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“Today’s my day. The sun is shining on me,” said Orica-GreenEdge’s Mat Hayman shortly after winning a five-man sprint to take Paris-Roubaix.
It was hard to argue with that assessment. Consider that Hayman has been a pro for 17 years. Consider, too, that he has won just a handful of races in that time. Finally, consider that he crashed and fractured his arm just six weeks ago.
In that context, beating four-time Roubaix winner Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), Ian Stannard (Sky), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) to the line was a massive achievement.
Hayman’s success was by far the biggest result of his career, and shows the value of persistence.
“I was eighth here once before. That was the year Vansummeren won, and that was also from a breakaway straight after the forest. Roubaix is one of the very few races where every few years it throws up a bit of a special winner. If you look at the results, there is one every three or four years with somebody you don’t expect.
“If you look back, they [those surprise winners] are pretty passionate about the race. Whether it is Stuart O’Grady or Johan Vansummeren, there is a number of them … If you look back, they have always been there in the front, or racing pretty well in Roubaix.
“If all the stars align like they did today, then they can win. It is possible. And I guess a lot of riders are able to live off that dream that it might happen for them one day. I am proof.”
Never mind that Hayman’s recollections are a little off [he was tenth the year Vansummeren won, but took eighth the following year]. The point is that his long love affair with the race finally delivered, with that courtship paying off in spades.
“This has always been my favourite race”
Hayman’s 15th Paris-Roubaix campaign looked in serious doubt on February 27. The Australian crashed heavily in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and was initially told his Classics campaign was over.
“I had a fracture in my radius … the head of my right arm,” he explained in the post-race press conference. “The doctors were pretty sure that all my Classics were done but I really wanted to get back as quickly as possible.”
As a result he did what he could to retain fitness. “I spent quite a lot of time on the home trainer. I was in my own virtual world spending hours in the garage twice a day, trying to hold on to the months and months of training.
“I mean, I prepare for the Classics every year and this my 17th year as a professional. And that starts in October.”
Having worked hard for the form he had in the spring, he wasn’t going to give up easily.
“I had spend a lot of time away at altitude, a lot of time away from the family to be ready for the Classics. To have that taken away with one crash … I didn’t want all that form just to disappear. If there was any chance I could get back for any of the Classics, I wanted to do everything I could.
“So there was a lot of time on the home trainer in the garage. Ten days before last weekend I was out on the road, and then I raced last weekend in Spain … the GP Miguel Indurain and [Vuelta a] La Rioja.
“I had a fair feeling that the legs were good, but you don’t know against the guys who are racing Flanders. I couldn’t have dreamed of this.”
Hayman’s wife Kym saw all the work he put into his recovery. She told CyclingTips that being able come back for Paris-Roubaix was a major goal.
“He has done a lot of training on the stationary bike. He has really, really tried hard to get back for this race,” she said.
Hayman first rode Paris-Roubaix back in 2000, while racing as part of the Rabobank team. He was a solid 65th, and fell in love with the event.
“It is a race that I had followed before I turned professional. And it is one that I wanted to do,” he explained. “I started racing … you either love this race or you don’t.
“If you do, you want to be here. There is a whole half of a peloton who just did Basque Country and they just want to watch it on TV, they never want to come up here, they never want to do it. But the guys who want to be here love it. And I am definitely one of them.”
Hayman said that his natural ability on the cobblestones was something which drew him to the Paris-Roubaix. “This has always been my favourite race. I have never hidden that. One of the reasons I was trying to get back from my injury was just to be a part of it again.
“I enjoy the atmosphere … I was telling the guys yesterday that the crowds here encourage every single rider whether they are in the front or in the back. It is something pretty special, Paris-Roubaix, and it always has been for me.”
“The only emotion I felt was total disbelief”
The way he explains it, his path to victory in the 2016 race began before the flag even dropped. While some of those he would be up against were working themselves up into a knot about the race, he was chilled out.
“I don’t win a lot of races and I am very surprised today. I didn’t expect it this morning,” he admitted. “I have come here before with big ambitions of trying to get on the podium, trying to ride the final putting a lot of pressure on myself.
“But this year after coming off an injury that I had in Het Nieuwsblad, I was really just coming here to enjoy the race that I love a lot. I was happy to be back in the team and I trying to help anybody that I could.”
