AUSTRALIAN CYCLIST Michael Matthews’ sense of sportsmanship accompanied him on to the Tour France podium to accept the coveted green jersey, a dream come true for the 26-year-old star. “Never nice to take a jersey like this hope @marcelkittel is OK,” he tweeted.
Kittel, a German superstar who rides for Quickstep Floors and winner of a remarkable five stages, was injured in a crash early on stage 17 and abandoned the race. That left Matthews in possession of the points title -- second in importance only to the overall victory – with four stages left to race.
Only a similar disaster befalling himself can stop him becoming only the third Australian to win the category, behind Robbie McEwen in 2002, 2004 and 2006 and Baden Cooke, who narrowly pipped McEwen in 2003. Having trailed Kittel by a demoralising 133 points after stage 11, Matthews refused to concede defeat and chipped away at the deficit, reducing it to single figures when he won the intermediate sprint after the crash that took out his rival. He now leads another German, Andre Greipel by an insurmountable 160 points.
Matthews is also now in the box seat to win the blue-ribbon final stage on the Champs-Elysees, in front of the huge crowd of Parisians who always turn out for the occasion.
Matthews has benefited from the departures of two other gun sprinters, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, one thrown off the race and the other badly hurt when they were involved together in an earlier crash, and now Kittel, but the three-week marathon is always a war of attrition in many ways, and survival is sometimes the name of the game. The first rule is to stay on your bike and he has done that when many of the big names have not. Regardless of the circumstances, if he hangs on to the jersey he will be regarded as having fully earned it.
With two stage wins in three days, he has had a massive impact on the Tour, possibly enough to make him a candidate for Australian sportsman of the year at this early stage.
He won’t lack someone to celebrate with in Paris on Sunday, either. His room-mate within the Sunweb team, Warren Barguil, all but confirmed himself as the winner of another coveted prize, the polka dot jersey for the King of the Mountains.
The ambitious Matthews, known as “Bling” throughout the cycling world for his fondness for jewellery, admitted the moment he tried on the emerald garment for the first time was a dream come true but was muted in his celebrations.
“After getting 50 points yesterday (when he won the stage) I knew it was game on,” he said. “It’s been such a good battle up to this point and I hope Kittel is OK. I feel sorry for him. It’s never nice to get a jersey like this but I’ve worked really hard for it and it’s a really nice feeling...”
Days earlier, Matthews had signalled his determination to fight the race out to the bitter end, telling the Herald Sun: “I feel like in this race there is no giving up. As long as you keep trying, it’s going to work out.”
Although he had a stint with the Australian team Orica-Scott before joining Sunweb this year, Matthews is a less familiar figure to Australian fans than most of his contemporaries. That’s because he has adopted a policy of not returning home for the five-week Summer of Cycling in January and February, preferring to train in the depths of winter in Europe.
Today’s tough mountain stage, which included the infamous Col du Galibier, gave Slovenian Primoz Roglic his first win at the Tour. Leader Chris Froome came home third. The triple champion survived attacks from his two closest rivals, Colombian Rigoberto Uran and France’s Romain Bardet, and has a lead of 27 seconds, with one remaining opportunity for him to be chased down in the mountains before another time trial which will probably put him further ahead.
Orica-Scott’s English rider Simon Yates lost time in the general classification, finishing seventh, but retains a lead of almost two and a half minutes in the battle for the white jersey for best young rider.