SALT LAKE CITY — When Michael Matthews prepared for his final sprint of the fourth stage of the Tour of Utah on Friday, he didn't look for his teammates.
Instead, he sought out the guy most likely to beat him.
The 22-year-old ORICA GreenEdge rider managed to find his way to the back wheel of sprint leader Greg Van Avermaet, who hoped his love of uphill sprints would earn him his second stage victory in four days.
Instead, Matthews managed to hang on to Van Avermaet’s wheel as he made his move and then sprinted around him at the finish.
“The boys (his teammates) did pretty much exactly what we said in the meeting,” said Matthews after winning Stage 4 in 1:10.17 for his second stage win and third podium of the week. “We had to keep it together — maybe let a little break go and bring it back slowly, and make sure I’m in the best position at the bottom of the (last) climb, which was pretty much on Greg’s wheel. It worked out perfectly.”
Matthews finished second to Van Avermaet, who rides for BMC Racing, in Stage 1, but since then, Van Avermaet, who held on to the best sprinter’s jersey with Friday’s performance, has finished second every day of the race.
“It feels good to be in purple, but my main goal was winning today,” he said, referring to the color of the sprinter’s jersey. “I was really motivated to win, and I think I had a good chance. I was in a good position at the bottom of the climb.”
He said he had to decide whether to wait and hope he could drop Matthews, or try to outpedal him on a longer sprint. He chose to sprint farther out, but despite an impressive effort, couldn’t shake Matthews.
“It was impossible to beat him,” he said. “I took my chance and tried to win another stage. I’m disappointed. I knew if I had a gap like I did on the first day, it’s hard to take me back. But if he’s on the wheel, it’s hard to beat him.”
Van Avermaet showed his sense of humor when he said it would have been a lot easier if he’d looked behind as they turned onto South Capitol Drive and he’d been alone.
“I would be happier if he was not there, but I was not really surprised,” he said smiling as Matthews, who sat next to him at the press conference, laughed along with the audience. “It would be nice if he let me go; he loves me so much, he wants to stay with me.”
Van Avermaet is still in contention for the overall win, but he laughed when asked about his chances with two climbing-heavy days ahead.
“I was not thinking about overall when I came here,” he said. “Yesterday, I was surprised I got over the climb, and I’m still not thinking about it. We’ll see tomorrow. I don’t have too big expectations.”
Garmin Sharp’s Lachlan Morton, a 21-year-old rider who wore the overall leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in his career, said he was still trying to soak in the reality of leading the race.
“It’s really weird,” he said. “It’s cool. Yesterday it was amazing to get the win, and then I wake up and it’s just like any other day.”
He said he’s still in awe that his teammates, some of the most successful in the sport, are helping him hold on to that lead.
“Three of those guys have been top 10 in the Tour de France, and the other guys are world champions or grand tour stage winners,” Lachlan said. “So yeah, to have them riding for me on the front, I mean, it’s like a dream. They’re so experienced that it makes what should be a stressful job really easy.”
Craig Lewis, who rides for Champion System, was part of a breakaway that could only manage to stay about 15 seconds ahead of the peloton, which averaged 29 miles per hour in the race that traversed Salt Lake City’s Avenues. He struck out on his own to try and win, although he said he knew when he made his move that it was a long shot.
“I had a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s always a challenge to make breakaways, and races of this caliber, so just to make that group was important to me. And then to make that move made it a little more special. And then to get this jersey, I’ve been racing 10 years in America, and this is the first time I’ve gotten a jersey in a stage race.”
The overall race will get interesting Saturday when the riders take on 113 miles beginning at Snowbasin Ski Resort and finishing with a brutal climb up Big Cottonwood Canyon to Snowbird Ski Resort.