Michael Matthews will co-lead the Australian national team for the elite men's road race at the World Championships in Imola, Italy, alongside Richie Porte on Sunday, and believes that despite what he describes as a "very selective course" – and despite not having ridden this year's Tour de France – he can be competitive and in the running for a medal.
Matthews was a surprise non-inclusion to his Sunweb trade team's squad for this year's Tour de France, and will instead aim for stage wins at the Giro d'Italia when he lines up for the Italian Grand Tour on Saturday, October 3.
First, however, the Australian will take on what is a hilly, 258.2km Worlds road race on Sunday, featuring two climbs on each of the nine 28.8km laps, starting and finishing on Imola's famous motor-racing circuit.
"It's a very selective course, that's for sure," Matthews told Cyclingnews on Saturday. "The roads are narrow, and it's consistently tough. It's going to be a hard day out on the bike, for sure. It's hard to say if it suits me or not; I'm just going to need good legs on the day to make it through a circuit like this.
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In both Porte and Matthews, the Australian national team arrives with a two-pronged approach.
"If I'm not on a good day, and it turns into a real day for the climbers, then we have Richie here with us to take over," explained Matthews. "The climbs here are steeper and harder than we had in Yorkshire [at the 2019 Worlds road race, where Matthews took 24th place out of just 46 finishers]. The climbs last year were short and punchy, whereas here they are longer and more suited more to the pure climbers. The climbs here go up in steps, which is quite hard.
"The course last year suited me, but it also suited a lot of guys who race in a similar way. The conditions that we ended up having definitely didn't suit me," Matthews continued, remembering the wet and cold in Yorkshire last year.
"They weren't my favourite conditions to race in, but coming into this year it's been such a strange season, and I didn't expect to be at a Worlds this time around," he said, with the event originally set to take place in Switzerland, on an even more mountainous course, which was cancelled due to Swiss government rules surrounding public gatherings as a result of the coronavirus, and instead moved to Italy.
"So it's super nice to be here and to be going for another world title instead of sitting at home and watch the Swiss Worlds on the TV. I just need to take this as another opportunity to be around the Aussies."
By not going to the Tour, Matthews instead rode – and won – the Bretagne Classic-Ouest France at the end of August, and then took on the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in September.
"It's not a bad thing for me to come into the one-day races a bit fresher," he said. "I can prepare quite well at home. I can do specific things to make sure I'm ready, so I don't really need a Tour de France or something like that to be in good form for a race like this. I've done everything in my power to be as good as possible, and then it's just down to how it goes on the day.
"I'm not worried about my preparation or that some guys have done the Tour and I haven't. That's not going to be a problem for me."
Matthews added that he doesn't feel as though he as a point to prove, or that he's out for any kind of 'revenge' after not being selected for Sunweb's Tour squad.
"I'll just try to do my best. I couldn't do anything at the Tour, obviously, but the team did well and I'm happy for them," he said of Sunweb's three stage wins and the overall combativity prize, courtesy of Marc Hirschi and Søren Kragh Andersen.
"They had a great Tour, and it's going to be my shot at the Giro to try to do something there. I'm just super happy to have the Giro as my last race with the team, and hopefully it can end on a good note," said the 30-year-old, who'll leave Sunweb at the end of the season to join Australian WorldTour Mitchelton-Scott, who he also rode for for three seasons from 2013 to 2016 before joining Sunweb.
Asked whether he considers himself among the favourites for Sunday's race, Matthews played down any expectation.
"I don't really know who the course suits," he said. "We're going to have to wait and see how it's raced. To say I'm one of the favourites… I don't think so. We'll race full gas and see what happens. If it's less selective, then it's better for me, and if it's more selective, then it's better for Richie.
"We've always dreamed about racing together in the same jersey, so we're both super happy about this."