Orica-GreenEdge sprinter Michael Matthews has proven his command of a range of riding styles at this year’s Tour of Utah: he has fought his way over cat One climbs, beat out the opposition in bunch sprints, and Friday displayed his mastery of criterium courses by winning the 33.5-mile Stage Four circuit race around Salt Lake City, netting his second stage win.
Friday stage, five hilly 6.7-mile laps around and through Salt Lake City, ended in something like a bunch sprint, or actually, a pair of them.
Orica-GreenEdge took control of the peloton entering the final, uphill kilometer of the race, fighting past BMC, United Healthcare, and Optum, to try to set up Matthews.
BMC’s Greg Avermaet, who won the first stage and narrowly lost to Matthews in stage two, was determined not to get outsprinted this time: he launched an attack 500 meters from the finish line. The Belgian BMC rider couldn’t shake his Australian opponent, however; Matthews stayed stuck to van Avermaet’s wheel.
Halfway to the line, the two riders sat up to catch their breath—after an hour of-high-tempo circuit racing, the uphill sprint had exhausted them. United Healthcare’s Alessandro Bazzana pulled level with the pair 150 meters from the line, and Matthews started sprinting for the second time.
The 22-year-old Aussie distanced van Avermaet in this second surge, crossing the finish line more than a length ahead. His Orica team mated delivered him to the front, s per plan, but it was Matthews’ second effort which won the stage.
“The boys did exactly what we said we wanted to do,” said Matthews on the team website. “They did a perfect job tonight. We couldn’t have asked for much more out of this race. We’ve got two stage wins and three top threes. We’re all pretty happy with the way things have gone.”
The win was big for Matthews and big for the team as well. After losing two riders ion the grueling ascent up Mount Nebo the day before, Orica was severely disadvantaged, but managed to control the race at the crucial moment despite being outnumbered.
“With only five guys in the race, it was very hard to organize a lead-out,” explained Orica Sport Director Matt Wilson. “We had to commit three guys to controlling the breakaway, which basically left only Cookie [Baden Cooke] to help Matthews in the sprint. They did an amazing job today. For four guys to do what they did is incredible.”
“We had to commit from the start because no one wanted to do any work except for Garmin, who obviously wanted to keep the race together for Lachlan [Morton],” added Matthews. “They helped us out during the first three laps, but we were on our own during the last two.”
Race leader Lachlan Morton of Garmin-Sharp crossed the line tenth, in the lead group, and keeps his yellow jersey with a 26-second lead over van Avermaet, with United Healthcare’s Lucas Euser another 14 seconds back.
The stage started with the predictable flurry of attacks. No riders could escape the peloton until halfway through the third lap, when 5-Hour Energy’s Francisco Mancebo led Marsh Cooper (Optum) and Craig Lewis (Champion Systems) on an attack. RadioShack’s Jens Voigt bridged across, and a few minutes later Bissell’s Chris Baldwin joined.
This group was fast enough to stay away and far enough down in the General Classification that no one cared if they escaped; even so the quintet was never allowed much more than a 15-second gap. Garmin, which had been riding hard to try to control the race, handed off control of the peloton to Orica at this point, though Optum shared the work, suspecting that Cooper wouldn’t have the legs to take the stage win from Voigt and Mancebo.
The break’s chances for survival decreased just before the end of the fourth lap, when Cooper touched wheels with Chris Baldwin, sending Cooper into the brush at the side of the road. He wasn’t hurt, but the break was long gone when he restarted.
The gap dropped to ten seconds entering the final lap, when Under 23 national champion Craig Lewis made a move. Voigt tried to follow, but didn’t have the legs. Funvic Brasilinvest’s team leader Magno Nazaret trried to bridge from the peloton, but he couldn’t make it either.
Lewis made it all the way to the last-kilometer banner before succumbing to the onrushing peloton, at which point Orica took over and set up Matthews for the win.
“The team put me in the best position at the bottom of the climb,” said Matthews. “They delivered me to Greg’s wheel, which was exactly what we had discussed in the team meeting. This wasn’t a typical sprint. I had to play my cards right, following Greg in the sprint and seeing what legs I had in the finish.”
Stage Five is considered to be the Queen Stage of the Tour: 113 miles and 10,611 feet of climbing, over the Cat 4 Brown’s Canyon climb, up the eleven-percent Cat 1 Guardsman’s pass to a summit finish at Snowbird Ski Resort.
This is the stage where the GC contenders will come out to play. The whole race could be won or lost on that final climb.
Sunday’s Stage Six will be almost as tough, with the Cat 2 climb to Wolf Creek Ranches followed by the Hors Categorie Empire Pass, which tops out at 8942 feet, ending up with a quick descent into Park City. Levi Leipheimer won this stage in the 2012 Tour with a solo attack on the final climb.