MAT HAY­MAN

The story of the do­mes­tique who won the Queen of the Clas­sics by train­ing on a turbo

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The spring of 2011 pro­duced a se­ries of Clas­sics in which the nat­u­ral order was in dis­ar­ray, when the kings were mo­men­tar­ily de­posed. Matt Goss was the best sprinter to make the starry eight-man group to con­test Mi­lan-San Remo. Nick Nuyens bluffed his way to vic­tory in a pul­sat­ing edi­tion of Flan­ders against, on pa­per, a much stronger group of ri­vals. And Jo­han Van­sum­meren be­came the last in a de­cently long list of usurpers to have their mo­ment in the sur­pris­ingly strong north­ern French sun­shine at Roubaix.

In that fi­nal race Mat Hay­man could smell op­por­tu­nity. He was rid­ing his 10th Roubaix and he knew that some­times the coup hap­pened: Knaven, Back­st­edt and O’Grady had all been un­her­alded win­ners dur­ing his ca­reer. And by that point he had made the first chase group af­ter a typ­i­cally bru­tal blood­let­ting in the For­est of Aren­berg. In the clos­ing stages, the re­main­ing favourites, Alessan­dro Bal­lan and Thor Hushovd, took their cue from de­fend­ing cham­pion Fabian Can­cel­lara. The trio made the race weather and Hay­man, rid­ing with Juan An­to­nio Flecha at Sky, steeled him­self and tried to make his es­cape. He launched a few at­tacks but they didn’t stick. Then Maarten Tjallingii went and Hay­man tried to bridge across

Roubaix 2016 hit a fu­ri­ous rolling boil 100km out and never let up. It was vin­tage. It was the per­fect race

on the Cam­phin-en-Pévèle cob­bles. He didn’t make it. He trailed home in 10th, with 11 oth­ers, 47 sec­onds back. “Damn,” thought Hay­man, “that was my one chance and I stuffed it up.”

It wasn’t, of course. Five years later, Hay­man won an edi­tion that lingers in the mem­ory as the best sin­gle day of ac­tion over the en­tire sea­son. Where 2011 was pred­i­cated on neg­a­tive tac­tics, some wheel-suck­ing and an un­likely es­cape and eva­sion, Roubaix 2016 hit a fu­ri­ous rolling boil more than 100 kilo­me­tres out and never let up. It was vin­tage. It was the per­fect race. “A lot of things can hap­pen in Roubaix,” Hay­man said, giv­ing a nugget or two of ad­vice to Orica-GreenEdge’s debu­tant, Luka Mezgec, in Com­piègne be­fore the start of the 2016 edi­tion. That Hay­man was even on the bus and strap­ping on a heart rate mon­i­tor was near mirac­u­lous. “Al­ways keep rid­ing,” he told Mezgec. “You can come back a lot in this race.” It was wis­dom that Marc Wauters, now a Lotto-Soudal DS, had first shared with him in his de­but sea­son at Rabobank back in 2000. Now Hay­man was pre­par­ing for his 15th edi­tion at the age of 37, and he’d rein­ter­preted the words and ap­plied them to his spring in gen­eral.

Six weeks and one day pre­vi­ously, dis­as­ter had struck in Om­loop Het Nieuws­blad – a race that he’d asked the team man­age­ment to add to his pro­gramme – when he had been in­volved in a mass pile-up on the Haaghoek cob­bles. As he sat on the soggy verge with a high con­crete wall loom­ing be­hind him, the pain in his right arm, a bro­ken ra­dius, sig­nalled the pre­ma­ture end of his 15th Clas­sics cam­paign in what may turn out to have been his sec­ond-last sea­son.

In a way, the news was a bless­ing. Now he’d be able to go home and spend time with his wife, Kym, and five-year-old son, Harper. He’d done Tour Down Un­der, two weeks at alti­tude in South Africa and had been dash­ing all over the place. Af­ter the Om­loop week­end it would have been straight to Tir­reno-Adri­atico and then into the Clas­sics. He was happy he’d get to spend time with his fam­ily but he’d much rather it had been af­ter the end of the cam­paign, when he’d done his job. Mostly the in­jury was ut­terly frus­trat­ing.

