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The title of Paris-Roubaix winner belongs to a select few – the cream of the crop of cobbled riders. It takes experience, skill, a strong team and a healthy helping of luck to win Roubaix, and you can multiply those factors several times for a rider to win the race from an early break.
It can happen though, and it did as recently as last year when Mat Hayman won the sprint from a small group. Ahead of Sunday’s 115th edition of Paris-Roubaix CyclingTips talked to three men who pulled it off to find out exactly how they managed such a feat.
MATHEW HAYMAN, 2016
Before the race I had an email from my coach, who was pretty confident I was in good form, talking up my chances. With my Roubaix experience I wasn’t that confident going in. I felt that the first 200km wouldn’t be a problem, but wasn’t sure about the final, and maybe that played into my hands. I rode fairly conservatively and it paid off.
I asked for a bit of a free role — to go as far as I could — and talked to [DS] Matt Wilson about going in a break before the first sector. Magnus Cort had been jumping from the start and still felt alright when we got out there [around 70km in], so the biggest advantage of being in that break was that I was able to save energy – it turned out to be the key to my Roubaix.
I definitely wasn’t there trying to go as far as possible — I knew full well that the good guys would catch us at some point, and was hoping that it would come after Mons-en-Pévèle. Because they were chasing, they had to spend energy that I didn’t have to.
With 80km to go I tried a move. If I had my time again I probably wouldn’t have done that, but I just didn’t want to get caught (by the chasers) on those hard sectors. It was kind of a silly move – I should’ve used Magnus to keep the pace up instead.
When the Boonen group came across none of it was up to me — I was just there to follow. I had no responsibility after Luke Durbridge’s puncture, so I was just moving up at the right times and following wheels.
At Carrefour de l’Arbre Ian Stannard cut up the inside and I felt like my Roubaix was probably gone there. The initial thought was panic – like I’d lost everything. I kinda got going again and I felt like they weren’t riding away from me much.
That was a big boost – I started to realise that these guys are not superior. That’s when I started to think about the podium. In hindsight, had I [not] been forced to come back I might not have had the same confidence in the final.
I was pretty proud of the way I rode the final – every time I made a good decision it was followed up by another good decision. I felt like I was in control, and was able to keep my cool – it didn’t feel like I was riding to the Roubaix velodrome with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Countering Boonen with 2.5km to go was another key moment. That was 100% spur-of-the-moment — it goes back to racing as a kid. Somebody attacks and you get on their wheel and go over the top. There was a kind of subconscious confidence that got me into the velodrome and leading out the sprint.
From all the years riding on the velodrome I figured if I led out it’d be hard for three guys to pass. It’s a long way around the outside even when you’re fresh. At the 200m to go sign I thought I’d gone early but the guys got caught high and wide – that’s track racing.
Afterwards it was just pure shock, and it’s something that takes a bit of getting used to even after a year. You don’t always get to beat Tom Boonen in the velodrome! I’d hoped one day that I could get a podium, and that’d be the best I could do. To be able to win in that company was pretty special.
My cobblestone is in the lounge room at home. It’s got a nice spot sitting in the alcove – I’m pretty quick to turn on the light and make sure it’s lit up there in the early evening. It’s just a stone turned on its side but I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
JOHAN VANSUMMEREN, 2011
I called my father on Saturday evening and said “Tomorrow I’m sure I’ll be in the first three” because I knew I had such good legs. You don’t have these feelings very often – maybe some riders have them more often – but I had it at the right moment.
Coming out of Arenberg I was third or fourth – really at the front – and then we attacked. It was never planned – in the moment you just do it. It’s like Philippe Gilbert this spring – you can’t plan that the day before because you don’t know exactly how the situation will be.
At one point I crashed, coming out of Beuvry-la-Forêt [65km out] with Jurgen Roelandts. I was in the group, touched the ground and was up on the bike, losing maybe five seconds.
The big leader was Thor Hushovd, but I never waited for him. The only way for him to win was if Fabian Cancellara bridged the gap and he was in the wheel. That was the general plan: go earlier, then follow Cancellara and eat out of his plate.
When Cancellara stopped working behind [with 30km to go] I didn’t know — you can’t know everything and I think the directors don’t always have to say. You get the time difference from the moto and by then you already know.
I had Grégory Rast, Lars Bak and Maarten Tjallingii with me at Camphin-en-Pévèle. Then I felt I was the strongest – I knew I would go well there because in training on Thursday I went so fast. At the left-hander on Carrefour de l’Arbre — the one where Hushovd crashed in 2009 — it’s a bit like motocross and you can go against the wall full gas. I took three, four metres extra and that was it.
Then my only thoughts were to go as fast as I can. From the moment I was alone I went full gas. I didn’t think that much and I don’t remember everything because at the end I had the puncture, so it was quite stressful in the final kilometres.
Jonathan Vaughters came next to me 3km from the finish and I didn’t even tell him about the tyre – I had something like 30 seconds and I just knew it was impossible to change.
I couldn’t really enjoy the final kilometres because of that. Everybody asked me the same question – what was I thinking in the velodrome? I came in and the rim was like chk-chk-chk on every corner, so I was really stressed about the bike more than thinking about victory.
My cobblestone is in my living room. It’s on a table – not on the dinner table, just on the side against the wall.
STUART O’GRADY, 2007
I think it was the hottest April day in France for a while, something like 27ºC. The boss came in and he said “Boys it’s gonna be a hot one” and I’m like “What? Twenty-seven in Adelaide is a nice summer’s morning!”
I managed to get in the break, which wasn’t really on the cards. I saw the [34-man] group going away and it seemed a pretty interesting move, so I got across to it at the last second. I’d gotten top-10s in the Belgian races in the build-up but hadn’t nailed one so my form was definitely good.
Normally the plan was to get two guys in the break and I was supposed to take over after Arenberg and be there with Cancellara – close things down and possibly attack to burn out the others. I punctured in the (Arenberg) forest, which absolutely gutted me. I thought was my race over.
I guess it was the key part of the day – back in the day I would’ve tried to TT back and blown myself up. The older head prevailed though and I sat up, ate, drank and waited for the Boonen and Cancellara group to come along.
I had a look around and went “Jesus, those guys look more knackered than me!” They’d raced harder over the cobbles and I hadn’t had that in the break. I remember going to Fabian and asking what he wanted me to do, and he just said “If you can, go” so then I followed Steffan Wesemann and Roger Hammond – I was out there.
When they went I didn’t have to work because Matti Breschel and Lars Michaelsen were in front. Earlier I didn’t have to do much because Breschel and Luke Roberts were with me, so it was kind of the perfect scenario for me.
I didn’t hesitate when we joined the front group – it was just gut instinct. I didn’t even know how far there was to race – it was like 25km and I just gave it a big effort. It was pretty much full gas. What I was trying to do was go 90% on the cobbles, then 100% on the tarmac, because I knew the guys behind would attack on the cobbles then sit up, take a drink and look around on the tarmac – that’s where experience comes in.
I honestly didn’t think about winning until the small rise with 4km to go. It doesn’t look like much but after 250km it feels like Mont Ventoux. I just wanted to get it [the gap] to a minute – it’s a psychological blow to the chasers and they start playing for the podium. Otherwise you’re praying not to puncture.
Coming into the velodrome I just felt disbelief, I guess. I’d been dreaming about it for my entire career, and just never gave up. You keep dreaming and every now and then great things happen. It was just my day.
The cobblestone is the only trophy on display in my house — you can’t miss it when you walk in the front door. Every time I look at it I touch it and make sure it’s real.