Halfway through our conversation, Matt Goss pauses and says “hindsight is a beautiful thing, isn’t it?”
Just three years ago, he was the defending champion of Milan-Sanremo and seemed set to become a Classics force. A lot has changed. We’re talking after the opening day of this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico. Goss last won a professional bike race here in 2013. Since then, the 28-year-old has become professional cycling’s forgotten man.
As his 2011 win in La Primavera showed, that’s often when the Australian is at his most deadly. On that sunny March day, his fellow riders in the select lead group seemed to ignore the tough, in-form predator sitting in their wake.
Shorn of HTC-Columbia team-mates, he played it with patience, allowing Philippe Gilbert to tire himself out with a late attack before pouncing in the sprint. “Goss was unbeatable,” runner-up Fabian Cancellara lamented afterwards.
As a young, Australian fast finisher with long-race endurance, he seemed the perfect marquee signing for Orica-GreenEdge. Goss soon agreed a no-doubt handsome three-year deal. At 24, the cycling world was at his feet.
Slip sliding away
Where did it go wrong? Even with hindsight, there is no clear answer for Goss’s decline, no career-threatening injury or apparent rift.
It was a slow and gradual drift into the realm of mediocre results. In 2012, while Goss won a Giro stage, he regularly found himself finishing second, third and fourth to thoroughbred fast men elsewhere, especially at the Tour de France where he bid for the points competition.
“That might have been different if we hadn’t been going for the green jersey because I was also going for the intermediate sprints every day, whereas Cavendish, Greipel, those guys weren’t, and I’d be just getting beaten on the line. Looking back, we should have maybe just left the green jersey, focused on getting a stage win first. But like I said, it’s easy to look back at things now and say we should have done things differently.”
Clad in the points jersey, Goss hit the deck in the finale of stage 9 of the 2012 Giro d'Italia. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
From that spate of near misses came fewer placings in 2013. Worse followed last year and he didn’t even make the Orica line-up for Sanremo, as Michael Matthews, a younger compatriot with similar attributes, stepped up. Goss has come to realise that less is more.
“I always tried to do more and the team always put me in more races. And I always tried to train more – I thought more was better. I guess that’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned: I don’t need to do 85 race days by the end of the Tour de France, I don’t need to be training so much harder than what I was in 2011. I was already winning good bike races then… I need to go back and do what I was originally doing.”
As Michael Matthews took over his mantle and Simon Gerrans picked up Classics wins at Orica-GreenEdge, the team’s big-name signing quietly slipped out the back door this winter, bound for MTN-Qhubeka and a fresh start.
Show a little respect
Goss asserts, as he always has done, that he isn’t a pure sprinter, more a man for rolling days of 200 kilometres or more when the bunch is whittled down to 60 or so riders.
“With GreenEdge, I probably did too many of the sprints whereas in the past, I’d never done that: [at HTC-Columbia] I’d worked with Cavendish and Greipel for the main sprints and took my opportunity on certain days,” Goss says. “With MTN-Qhubeka, there’s obviously a lot of sprinters to share that role with, so I can go back to doing a similar role that I had in those years when I was winning a lot of big bike races.”
Goss (second from left) celebrates a 2013 Tour de France TTT win with his Orica-GreenEdge team-mates. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
A lot of sprinters? Arguably a surplus: MTN-Qhubeka has other fast men looking to reboot their careers too, such as Theo Bos, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Tyler Farrar and Gerald Ciolek. How will it work between them? “The key is going to be mutual respect and honesty. If everyone communicates well and says when they’re having good days and bad days. If we have that, which is what we’ll find out now, there’s no reason we can’t be winning some really big and good bike races quite often.”
Stage two of Tirreno-Adriatico into Cascina showed Goss and the team’s grunt. MTN took control of the bunch in the final kilometres and Goss gave Tyler Farrar a bravura lead-out before the American was passed into fifth place.
Unsurprisingly, Goss remembers his Milan-Sanremo triumph with fondness.
“That was the cherry on the cake of a successful season,” he says. “It was one of the races I always loved and watched when I was younger, a race I could see myself having good results in. To realise that dream was pretty cool.
“I targeted that race from November . To train towards it and get the result was really rewarding. It wasn’t really a surprise: winning was a surprise, but it was planned to be the best I could there that day.”
Goss embraces his HTC-Columbia advisor Erik Zabel, moments after winning the 2011 Milan-Sanremo. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
In Goss opinion's, there’s no one secret to winning in Sanremo. After months of training, concentration is key.
“You’ve just got to focus all day. In 2011, right from the first kilometre, I was concentrating on trying to be up there, always looking for my team-mates. There’s lots of little things you can do over 300 kilometres that all add up in the end."
Living down the Riviera in Monte Carlo, few riders know the race’s finale better than Goss. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve ridden the Cipressa and Poggio. I’ve done it twice in the last fortnight, and I’ll probably do it again after Tirreno. The descent off the Poggio doesn’t make the race, but you can lose it if you crash there, which I’ve seen a lot of people do over the years.”
After this weekend, he’s looking forward to hitting the cobbled Classics hard. “I haven’t been able to do Roubaix for the last three years because GreenEdge always wanted me to go to the Giro,” Goss says. “So it’s gonna be nice to go back and have another crack at it. I really love that race.”
Whether at the Via Roma, Roubaix Velodrome or a smaller race, Goss is adamant that he’d love to get his arms up in the air. “I don’t want to do another season without a victory, that’s for sure.”
While the Tasmanian might be cycling’s forgotten man, he’s not drinking bidons in the last-chance saloon yet. At the age of 28, Goss has the time and clear talent to bounce back – albeit the sooner, the better, for the subsequent mental boost.
“Confidence is a big thing,” he reflects. “It has a knock-on effect. Once you get the confidence, you seem to just float along, you believe a lot more than when you haven’t won. You know you can: it’s not hoping and believing and thinking. It only takes one win sometimes to get that confidence, that instinct, back, I guess.”
While his MTN-Qhubeka squad would love to kickstart their year with another unlikely headline win in Sanremo on Sunday, you get the impression that Matt Goss needs it far more.