The close of the European road season, when most Anglophone pros return from their semi-permanent footholds back to their real home, invariably marks a blissful time.
Most have been racing consistently for up to 10 months, among them Matthew Goss, who began this season by almost winning the Tour Down Under and ended it by almost winning the world road championships in Copenhagen, Denmark. His crowning glory came on March 19, where he became the first Australian to win the classic every sprinter dreams of winning: Milan-San Remo.
Now, having just turned 25 years old, Goss is about to embark on a leadership role at nascent outfit GreenEdge — set to be the first Australian team to compete at the Tour de France — and most would agree that the two-wheeled world is his oyster. Nonetheless, returning to his Tasmanian home in Launceston, Goss was looking forward to some downtime before the first GreenEdge get-together at the start of December and New Year began.
And so, after a daylong flight from his base in Monaco, he found himself back on Australian shores, casually walking through the airport, smiling, wading his way through customs without a care in the world. Just a few more steps and he’d be able to smell and breathe the clean air of the Apple Isle, the nickname bestowed on the largest island in the Australian archipelago.
Before he’d made it through the doors the smile had vanished.
Walking past a newsagent, his eye glimpsed a cycling magazine on the stands. His HTC-High Road teammate Mark Cavendish was on the cover. Goss winced, as if someone had slapped him hard. There Cav’ was, sitting at the back of their team truck, nonchalantly looking out into the ether — and wearing the rainbow jersey, his black shorts also sporting the arc-en-ciel bands that only a current world champion can wear.
Bloody Cavendish again, he must’ve thought.
“I looked at it and that’s when it sank in more … it does make you a little bit hungry,” says Goss.
“To finish second by that much is painful.”
Cavendish and Goss are separated by 17 months. Both come from a solid track endurance pedigree. Clearly, both are precociously talented. And as good as they are at what they do, both yearn to become more than just grand-tour stage-winners. They want to be like Coppi, Merckx, Kelly, Hinault, Indurain … among cycling’s all-time greats.
They are also teammates — well, at least for the next few days, anyway. From January 1, it’s game on.
GreenEdge general manager Shayne Bannan has said ad nauseam that his team does not have general-classification ambitions in grand tours till 2015; Team Sky, on the other hand, will be pursuing a dual-pronged approach with Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins at next year’s Tour.
Surely this favors someone like Goss, who, next July, will be perhaps the only top sprinter to have an entire team dedicated towards him?
“It could be somewhat of an advantage to us; we’ve got a team that’s going solely to win stages and to have a crack at winning the green jersey,” he tells VeloNews.
“It’s always a bit better for someone like myself, because there’s going to be a little bit more support there. In saying that, I don’t think Cavendish needs a whole team to help him win. He’s definitely fast enough, and he’s a smart bike rider as well, so if he’s got one or two good guys, then he’s going to be just as competitive, than if he had a whole team.”
As part of Cavendish’s successful bid for the maillot vert at this year’s Tour de France, what lessons did Goss learn from the Manx Missile — who recently said that he’s emphatically driven by “an overwhelming desire to win and a fear of losing” — in terms of how he’ll approach the competition?
“The amount of knowledge we have here on this team, I’m not going to have to do a lot of the thinking,” Goss says with a half-hearted chuckle.
“It’s almost like, I can follow the guys and I can be taught everything along the way. But something I have taken from Cavendish is that you have to be super-consistent. You have one or two bad days and it can cost you the green jersey, especially now with the new format, with the 20-point sprints halfway through the stage — they’re almost as important as the finish-line sprints.”
Many would also say Goss isn’t as reliant on a lead-out train and is a little more versatile than his teammate-cum-nemesis. They just wouldn’t say it to the latter’s face.
In 2009, Goss won Paris-Brussels and finished third in Gent-Wevelgem. The following year he won the GP Ouest-France in Plouay. At this year’s Tour Down Under, on the decisive stage that incorporated two climbs of Old Willunga Hill, he finished third and only lost to eventual winner Cameron Meyer by two seconds.
“Some of the days (at the Tour) will suit me a bit better than some (of the other sprinter) guys, if I can get over the climbs and pick up points in the middle,” he says. “But I think the key to trying to win, is consistency.”
While Cavendish rode Paris-Roubaix for the first time this year (but did not finish) and has ridden the Tour of Flanders twice, it is Goss who has shown most promise on the pavé, the cobblestones certain riders seem to develop a love-hate relationship with. (Others despise them so much they avoid these races like the plague.)
Flanders, says Goss, “is a race I’d love to be good in one day, or be on the podium. It’s just going to take experience; you need to have a lot of experience so you know the ins and outs of every corner and every cobbled section you’re on.”
“As for Roubaix,” Goss recalls of this year’s edition won by Belgian Johan Van Summeren, “I had my front wheel taken out about two sections before the Forest of Arenberg.
“And going through Arenberg, I broke my chain … so I was in the front 10 guys and then ended up sitting on the cobbles, waiting for every rider to pass till my team car got there. I think I was four minutes down by then. … That’s not going to make my job easier!” he says with a chortle.
Still, any sort of duel between Goss and Cavendish in the spring classics is a few years away yet. Next year, their rivalry will reach fever-pitch when, as in Copenhagen, they revert to racing in national team colors, at the Olympic Games road race in London.
But unlike the worlds, where top nations field teams of nine riders, the Australian and British teams will be just five strong. Cavendish won this year’s test event in August; Goss finished eighth. (It should be noted that a third of the field was British; five Australians competed.)
“It is a lot harder to control the race (with five riders) and it’s going to be a lot harder to bring back breakaways, to get groups organized. It’s going to make the race completely different to a world championship – well, not completely different, but a little bit different to a world championship, where you have a whole team control a race,” says Goss.
“The Olympic (road race) course is actually a little bit tougher than most people first anticipated. We only did two laps of the circuit in the test event, but at the Olympic Games we’ll be doing nine laps. And I honestly don’t think we’ll see any more than 25, 30 guys coming in to the finish, on that circuit.”
The circuit is quite closed, adds Goss.
“Within 15 seconds of being off the front you’re probably out of sight. There’s a good chance little groups could go away, and it doesn’t take much for a big group to then form in front from the little groups — and it’s a possibility you might not see them again. So, the control (of the race) is going to be the hardest part.”
Goss also thinks the course suits his style.
“It’s going to depend a lot on how we come out of the Tour de France, and how everyone recovers, so that’s something that we’re not going to know till we get to race day,” he says.
Last week, Cavendish told the London Telegraph of his Olympic ambitions: “I hope I’ll light a fire by being the first British champion of the Games; it’s what I want and what I plan. We’re going in with plan A. No plan B. We ride it the way we want to ride it and if it works, it’s gold. If it doesn’t, it’s nothing. Everything I do is win or nothing.”
Just like in Copenhagen, then.
But one gets the feeling that if anyone can beat him, it’s Matt Goss.
“We’re going to go in there with, again, one of the best teams in the race, and I think we can definitely upstage him. It’s going to be exciting,” he says.
Realizing life in advertising was nothing like “Mad Men” and buoyed by the Olympic Games in his Australian hometown of Sydney, Anthony Tan turned his back on a lucrative copywriting career in 2000 in pursuit of something more cerebral. Combining wordsmithing with his experiences as an A-Grade club racer and an underwhelming season competing in Europe, a career as a cycling scribe beckoned. More than a dozen grand tours and countless classics later, it’s where he still is today. He has been a contributor to VeloNews since 2006. In 2010, he won Cycling Australia’s media award for best story. Follow him on Twitter: @anthony_tan