Cyclist Michael Matthews shows up big for Australia

SALON-DE-PROVENCE, France -- In the concentric races within the Tour de France, the green jersey contested by the sprinters and breakaway bandits has always featured riders with a big presence.

This Tour turned out to be one of absences and premature exits. Five-time cumulative points winner Peter Sagan, the multiple world champion whose aura is as colorful as his rainbow stripes, was controversially ejected in the first week for his role in the Stage 4 crash that forced Mark Cavendish to abandon. Germany's Marcel Kittel was leading the green jersey standings when he tumbled off the side of the road in a pileup at the back of the peloton early in Wednesday's Stage 17 heading toward the high Alps.

But there won't be any asterisk next to Michael Matthews' name. The wiry 26-year-old Australian won on the rolling terrain of Stages 14 and 16, the latter in a photo finish. He sparred for the points available at intermediate waystations in others, and had scrapped his way to within nine points of Kittel before the crash. Matthews is mathematically assured of riding into Paris in green as long as he stays upright.

The day after Kittel crashed, Matthews declined to ride a green bike to match his jersey, out of respect. He has earned a lot of that himself this month even though the head-to-head battle has evaporated. After all, the green jersey is about opportunism, equal parts calculation and daring, and Matthews still had to go for the gap.

His nickname is "Bling'' -- a teasing tag that dates back to the baggy, low-hanging shorts and jewelry he sported as a teenager -- and from afar, it would be easy to conclude that he has grown into it. The truth is that the flash it connotes is somewhat incongruous for a soft-spoken athlete who still seems slightly surprised at times that so many people want to talk to him.

As a rising talent from Canberra, Matthews outdueled quality competition in the 2010 under-23 world championship road race in Australia, including John Degenkolb of Germany and Taylor Phinney of the United States. Matthews logged two years with the Dutch Rabobank team before coming into his own with Australia-based Orica-Green Edge. He won stages in all three Grand Tours and was part of team time trial triumphs in the 2014 and 2015 Giro d'Italia. (Matthews bought pink iPads to thank his teammates for putting him into the overall leader's maglia rosa.)

But those accomplishments don't resonate with the fans back home in quite the same way as a great day at the Tour de France, especially given the country's consistently strong showing over the last 20 years. In the early 2000s, sprinter Robbie McEwen won three green jerseys and compatriot Baden Cooke nipped McEwen for one more within the space of five years. Cadel Evans' 2011 Tour title was preceded by multiple stage wins and stints in the yellow jersey by Stuart O'Grady and Bradley McGee.

Matthews left Orica after last season for Team Sunweb, which is licensed in Germany but has a diverse -- and this year, extraordinarily successful -- roster. Keyed by Matthews and exuberant French rider Warren Barguil, who has clinched the King of the Mountains jersey, the team has seemed to romp more than grind around the 2,000-mile course. Barguil and Matthews, who are rooming together at the race, have a pair of stage wins apiece.

"He chose to leave because he wanted to have a team where he would have a lot more support, and he didn't have to campaign or battle for support within the team,'' said McEwen, who is doing English language television commentary for the Tour organization. "And he's got that at Sunweb. We'll see how they balance it next year when [2017 Giro d'Italia winner] Tom Dumoulin decides to ride the Tour. The three-pronged attack might prove to be too much.

"But Michael's also a guy who can look after himself pretty well, maybe needs one lead-out guy to put him in position for the flat sprints, but he really does the damage on the other days, where it's a bit tougher. It's been quite Sagan-like the way he's been able to win it -- winning those harder stages, placing on the flat stages, going on the attack and getting lots of intermediate points. I think he's a very worthy winner.''

Matthews' wife, Katarina, who met her husband while working for the components manufacturer Shimano, said leaving the Australian squad was a difficult but necessary decision for him.

"Michael doesn't like change,'' she said. "But he likes the atmosphere, likes the staff; he's super-happy, and you can see it in the results.''