out on a training ride, riding up the hill as if it was any other day. I guess it makes it a bit less special. You don’t get those goosebump feelings of the fans going crazy on the side of the road.”
While some sports keep their spectators at a distance, one of cycling’s unique selling points is just how close fans can get to their favorite riders. It’s possible to rock up to a random parking lot in France and get a picture with Peter Sagan or head down to a town center in Belgium and get the autograph of Marianne Vos.
Matthews really enjoys the up-close and personal interaction with fans at races. It helps him to dig deep when he needs it and makes him feel appreciated when he’s laying it all down on the road.
“We all push ourselves even harder when we have our fans cheering on the side of the road and going to sign-on and being able to take pictures with fans and doing autographs. You really miss it once it’s gone,” Matthews said. “You miss that feeling of the people respecting what you do and appreciating the effort you put in at the same time.
“I’ve always appreciated it, especially the fans on the side of the road screaming for us, that really gives you the feeling that you’re doing something special at the moment and people really appreciate what you are doing.
“I think going to sign-on and signing autographs and taking pictures makes you feel special in a way and without it, it makes you feel like you’re leaving your house and going on a training ride. It’s hard to feel the difference between going for training and racing these days.”