What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
If you didn’t know how good Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews was, you do now. Having won the fifth stage of the 2013 Vuelta a España, Matthews carved-out his best career result to date and showed the world once again the worth of allowing riders to develop at their own pace.
“Everything leading up to this point has just been progression to get me to this level,” said Matthews, who is riding in his first Grand Tour even though he has been professional for three years now.
Starting cycling in the BMX scene, Matthews came through the Australian National Team program on the road, just as Leigh Howard, the Cameron and Travis Meyer, Simon Clarke, and many other top Australian professionals have.
Matthews acquired the nickname ‘Bling’ early on, because alongside his numerous tattoos of varying genre and his wild haircuts, he loves his flamboyant earrings, watches and necklaces.
Hovering around five percent body fat, Bling’s main physical concern as a junior was whether his six-pack was chiseled enough to be considered an eight-pack.
He had more facial hair than my Dad when he was 17, and legs like stripped back tree trunks.
His hair was always perfectly gelled, and his clothes were brand named. As he drove around in his Subaru Forester with 21-inch wheels wrapped in pink-and-white walled tires, Bling’s nickname wasn’t a challenging one for the team to devise.
Matthews isn’t just a ‘natural talent’. At one training camp in 2008 we were discussing his knee pains and he confessed to me that he probably shouldn’t have recommenced his post-off season training with a 180km ride, complete with five lots of five-kilometre strength endurance efforts.
The National Track Team tried to recruit him at one stage but he pulled the pin after one training camp, having confessed ‘you’d have to be mad to want to ride around in circles all day’.
He was good enough to just ‘drop in’ to the National Track Team, the team where guys are breaking world records and winning World Titles, but he wasn’t keen so he just said ‘no’.
“It’s just so boring,” he used to say.
I have never been a fan of the reference to ‘natural talent’, it refers to something our world doesn’t understand yet and I don’t like that.
Matthews was extremely ‘talented’, but his upbringing definitely helped shape the outcome. The son of a butcher, he grew up not only eating vast amounts of meat but also working out in the gym from age ten.
These cultural adaptations helped sculpt the athletic machine he is.
Guys like ‘Bling’ would excel in whatever sport they chose, as long as physical ability was the dominating factor.
Matthews isn’t just a sprinter, his career has consisted of many stellar time trial results, and his U23 World Championships victory outlined just how well he can manage on tough courses.
Having grown up being an amazing athlete as well as a handsome guy, Matthews oozes confidence, and that’s a trait of a champions.
He would always get pissed-off if someone said he wasn’t a climber, and that’s what has gotten him where he is today, the belief that he can do anything. Confidence is a powerful tool.
I’m not yet convinced which result is more impressive, the third place on Stage 4 or his win on Stage 5.
It’s an obviously important weapon for a super-fast-man to have ‘the power to climb’ – riders like Peter Sagan show you why – but to finish behind Javier Moreno and Fabian Cancellara and into third place is simply incredible for a 22-year-old ‘sprinter’.
I actually always considered ‘Bling’ to be more talented than Sagan, I raced them both as an U23 and Bling was a much better all-round rider.
It wasn’t until Sagan made the huge leap into the pro-ranks and started destroying experienced pros (like Valverde in Paris-Nice of 2010) that I became confused.
Regardless of how good an Australian professional has been as an U23, no one has made that sort of transition before.
It’s that aforementioned ‘slow progression’ though, that has allowed Matthews a smooth growth into his current podium-occupancy, and if we follow his past trend of results, we should expect to start seeing Matthews more and more.