Michael Matthews has made a significant contribution to the successful second season of his Orica-GreenEDGE team by winning stage five of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.
The 22-year-old Australian sprinted to victory in Lago de Sanabria on the first flat finish of the 68th national tour after three days in the mountains.
Maximiliano Richeze (Lampre-Merida) finished second, while Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Gianni Meersman, winner of four stages already this year in cycling’s elite UCI WorldTour, finished third.
There was no change at the sharp end of the general classification, leaving Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), winner of the 2010 Vuelta and reigning Giro d’Italia champion, in the leader’s red jersey.
Matthews, who has previously lifted the world under-23 titles for road and time trial, said the magnitude of his achievement in winning a stage of his debut Grand Tour had taken a moment to register.
He said: “I crossed the finish line, and I was happy right away. After a few moments, it sunk in what I had really done. A few tears came out after that.
“This is the biggest win of my career. The team was super impressive today. They did their job perfectly so I could do mine.”
Despite a finish ideally suited to the sprinters, the 174.3km fifth stage from Sober to Lago de Sanabria offered little in the way of respite to the riders after three days in the mountains.
The hilly parcours included two third category climbs, both of them over 1,000 metres, including the 1,340-metre Alto de Padonerro.
An early, five-man breakaway built a lead of nearly ten-and-a-half minutes before the sprinter’s teams, lead by Matthews’ Orica-GreenEDGE outfit, and the Garmin-Sharp team, riding for Tyler Farrar, began the pursuit in earnest some 60km from home.
In an impressive display of resilience, the five men remained ahead until 10 km to go, and Arnaud Courteille (FDJ) and Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van de Walle survived until just 3km from home.
Argos-Shimano, whose sprint train proved so effective at the Tour de France, hit the front, accompanied by Omega Pharma-Quickstep, hoping for yet more sprint success for Meersman.
But it was a solo attack from world road race champion, Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), that threatened to derail the sprint trains.
The Belgian, resplendent in the rainbow stripes, jumped clear as the race passed under the flamme rouge, but was soon hauled back. Matthews said he had expected the move.
“I think he thought the final would be more uphill, but it was a flat sprint,” he said. “It wasn’t hard enough for a move like that. He came back pretty quickly because of the lead-outs going from Quick-Step and Argos. I had a clear line in the end to open my sprint and show my sprinting legs to the world.”
Tomorrow’s 175km sixth stage from Guijuelo to Caceres will offer the world champion another change to strike. The final kilometre to the finish in Caceres reaches its climax on an uphill finish.