Greenedge cyclist Michael "Bling" Matthews. Photo: Jay Cronan
Veteran Tour de France sprint champion Baden Cooke calls him a ''winning-machine'', a potential world champion motored by raw talent that has no limits.
But when cyclist Michael Matthews talks of his own fast wheels, it's a $160,000 Porsche Cayenne GTS, bearing personalised plates with his nickname ''Bling''.
If people see me they probably think I'm cocky, but I'm not a cocky person.Michael Matthews
It was Cooke who talked Matthews out of upgrading to a Ferrari at the end of a breakthrough 2013 season, although most things in Monaco are within walking distance anyway of Matthews' rented two-bedroom home, a compact 90-square-metre apartment worth about $5 million.
Canberra cyclist Michael Matthews.
''In Monaco,'' Matthews says, ''everyone looks good all the time.''
The 23-year-old is back home in Canberra, sitting at a Woden cafe, wearing designer sunglasses, studs in each ear, a piercing through his eyebrow and an $8000 white-gold diamond bracelet.
A long necklace with a pair of cobalt-black crucifixes hangs to the middle of his chest, which incongruously happens to lie in the cleavage of the open-shirted bombshell featured on the front of his own fashion T-shirt.
The crosses bear no religious significance, nor does the tattoo of a winged angel that spans the back of his shoulders.
But the boy from Canberra's southern suburb of Farrer, who grew up riding motocross, has become an aficionado of European fashion while living on the French Riviera.
Think you've got a picture of Matthews?
''I got the wrong impression of him, too,'' says Cooke, raised in the country Victorian town of Benalla, and new teammate to Matthews at Orica-GreenEDGE last year.
''I thought with the tattoos and the bling he was going to be a bit of a party animal, and that doesn't help you go fast on a bike. I was completely wrong. He's actually very marketable, he could be on a Calvin Klein billboard.''
Matthews likes to drop cash on designer trinkets quicker than he drops the bunch in a sprint finish. He laughs, saying he's getting better, but admits he'd much prefer to talk shopping than shop.
But Matthews doesn't drink. He prefers home-cooked meals. As loud as his appearance may seem to some, Matthews is reserved and politely spoken. ''I know how hard I've worked to feel like Monaco is my home,'' Matthews says. ''If people see me they probably think I'm cocky, but I'm not a cocky person.''
Matthews says it would be a dream to have his own fashion label one day, but first to make his name. And brand Bling is coming along nicely again after he quit Dutch outfit Rabobank to join Australian team Orica-GreenEDGE in 2013.
The 2010 under-23 world road champion is starting to cash in on his potential.
He saluted in the Tour of Utah for GreenEDGE's historic 100th victory last year, but truly announced himself to the world with two stage victories in his debut at the Vuelta a Espana, which ranks alongside the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia as the sport's grand tours.
He will ride the Australian road nationals in Victoria next week and the Tour Down Under later this month, but his ambition is to contest his first Tour de France this year and - one day - claim the prestigious green jersey as the dominant sprinter.
''I've only just started,'' Matthews says of his career. ''The first two years [at Rabobank] took me backwards not forward. I learnt a lot about myself, living in Europe and away from home. But I reckon I went back in my cycling career.
''I lost a bit of myself in that team, I wasn't confident, on or off the bike. This year has brung me up so much, it feels like I've started fresh again.
''I feel more relaxed in the team … I can be myself and everyone respects me for who I am. I think I have the team behind me now and they believe I can actually win races.''
Indeed, Cooke, the 2003 green jersey winner at the Tour de France, believes Matthews has the ability to win the biggest races of them all. Recently retired, Cooke lists them like he's reading Matthews' own bucket list: a Tour de France green jersey; the world's most prestigious classics, such as the Tour of Flanders in Belgium or the Amstel Gold Race in the Netherlands; even a world championship.
Matthews credits visualisation techniques and mentoring from Cooke in 2013 for giving him the belief to win them, too.
''He was one of the main reasons I won those races at the end of the season,'' Matthews says. ''He was teaching me little tricks, tactical and mental things. We'd simulate races and do it over and again. In a race you only get one opportunity, you can't hit rewind. Before that, if there was a bad situation in front of me I just thought I was stuffed.''
Cooke says he's never seen greater depth in world road sprinters, including Brit Mark Cavendish, Germans Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel, Czech Peter Sagan and Australian Matt Goss. Matthews, he says, can be the match of them all and also has the ability to climb.
''I assumed any kid who won the worlds would be a finely tuned specimen, but as I got to know him when he joined GreenEDGE last year, I realised there was heaps of room for improvement,'' Cooke says. ''I just started giving him a few tips, stuff I'd learnt over 20 years … we worked on a lot of mental stuff. He learns fast.
''It seemed like he turned into a winning machine overnight. I would say at the Vuelta he was unlucky not to have won at least four stages.
''He's got the motor, he's got the engine, a bit of fine-tuning on his tactics and stuff, which is stuff he can learn, he's going to be a monster, he could be anything.''
Matthews only took up cycling at 16, having mucked around with motocross and BMX. Even after his first season on the professional cycling tour, he bought himself a Honda CRF50 motorbike, he and friends turning his parents' suburban backyard into a miniature motocross track until neighbours lost patience.
It was a teacher at Melrose High School, Des Proctor, who noticed Matthews' natural fitness as a kid and urged him to attend a talent identification session with the ACT Academy of Sport. Without training, Matthews recorded 15.8 on the beep test, a result most elite athletes would boast about.
''They basically said I'd be good at rowing or cycling,'' Matthews says. ''Rowing didn't seem very interesting and cycling was still to do with bikes, so there was a little bit of interest. I'd never thought about wearing tights and riding a bike with skinny tyres. I actually didn't even like cyclists before that, I just thought they were annoying people riding on the road.
''After the first six months of riding a bike I won the under-17 Australian championships.''
ACTAS cycling coach Glenn Doney recalls discovering Matthews and multiple world BMX champion Caroline Buchanan in the same group. ''I can still remember we did a hill effort up Parliament House … there's Bling and Buchanan racing each other and at the top they're bent over, holding each other up, vomiting. They'd put in that much effort to win.
''It was a game-changer for him, because he was going down the wrong side of school, getting in with some guys who he probably didn't want to be around … cycling just pulled him out of that.''
Before the final stage of last year's Vuelta, which he would go on to win, Matthews went on another spree. This time he presented a pair of designer Beats headphones to each of his eight GreenEDGE teammates, as a thankyou for helping him to the biggest win of his career.
Significantly, the headphones were green. ''Obviously the green jersey is the ultimate for a sprinter like me,'' Matthews says.
Another jersey motivates Matthews every day. His under-23 world champion jersey, unframed, hangs from a coathanger on the wall opposite his bed in Monaco.
He got the angel tattoo - with a halo of the world champion colours - after that victory in 2010.
''That day it just felt like I had an angel with wings on my back, because everything felt easy,'' Matthews said.
''But that [jersey] is what gets me up in the morning to train, knowing I've achieved that only makes me more motivated to go further. Talent can only take you so far.''
- Road national championships - January 8-12, Ballarat.
- Tour Down Under - January 19-26, Adelaide.