Jens Keukeleire was the team’s protected rider, yet Hayman found himself in a strong position early on. He got clear with 15 other riders and although a couple of those slipped back, the group was two minutes ahead by the halfway point.
“Every director in every bus in the morning of Paris-Roubaix tells every rider that the early break in Paris-Roubaix is one of the few that can really get a rider a good result,” he said, dismissing the notion that being in the move was a lucky break.
“Everybody knows that. That is why it is so hard to get in the break.”
The break was eventually caught after the conclusion of sector 13, running from Beuvry to Orchies. As Hayman had been up the road for so long, he was given a little leeway.
“They knew I was in the breakaway all day,” he explained. “I didn’t have to win. It was pretty clear that Tom [Boonen] really wanted it. He obviously had to ride pretty hard to get rid of Fabian [Cancellara] and Peter [Sagan]. I was out the front, I was able to just sit there, to concentrate on saving as much energy as possible.
“Being in the breakaway had a massive advantage that I wasn’t doing any kind of surges all day. I didn’t have to fight to get on the cobbles.”
The new group continued to ride well, knowing that the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan were behind and struggling to get back on terms.
Vanmarcke then put the hammer down on the Carrefour de l’Arbre and this gained the Belgian important time. Behind, there was chaos and Hayman was gapped.
“On Carrefour de l’Arbre I thought I would be lucky to get fifth and could possibly be caught by the next groups,” he admitted. “It is still quite a way from there.”
The reason for his weakness was being caught out at an important point.
“I had a bit of a run-in with Ian [Stannard] on a corner. I know that corner … I believe that Juan Antonio Flecha had a crash there once, quite a big one in the final. We went in there pretty quick.
“I was on the front not far from going onto that. Ian came through underneath and I almost went into the crowd. I was put on a gap and I just kind of started riding my own pace and realised that they weren’t really going away.
“It just kept kind of compounding what I was thinking, that these guys weren’t that superior to me and I was actually not going to bad to be able to close that gap.”
“To be honest, it’s pretty surreal
As the line approached the five man lead group eventually reformed. A stream of attacks then followed. Boonen and Hayman pushed forward and entered the velodrome with a lead, but were joined by Vanmarcke and then Stannard plus Boasson Hagen.
Hayman explained what happened next.
“I would have ridden to the line and tried to sprint Tom. We came around the corner, I was on his wheel, the other guys came back,” he said.
“I still had a feeling that everybody was pretty tired, there were gaps opening up. I decided to hit out and go for it. I did get worried when I saw the sign for 200 metres because it is quite a long way. But in the velodrome, 200 metres, if you have to come on the high side, is a long way around. And on tired legs, you are better to be going [early].”
He continued to go flat out to the line and though Boonen was closing, the finish came too soon. Hayman had won, becoming only the second-ever Australian after Stuart O’Grady in 2007.
“The only emotion I felt was total disbelief,” he said. “I don’t win very often. I did win Paris-Bourges. There are probably some fans here of Paris-Bourges. In similar fashion, I was away in the breakaway all day and managed to win the sprint.
“It is not often that I win races, and especially something that you only ever dared to dream about is winning Paris-Roubaix. To be honest it is still pretty surreal for me to even be here and to be talking to you guys.
“But I think I have done my time, 15 Roubaix now, I have finished them all. There is a bit of experience there. I have sprinted on the track before for a placing, for a top ten, a couple of times. But sometimes you just have to go for it and sometimes good things happen.”
Boonen was likely stunned, but Hayman said that the Belgian was gracious about what happened, and congratulated him for his victory.
“I was just in a really good space today. I didn’t have to prove anything. Anything was going to be a bonus. There is no way that I expected that it would end up like this.
“I hope you guys are happy with me winning and that Tom didn’t. I am sorry about that. You could have been sitting here interviewing him and commending him on becoming the record holder. I am sure that Tom is going to have sleepless nights about it. But I am sorry, guys,” he added, smiling, “I won!”
To Hayman’s credit, he said that he would have accepted things if their positions had been reversed.
“I would have liked to have seen him win and get the record. I will be honest. He is the king of the race.
“I followed his career when he was a young rider, being on the podium at such a young age. For me it was pretty surreal even riding into the velodrome with Tom. He is a guy I have had a lot of respect for.
“As I have said a couple of times, I would have been happy with second. I have never been on the podium in Paris-Roubaix. But today everything just fell into place.”