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Aérogramme Day 14: Will to Survive

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The Struggle to Survive

Relatively speaking, today was a pretty good day for Australian rider Michael Matthews. On the hilly stage from Rodez to Mende, he managed to finish in 108th place, 15 minutes and 12 seconds behind stage winner Stephen Cummings of the inspired MTN-Qhubeka team. For Matthews, such results are a vast improvement. Just days ago, Matthews was being chased by the broom wagon as he struggled each day just to finish. As a result, he had a firm grip on the Red Lantern classification, that dubious award assigned to the last-place rider in the Tour.

Matthews was a victim of the high-speed crash that decimated the field on Stage 3 in Belgium. With the pack racing at over 78 kilometers an hour, the carnage was heavy. And his Orica-GreenEdge team was nothing if not destroyed. Simon Gerrans and Daryl Impey were forced out of the race immediately, while Michael Albasini dropped out the following day. Matthews, however, labored on with ribs badly bruised, if not fractured. “For the past two weeks I was ready to pull out each day. A week ago I certainly didn’t expect to be here,”  Matthews said before the start of the stage in Rodez. “I was last (i.e. in the standings) because the day that I crashed, I was the only one from that crash to finish the stage. I don’t like being last but I also keep it at the back of my mind that I was the only one to get through from that crash.”

Words & images: James Startt
From: Mende, France

The resiliency of bike racers is never more evident than in stage racing, where a rider must finish each stage within the time cutoff, just to be able to continue. Riders will often struggle intensely if they have a chance to recover reasonably the following day. What Matthews endured, day in and day out at this year’s Tour goes beyond reason, even by bike racing standards.

“I’ve rarely seen someone that courageous,” said Daniel Alain, who drives the broom wagon at the Tour. “The day he crashed, he spent over five minutes in the ambulance and then got out and finished alone. And for the next week, day in and day out, he finished with the broom wagon. In all my years at the back of the race, I’ve never seen anyone struggle to hold on for so long without finally dropping out. What courage!”

“I’ve just worked too hard to pull out,” Matthews explained. “But it has been really hard. I needed help just getting out of bed, so trying to climb with the best climbers in the world was just massive. It’s hard to race when you can’t breath. But I knew that my legs were good, even when my ribs were really bad. That’s what got me through the stages, even though it was not easy getting through the Pyrénées with only half my breath. Getting through each day and making the time cut became my motivation, that and hoping I would progress.”

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While Matthews admits that, “the normal me would have probably dropped out,” this is the Tour de France. Just last year he won the coveted pink jersey in the Giro d’Italia. This year the Tour was his main goal.

And while progress has been slow, Matthews has found reason to be optimistic. He is no longer racing with the broom wagon and has actually moved up five places in the standings. Ireland’s Sam Bennet has now taken over the rankings at the bottom of the list.

Matthews in fact, is even considering going on the attack in the days to come. A strong punchy rider, who climbs well and sprints even better, he is setting his sights on the final week of the Tour. “You know, the stage to Gap really suits my capabilities. I’m still not 100%, but hopefully in the next couple of days I will get there. And then of course there is the Champs Elysées in Paris. I’ve got to say that that Paris is on my mind.”

Check in daily as Startt brings a different personality to Aérogramme.