By now, Michael Matthews is an inevitability at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec, as much a part of the scenery of the race as the city ramparts and the yawning expanse of the Saint Lawrence River itself.
In placing third behind Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) on Friday, Matthews secured his sixth podium finish in Québec, yet this could hardly be described as business as usual given that the Jayco-Alula rider had set out on this latest Canadian excursion more in hope than expectation at the end of a season blighted by crashes and illness.
Indeed, in mid-April, Matthews found himself questioning whether he wished to remain a bike rider at all after months of steadfast sacrifice had been unspooled by ill fortune. When COVID-19 forced him to miss Milan-San Remo and a crash at the Tour of Flanders ended his Classics campaign altogether, the Australian briefly considered retirement.
Those thoughts had been cast aside by the time Matthews claimed a fine stage victory in Melfi at the Giro d’Italia, but that triumph hardly marked a turning point. If anything, the next phase of his season only seemed to be as accursed as what had come before. The Glasgow World Championships formed the centrepiece of his summer, but his challenge was ruined by another crash beforehand. Matthews had to pick himself up all over again, using a stint at altitude as a sort of reset.
“I’ve been through stages like this in my career quite a lot, so it’s somehow getting easier to deal with, but it’s still not easy,” Matthews said when he took a seat in the press room on Friday. “When everything is going well in cycling, it’s an amazing sport and you can do what you want. Then you go through these periods where you’re just continuously on your way down and trying to dig yourself out.
“The end of last year was amazing for me and the team, we were just on a roll, but this year, with multiple crashes and COVID, it’s been a roller coaster. But I guess it’s like what they say – it’s not how far you fall, it’s how fast you get back up. Hopefully this can inspire guys who think they are done to keep pushing on and get some motivation, like I’m doing myself.”
Matthews had a month away from racing after the Glasgow Worlds, returning to action with 12th place in the Bretagne Classic at the weekend. The performance offered a glimmer of hope that the final weeks of the season might yet yield something of consequence.
“I was a bit down about not being able to contest the World Championships like I had planned, not being fully capable of reaching my potential,” he said. “The last few weeks have been a bit of a mental game, to be honest.”
Twice a winner in Québec, in 2018 and 2019, Matthews knows the rhythms of this circuit better than anybody else in the peloton, and the stiff headwind along the banks of the Saint Lawrence told him that this year’s edition was unlikely to be disputed on his preferred terms. The chances of burning off his fastest-finishing rivals were immediately reduced and despite Jayco-Alula’s efforts across the afternoon, men like De Lie and Biniam Girmay remained stubbornly in the front group.
“I wouldn’t have minded if it had been a little bit harder today, but there was a block headwind along the water, so it wasn’t really possible for late attacks,” Matthews said. “With a few laps to go, we knew it was going to be a big bunch sprint, and that didn’t suit me as well as the small bunch sprint of other years.”
In one way, Matthews was a victim of his own past success on this circuit. De Lie, who grew up watching this race, explained afterwards that he had studied the Australian’s winning sprints and tried to apply those lessons to his own effort on the Grande Allée. Unfortunately for Matthews, the 21-year-old is a quick learner as well as a rapid finisher.
“We tried to get rid of this guy, but he was still there at the finish,” Matthews grinned, nodding at De Lie who had taken a seat alongside him. “We came here to win, but only good enough for third place.”
Matthews will go again on Sunday at the Grand Prix de Montréal, a race he won in 2018, even if the parcours has been tweaked slightly in the years since. “You guys have added an extra climb just to make it a little harder,” he said. “But we also have Simon Yates here, and he’s going really well. If it’s too hard for me, we’ll pass the cards on to him.”