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Don’t be shocked if Matthews wins Paris-Nice

NICE, France (VN) — Is Michael Matthews confused about what lies ahead in the mountainous weekend at Paris-Nice? With the final two stages littered with major climbs, the Orica – GreenEdge leader isn’t talking like a sprinter or a classics specialists, but instead spoiling for a fight with Alberto Contador and Richie Porte in Saturday’s queen stage.

“I think if I can survive Saturday, I can win,” Matthews said matter-of-factly after riding over Mont Ventoux and defending yellow. “With the way I’ve been climbing, I think it’s possible.”

The Aussie already surprised the specialists by winning Sunday’s prologue, and then went elbow-to-elbow with Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) and the sprinters to win another stage. And now he’s talking about facing down the GC specialists in Paris-Nice, Europe’s first major stage race. Huh?

“When I looked at the parcours, I knew it suited me pretty well,” Matthews said. “I stayed in Europe over the winter, and I’ve been training on the climbs. If I can get to the bottom of the Madone, I think I can defend yellow. And if I get through Saturday, I think I could hang on Sunday as well.”

The 14km La Madone d’Utelle — not the same climb east of Monaco made famous by Lance Armstrong — comes after two second-category climbs. It won’t be easy by any measure, but Matthews might be onto something. After the Mount Brouilly summit was cancelled, eliminated as part of the snow-plagued stage Wednesday, Matthews had a free ride all the way into this weekend. Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) pulled within six seconds following his breakaway win Friday, but Matthews holds a slender but promising lead over Porte (10th at 0:31), Geraint Thomas (Sky, sixth at 0:23) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin, 3rd at 0:18).

Tinkoff’s Contador, 17th at 0:37, said it will be difficult to make up differences on the Madone, which averages just under six percent.

“The final climb isn’t that steep,” said Contador. “It will not be so easy to make up the differences to the leader. We will try, but losing Mount Brouilly has marked the race. So far, there hasn’t been any place to truly test the others. Tomorrow will be an important day, with an uphill finish. We will have to see what we can do, and whether we can climb up in the GC.”

Instead of returning to his Australian home over the winter, Matthews stayed in his European base in Monaco, in part to toughen up and prepare for the spring classics. And he’s also been working on his climbing — not to one day try to win the Tour de France — but to be ready for Milano-Sanremo and the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).

But when he saw the Paris-Nice course, he knew he could have a chance to do well in GC. The former U23 world champion didn’t expect to be leading going into the final weekend, however. These are home roads for Matthews, and he’s confident he can deliver a big result.

“I know these climbs, and they’re good for me,” Matthews said. “I’ve been training on them all winter. We’ll see on the day, but I think I should be able to give it a go. It’ll depend on the legs.”

And then there’s Sunday’s finishing circuit, which includes Col d’Eze in a rollercoaster course above Nice. Wearing the yellow jersey at the end of Saturday’s stage is no guarantee they will be wearing 24 hours later on the Cote d’Azur, for Matthews or anyone.

Stranger things have happened — recall how Peter Sagan won the 2015 Amgen Tour of California.