Barring a major disaster, Aussie Michael Matthews will be presented with the green jersey at the Tour de France on Sunday.
The 26-year-old has ridden with skill, determination and tactical nous to top the sprinters standings as many of his rivals have fallen by the wayside on the gruelling three-week tour.
Slovakian Peter Sagan was the pre-race favourite for the green jersey but was disqualified after causing a crash in Stage 4 that saw legendary sprinter, Mark Cavendish, withdraw from the event due to injury.
Matthews has picked up points in most stages, whether in the intermediate (mid-stage) sprints, seven of which he’s won, or at the end of stages, where he amassed six top-10 finishes through the first 11 stages.
Wins in Stage 14 and 16 followed, meaning that when previous points leader Marcel Kittel crashed on Wednesday, Matthews was the new man in front.
Should he hold the lead through to the finish in Paris on Sunday, as is highly likely, the Canberran will join fellow Australians Robbie McEwen (2002, 2004, 2006) and Baden Cooke (2003) on the honour roll as green jersey winners.
And if that happens, there’s no doubt that, at some point, he’ll reflect on a fateful decision made a little over 10 years ago.
The 15-year-old Matthews was, by his own admission, “heading in the wrong direction, hanging out with the wrong people”.
But his high school PE teacher suggested he attend a talent identification program at the ACT Academy of Sport, and being pegged as a young man who could ride a bike fast changed his life.
Glenn Doney was running that program and says what we call ‘talent’ is more than physiology.
“You need to have skills … and what we call ‘the mongrel factor’, not to put up the white flag if things get tough,” Doney, now head cycling coach at the VIS, told The New Daily.
“You pin the number on them and they’re a racer.
“You need coachability: you need to be able to listen, review performances, and apply what you’ve learnt. And then attention to detail, as well.”
Matthews had all of that, and more. He had the motivation not to fall in with the wrong crowd.
Cycling people were the right crowd.
Within a couple of years, it was clear that he’d made a good decision.
In 2009, he won the road race, time trial, and Under-23 road race at the Oceania Road Championships and the following year he was a world champion, after winning the under-23 road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Melbourne.
He rode in his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta a Espana, in 2013, and promptly won two stages.
The following year he won a stage of the Giro d’Italia and last year he completed the set of Grand Tour stage victories when he took out Stage 10 of the Tour de France.
“When he started winning stages of the Giro and Vuelta it was confirmation … a validation that this guy’s here and he has more than potential,” says Doney.
Despite his affinity for expensive clothes and jewellery, which earned him the nickname ‘Bling’, everyone who has dealt with Matthews describes him as humble and hard working.
Doney says, no matter what happens in France over the next few days, Matthews won’t change.
“He’ll go on being his normal, laid back self,” he said.
“Tick that one off, and move on, because he has other goals.
“He’ll be back into doing the hard work again.”