Sarzeau: Michael Matthews’ experience of racing up the Mûr de Bretagne in the Tour de France is painful – literally. In his first and last date with the two-kilometre ascent in the region of Brittany – on stage three in the 2015 Tour – the now 27-year-old rode up it in agony from four fractured ribs sustained in a crash beforehand.
Matthews (Team Sunweb) finished the 2015 stage in 162nd place at 9 minutes 9 seconds to the French winner Alex Vuillermoz, who finished five seconds clear of second placed Irishman Daniel Martin.
Tour et encore: Fernando Gaviria of Colombia celebrates his stage four win.
“It was a little more difficult than I had hoped,” Matthews reflected on the climb with heavy understatement, ahead of Tuesday’s 195km fourth stage of this year’s Tour from La Baule to Sarzeau.
Stage four was won in a bunch sprint by Colombian stage one winner Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) from the Slovakian world champion Peter Sagan (BORA-Hansgrohe) and German André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal).
However, three years on and in the 2018 Tour, Matthews is looking to the Mûr de Bretagne where Thursday’s 181km sixth stage from Brest finishes, as a prime opportunity to stamp his mark on the race; and add to his career record of three previous Tour stage wins.
Matthews is not targeting the Tour’s green points jersey that he won last year, along with two stages. He is racing the Tour to primarily help his Dutch team leader Tom Dumoulin, last year’s Giro d’Italia winner and runner-up this year, to win the Tour overall. But he will still get opportunities for a stage win. And Thursday could be one.
“I think it’s a nice finish,” he said of the Mûr de Bretagne that has a nine per cent gradient for the first kilometre and averages at 6.9 per cent with the second half flattening to a 2.9 per cent gradient.
Matthews said that it takes far more than form and strength to win on the Mûr. When suggested that gear choice is vital, he added: “And being smart with your timing. You try to use your energy in the right spot, but its going to be a hard one. I am looking forward to it.”
There is a strong Australian attachment to the Mûr de Bretagne.
It was where Cadel Evans won on stage four of the 2011 Tour.
Evans then beat Spanish rival Alberto Contador in a photo finish for the win en-route to becoming the first Australian to win the Tour.
It is also where Australia’s hope in this year’s Tour, Richie Porte (BMC) expects the overall contenders like he will flex their muscle individually for the first time to get a gauge of where they are stand.
“Mûr de Bretagne will be a good form indication. Cadel won [the stage] in 2011 and went on to win the race, and we did it in 2015 and it was pretty selective,” Porte said after he finished in the peloton in 45th place in Tuesday’s fourth stage at the same time as Gaviria.
Going into Wednesday’s 204.5km fifth stage from Lorient to Quimper in Brittany, Porte was still 14th overall at 51s to his Belgian teammate and race leader Greg Van Avermaet. In second overall was another BMC rider, American Tejay van Garderen at the same time, followed by Welshman Geraint Thomas (Sky) in third at 3 seconds.
Meanwhile, Dumoulin was still seventh overall at 11s; and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) 10th at 35s.
France’s Axel Domont, right, and Poland’s Tomasz Marczynski, left, grimace after crashing in the pack in the last kilometers during the fourth stage of the Tour de France.
Then came a cluster of contenders separated by 47s that included Porte – from the 13th placed Dane Jacob Fuglsang (Astana) at 51s, Spaniards Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mikel Landa (Movistar), Tour champion Chris Froome (Sky) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) of Britain, to Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale), and Irishman Dan Martin (UAE) at 1m 38s; while Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was still the favourite positioned furthest back in 48th place at 2m 8s.
Dumoulin will have his eye on every contender; but Matthews said he may be content to focus on not losing time, rather than gaining it.
“It is a stage where Tom will have to stay around the ‘GC’ [general classification] guys,” Matthews said.
“If he can take an advantage, then I think he needs to take it.
“But it is not going to be massive gains. It is only a two kilometre climb. Maybe you use more energy than what you are going to gain.”
Wednesday: Stage 5 – Lorient to Quimper, 204.5km: A tough stage in Brittany with five categorised climbs and plenty of hills that could see a break contest the stage win, as it did in 1991 when Australian Phil Anderson won in Quimper in a sprint against three breakaways.
Thursday: Stage 6 – Brest to Mûr de Bretagne, 181km
There is more to this stage than the finishing club of the Mûr de Bretagne. When the peloton hits the climb, the legs will be burning from racing over the tough, sinewy and lumpy Breton roads on a stage that also includes two third and one second category climbs.
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