Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
There was a ruefulness about the look of Michael Matthews as he waited to accept his bouquet of flowers on the second step of the podium after Sunday’s men’s elite World Championships.
Matthews’ expression provided evidence of his belief that he had just missed a very good opportunity to become the wearer of the rainbow jersey for the next year.
Writing about the favourites for the event last week, I mentioned the strength in depth of the Australian squad, which on paper at least looked to be one of the best equipped teams in the race. This in fact proved to be the case, with Heinrich Haussler and Simon Gerrans up with Matthews as the race entered its decisive phase.
I also stated that this depth could prove to be a curse as well as a blessing, and so it proved as Matthews later heaped praise on the efforts of Haussler but stated that he and Gerrans were in fact racing against each other over the finishing kilometres.
After the race he told Cycling News that Gerrans was not working for him but against him, despite the finish being better suited to Matthews’ particular talent, something borne out by his eventual silver medal.
“Heinrich did a really good job trying to pull it back a bit on the climb but he was working all through the race for me to keep it together and keep me in position,” said Matthews.
“So he didn’t really have much left in the end. Heinrich did a really good job today and kept himself out of trouble and put me in the perfect position, which is a really hard job to do. I’m really grateful for that.”
Speaking of Gerrans, he said: “We were sprinting against each other unfortunately. We had two leaders so it is was it is.”
When a team has two such powerful riders it is often a tough call for the manager to decide who should be the leader, but in this case one would have thought that the pair would have made the call between themselves. With Peter Sagan up ahead but not by much, might not Gerrans have led the charge to close the gap with Matthews on his wheel, thus allowing his teammate the opportunity to unleash the spring that saw him mentioned as a top favourite beforehand?
In my opinion the answer to that query is a definitive yes, and Matthews would agree.
“It’s good in way [to place second] but bad in way because we’ve not won one yet in these last few years. I think maybe we need a change of strategy.”
That strategy quite obviously would have seen him as the protected rider and Gerrans working for him. There was a noticeable lack of criticism from him directly towards Gerrans which is both to his credit and a reflection of the fact that the call was made by management. But that look on the podium said more than a thousand words: second might very well have been first, and he knows it.
This, however, is to take nothing from the swashbuckling effort that Sagan unleashed to claim the coveted jersey of world champion, a move that swept away in a few short kilometres the memory of so many close calls this season.
Speaking at the official press conference after the race, he was asked if this win made up for the many second places in the preceding months.
“Well,” he said with a glint in his eye and to much laughter from the gathered press, “I was winning so much that it was getting boring for the fans… and the other riders.”
Looking at the faces of the riders in his wake as he set off up the penultimate climb to break free, Sagan was the only one without a grimace. Instead, his look was one of focused intent. He knew he had to go there, sensing fatigue among the peloton. It was this determination to give it his all, combined with absolutely sublime bike handling skills, that saw him extend his lead with every corner that won the gold medal.
The move was worthy of a world champion, melding the finesse of one of the best riders in the world with a power in each pedal stroke that bordered on the violent.
This was a win that saw just about every rider that passed him after he had flung his bike away smile as they clapped his hand, showing just how popular this charismatic man is. Some had and may still have him pegged as a cocksure braggart but I’ll take his brand of style and infectious demeanour over the weary, guarded style of many other pros any day.
Those who ride and maybe race the odd weekend know that cycling is supposed to be fun. It is this joy that enumerates from Sagan due to the simple fact that he is allowed to race bikes that I think lies at the heart of his appeal.
Also impressive was the sentiment with which he spoke immediately at the end of the race. Rather than thanking any higher power or focusing just on himself, Sagan chose to mention the crisis of Syrian refugees as they head to Europe to escape war.
“I was finding motivation in the world,” he said.
“I think it’s a big problem, with Europe and all this stuff that’s happening. I want to just say, because this was very big motivation for me. I want to win today and say this thing: the population in the world – we have to change, because in the next years, can be all different.”
“And also, I think this competition, and all the sport, is very nice for the people, and we are motivation for the people, and I am hoping we can do the sport, next years and in the future, because the situation is very difficult.
“Then I want to say all the people: change this world.”
Matthews may ultimately be disappointed with coming so close but he was gracious enough to say he was genuinely happy for Sagan, mirroring the feeling of many cycling fans.
Great championships, great race, and a great champion.