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One a 38 year-old-Australian, the other a 62-year-old Frenchman. Mat Hayman and Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle are from a different time and place. But, as underdog winners of Paris-Roubaix, they are connected. If things work out on Sunday, they will have even more in common.
In 1992 Duclos-Lassalle soloed to victory in the Roubaix Velodrome, winning it as a 37-year-old. He then returned the following season to triumph again, beating Franco Ballerini in a photo finish.
In doing so, he became the oldest-ever winner at 38 years and eight months.
Twenty-five years later, Hayman is in the running. He will be 11 days shy of his 39th birthday on Sunday. If he can emulate Duclos-Lassalle in taking the double, he will become the oldest Roubaix winner ever.
Either way, though, their wins prove that in a race as unpredictable and chaotic as Roubaix, there is always room for the outsider.
‘It is a special race. It ignites some kind of passion in people.’
Looking at Hayman at Saturday’s teams presentation, someone unfamiliar with the sport would have difficulty picking him out as the 2016 winner. He seemed remarkably unassuming, likely a trait borne out of years as a domestique but also as a reflection of his character.
Observing him from afar, he appeared to be a modest person who is somewhat uncomfortable with the limelight. Just as he did immediately after beating Tom Boonen a year ago, he seemed a little bewildered with the circumstances.
You got the impression that he is still pinching himself, twelve months after taking an odds-defying win.
That’s not meant to diminish what he achieved in Roubaix. Hayman had crashed and fractured his arm just six weeks prior to the race. Much of his training for it was done on the indoor trainer, and going from that to beating Boonen and the rest of the field was a stunning feat.
Little wonder that he believes there is something magical about Paris-Roubaix.
“For me there is [something special],” he said at the presentation in Compiègne’s Place du Général de Gaulle. “And I found out last year that for half of Australia there is as well. I thought I was the only Australian, [along] with a few others here who enjoyed it, but it seemed like half of Australia was following it on television at home.
“It is a special race. It just seems to ignite some kind of passion in people. So I am really happy to be back.”
Sunday’s race will be the final outing for Boonen. The Belgian has won a record-equalling four titles and has the chance to set the all-time high mark if he goes one better than his 2016 showing. He said this week that he is in better condition than last time around, and will give everything to win.
Asked how he’d feel about upsetting the party by winning again, though, Hayman said he’d jump at the chance.
“I’d be up for that!” he smiled. “But it’s taken me 15 years to get to that point. This race is so hard and can be so cruel and it can be over so quickly.
“But I’m going in there pretty positive. I have got not so bad form, I’ve got experience behind me. I know how to do it now, so I am looking forward to another great day in hell.”
It was pointed out that Hayman is almost 39, older than Boonen’s 36 years. Asked why he was continuing while the younger rider was not, he said that the circumstances of their careers likely explained why the Belgian feels it is the right time to hang up his wheels.
“Just look at Duclos Lassale. He won at 37, 38,” he stated. “I think we have had very different careers. I haven’t been under the pressure Tom has been under day in, day out. I have had it for a week now and I can’t even imagine what he has to go through for his whole career.
“I think it is just a totally different way and I fully understand that Tom is ready to do something else. It takes a bit more energy if he has had to go through this for most of his career. The first time he was here was in 2002.
“So yeah, different careers. I’m happy riding. We are just totally different riders.”
‘I think in some ways my career has been justified’
A year on from his home trainer sessions, Hayman has had a very different buildup. He began his season in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in early February, then did a number of one day races prior to Paris-Nice. His best placing there – and his highest finish thus far this season – was 30th on stage three.
He then finished 137th in Milan-San Remo, 27th in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, 37th in E3-Harelbeke and just inside the top 100 at both Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders.
The results are more muted than those of riders such as Boonen but, compared to his preparation one year ago, he is streets ahead.
“It was different last year. But I don’t think it was ideal,” he said. “I have done a more orthodox preparation. And I like to race. I hate missing Flanders and I didn’t enjoy missing all those other races. I have done them this year, the team has grown.
“We have had some great results from Luke Durbrudge and Jens Keukeleire, being up there. It has been nice to be in that environment around the boys again. It was really hard to watch last year from the side.
“I’d choose this buildup any year. Let’s see what the result is.”
Predictions for Sunday suggest that there will be a tailwind and, consequently, a very fast start. Hayman said that he expects plenty of attacking, with the day’s break potentially taking some time to settle down.
A year ago he got up the road early, joining forces with over a dozen others to open a two minute lead by the halfway point.
Boonen and others came up to them later on, and from there Hayman saved some strength before showing he was one of the strongest in the finale.
If things work out the way he hopes, he will have such a buffer again.
However does he consider that his position as defending champion might mean that other riders won’t give him any leeway?
“You don’t always have a choice in this race, do you?” he said. “Sometimes the attacking goes on for so long and everybody is just ready to stop.
“I will be looking [for opportunities]. Hopefully I can be active. I don’t need to wait around. The Classics have shown this year that anyone who is aggressive and on the front foot seems to be rewarded.”
Because of that, he said that he wouldn’t play a game marking other riders. He’d rather attack than be attacked, would sooner go up the road than play a calculating game behind.
“I think you get in trouble if you start following people,” he explained. “We will ride our race.
“If I had to pick a favourite, sentimentally if I can’t win and one of my teammates can’t, then I would be pretty happy to see Tom Boonen take the fifth and finish his career like that. To crown a special race and special day and special career.”
Hayman’s motivation for giving Boonen that qualified backing may stem from the latter’s praise of his win last April.
Rather than being all-consumed by his loss, the Belgian said that the Australian fully deserved the success, and suggested it was due reward after years of riding for others.
If things don’t work out for Hayman, he’d be happy to extend his own congratulations.
Still, it is way premature to write him off. His win last time was unexpected, but he had previously finished tenth and eighth in the race. That underlines an aptitude for racing on the cobbles, and he will draw on the same skill on Sunday during the defence of his title.
He made clear he’s looking forward to it.
“It is a great race. I’m just happy to be back and happy to be on the cobbles again, [to be] a part of such a special race.”
Whether or not he emulates Duclos-Lassalle once again, he sees the bigger picture. He’s already taken a race that very few get close to, and knows that makes him a success.
“I think in some ways my career has been justified. If the only thing that anybody ever remembers me by is that I won Paris-Roubaix, I am pretty happy with that.”
In that light, he’s got absolutely nothing to lose. The pressure is off and he’s ready to ride an aggressive, opportunistic race once again.