GENT, Belgium (VN) — Just one month ago, Michael Matthews‘s cobbled classics campaign appeared to be over.
In late February Matthews, 27, crashed hard during Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. While he finished the race, an X-ray revealed a fracture to his left shoulder. Even with several weeks of recovery time, the injury was sure to cause Matthews severe pain over the brutal cobblestones of Belgium.
Matthews, however, decided to race the cobbled classics, and in two outings showed promising results, despite his injury. On Friday the 27-year-old Australian finished E3 Harelbeke with the main chase group behind winner Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors).
On Sunday Matthews survived the surges to finish Gent-Wevelgem in the front group of 23 riders.
“I’m not making excuses or anything but each race I’m getting better and better,” Matthews said. “I think with my broken shoulder only three weeks ago now, I have to be happy where I’m at.”
The two results marked a stepping stone for Matthews. Known for his fast sprint and his versatility in hilly races, Matthews’s has won a plethora of grand tour stages, as well as stages at shorter multi-day races. His points classification victory at the 2017 Tour de France elevated him alongside the peloton’s other versatile riders, such as Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet.
Yet Matthews lacks the major classics victory to truly elevate him to Sagan or Van Avermaet’s level. He’s been close at the Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege on multiple occasions. Matthews traditionally skips the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, where Sagan and Van Avermaet thrive.
Could Matthews someday day be a favorite for Flanders? The Australian says he has aspirations to battle up the Koppenberg and Paterberg.
“For sure, I think you’ve got to start somewhere,” Matthews said. “We have a good team around me that knows these courses really well and can position me in the right spot at the right time.”
Those aspirations will have to wait. As he did in 2018, Matthews will skip Flanders and Roubaix and instead participate in Spain’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco, before returning to the low countries for the Ardennes races in mid-April. Matthews was fourth at last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, missing the podium by a bike length.
But in the coming years, Matthews could target the heavier classics. And his results in 2018 could point to long-term success on the pavé.
Quick-Step’s dominating tactics at E3 Harelbeke kept Matthews from battling for the victory. Yet at Gent-Wevelgem, Matthews survived the multiple ascents of the Kemmelberg, as well as the dirt Ploegstreet roads to come into the finale alongside Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Philippe Gilbert.
With his fast finish, Matthews seemed like an obvious contender for a reduced sprint. He faded to 13th place in the kick to the line.
Matthews chalked the finish up to fatigue. He was so tired, in fact, that he altered his tactics in the final kilometers—rather than push on toward the finish, he tried to slow the group to allow his teammate Edward Theuns to catch back on.
“I was totally empty. I knew that my sprint wasn’t going to be good today,” Matthews said. “In the end, every time I got out of the seat, I was cramping. I knew from there it was going to be super difficult for the sprint. I gave it a go but I couldn’t even get out of the seat.”
Still, Matthews said he gained valuable knowledge from his two races on the cobblestones. He learned to push through the pain, even though he had bad legs. He learned how to gut out a result on the cobblestones in lieu of the pain. Both skills are required to win at Flanders.
“These races, you need to do them repeatedly to be able to know where you can save energy and where you can use your energy,” he said. “I think these last two years I’ve learned a little bit of that, where I can relax and where I can stay focused.”