Every four years, I watch the Olympics, and every four years, I watch sports such as diving, swimming, and gymnastics, and question my life decisions.
As Michael Matthews heads to southern Italy with the maglia rosa safely covering his shoulders, it’s very much a case of a job well done for his Australian team during the Giro d’Italia’s three-day opening gambit in Ireland.
Winning Friday’s team time trial in Belfast and putting the highly likeable veteran Canadian Svein Tuft in pink on his 37th birthday was the perfect start for Orica-GreenEDGE, even if it followed a script that had seemingly been written by every commentator before the race.
With the likes of Luke Durbridge, Cameron Meyer and Michael Hepburn – all past or current Australian national time trial champions – in GreenEDGE’s squad, not to mention Tuft (himself an eight-time national ITT champion), victory in the 21.7km collective race against the clock was always on the cards.
It certainly helped when the luck of the starting order meant Orica-GreenEDGE – who rolled down the ramp before a huge shower pulverised a dozen or so teams sandwiched in the middle – benefited from largely dry roads and a favourable tailwind.
Either way, directeur sportif Matt White had been so confident of the logical win that he had told his men to make sure Tuft crossed the line first in a bid to secure the ideal birthday present.
Not that the gift was in any way unmerited by one of the more intriguing figures in the peloton.
Tuft, whose first name is pronounced ‘Swain’, fell in love with cycling in his teenage years when he used to elope for days on end on his mountain bike, dragging a trailer filled with his gear and his dog, Bear.
The grandson of a Norwegian Olympic cross-country skier, Tuft once rode to a team training camp some 1600km away with both trailer and dog, simply to build up his base fitness levels.
Last year Tuft, then 36, became the oldest first-time Tour de France participant in the race’s post-World War II era and, finishing last, rekindled something of the old romance of the lanterne rouge that has been lost in recent years.
But putting Tuft in pink was only one half of the plan for Orica-GreenEDGE.
With Matthews entering the race in stellar form, and bonus seconds – ten, six and four – available for the top three riders on all road stages, the next chapter of the script dictated that the man they call ‘Bling’ would have a new wardrobe addition worthy of his flamboyant piercings and wavy hair.
Matthews duly delivered – and judging by the speed at which the Orica-GreenEDGE mechanics souped up both his and Tuft’s custom-made pink Scott Foil steeds, we can safely say that this was all part of the master plan.
Yet Matthews’ route to the top of the standings did involve a little bit of improvisation.
On Saturday’s stage two, the 23-year-old could only manage eighth place in the bunch sprint (won by the peerless Marcel Kittel of Germany) but a split in the peloton from 20th place downwards meant Matthews picked up the three unofficial bonus seconds that propelled him into the outright lead.
On another grim, grey and largely wet day in Ireland, Matthews extended his lead at the top on Sunday – despite once again failing to impose himself in the final sprint (which was taken by that man Kittel, this time coming imperiously from behind to pip Britain’s Ben Swift).
Matthews had been involved in a crash some 80 kilometres from the stage-three finish in Dublin and did exactly what he had to do to stay in touch during a highly technical finish to cross the line safely in the lead group.
Another split in the pack meant that all his teammates except Brett Lancaster lost 11 seconds on general classification. This meant that Matthews finished the Irish triumvirate with a comfy eight-second cushion over the veteran Italian Alessandro Petacchi at the top of the standings.
How long can Matthews hold on to the pink jersey?
On paper, he could keep it all the way until next weekend. Tuesday’s perplexingly short 112-kilometre stage to Bari is pancake flat (and should see Kittel secure an early hat-trick of wins), while ahead of Friday’s flat final run into Foligno, Wednesday and Thursday’s stages conclude with the kind of uphill ramps that suit Matthews’ sprinting style.
In short, Matthews and Orica-GreenEDGE may have more than just the pink jersey to celebrate this week; a stage win is a real possibility, especially in stage five to Viggiano.
And if the eight-kilometre, Cat.2 climb that ends Thursday’s 247-kilometre Stage Six does prove too much for Matthews and his quest to retain the maglia rosa, then teammates Pieter Weening and Ivan Santaromita could well be on call to take up the baton.
So far, so very good for Orica-GreenEDGE, who will understand the necessity of making hay while the sun shines. Once the race enters the second and third weeks, the Australian making the headlines is unlikely to be Matthews, but the veteran Cadel Evans.
BMC’s strong ride in the TTT means Evans is perfectly poised on GC, having taken considerable chunks of time from all his rivals except Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
It’s too early to tell if Evans will prove the doubters wrong – including me, who failed to include him in a predicted top ten last week. But ‘so far, so good’ is an idiom that also rings very true with Cuddles at this stage in the race.