Yet the di­ag­no­sis of an un­com­pli­cated frac­ture, the prog­no­sis of a four-week re­cov­ery and an un­will­ing­ness to let the un­der­ly­ing good form go to waste meant Hay­man started a rig­or­ous regime of ergo train­ing ses­sions in his garage at home. Sur­rounded by kids’ bikes, a pa­tio heater and stowed-away out­door fur­ni­ture he propped his wrist-to-shoul­der plas­ter­casted arm on a step-lad­der and started ped­alling. The sweat would run down the plas­ter and col­lect at the el­bow to form a plas­ter paste that he dried out with a hair dryer. By the end of the 10 days it was on, the cast had started to stink. He was mildly em­bar­rassed when he went to have it cut off, then dis­ap­pointed that the heal­ing wasn’t yet com­plete.

Hay­man per­se­vered. He did high in­ten­sity train­ing ses­sions in the morn­ing and low in­ten­sity ones in the evening. He fed the power data back to his coach, Kevin Poul­ton, in Aus­tralia. Be­tween the open­ing Clas­sics week­end and Roubaix, Hay­man sweated buck­ets and rode some 1,000km on his Zwift trainer. A few times he had picked up the phone, called his coach or the team di­rec­tors and said, “Shouldn’t I for­get this? Should I start plan­ning an alti­tude camp and go to the Giro in­stead?” Sup­port came from Poul­ton, who con­vinced him to keep at it. His sports di­rec­tors weren’t neg­a­tive but they were more scep­ti­cal.

Hay­man hoped to be ready for the Three Days of De Panne but it came around just too early. Flan­ders looked pos­si­ble but that idea was set aside be­cause it was prob­a­bly too hard, too soon. In­stead, Hay­man flew south, to Spain and the GP Miguel In­durain and Vuelta a la Rioja. While all eyes were on Bel­gium and the Sa­gan­ma­nia that erupted as the rain­bow jer­sey took a solo win, Hay­man got around both one-day races un­scathed. In fact, bet­ter than that, his team-mate Michael Matthews took vic­tory in Rioja. Hay­man took care­ful note of the feel­ing in his arm. It was a dull ache rather than a sharp stab­bing pain when he hit some­thing, so it was good news.

Af­ter a cou­ple of days there was more pos­i­tive feed­back from Poul­ton, who told him that his ‘short power num­bers’ from the Span­ish races were among his best ever. “Don’t be scared that you’re not go­ing well, be­cause you’re go­ing okay,” Poul­ton wrote to him in his email. Hay­man joined the team for the usual Roubaix re­con on the Wed­nes­day and pulled up a bit sore but felt there was noth­ing there to worry about. It set the hori­zons for his race. Orica-GreenEdge’s team di­rec­tors, Matt Wil­son and Lau­renzo La­page, had a few op­tions for their Sun­day in Hell. Jens Keukeleire had made the fi­nal sprint the year be­fore and fin­ished sixth; Luke Dur­bridge had been show­ing strong form. The team would mon­i­tor and get into the early breaks and then, in time-hon­oured Roubaix fash­ion, see what hap­pened. There was no doubt that the re­turn of Hay­man’s ex­pe­ri­ence and horse­power was ap­pre­ci­ated – with 14 starts he had more ex­pe­ri­ence than any­body else in the field – but he was un­der no il­lu­sions that

he would be granted pro­tec­tion. He wasn’t put out. It wasn’t per­sonal and nor would he have backed a rider who hadn’t raced for five weeks, he thought to him­self. Nev­er­the­less, he per­suaded La­page and Wil­son to give him a free role. “You know I’m the kind of guy that will al­ways help a team-mate,” he told them. “If I end up in that sit­u­a­tion and I know I’m no good, I’ll fall into that role of team-mate, but un­til that point, can I just see how it goes?” They agreed.

As in 2011, a tail­wind blew the pelo­ton north out of Com­piègne. At­tacks flew from the dropped flag but noth­ing stuck. Af­ter 70km raced, the pelo­ton re­mained whole. Hay­man noted the fa­tigue set­ting in among the riders tasked to chase the breaks and de­cided he’d cover the next one. The 16-man move he hit, along with his team-mate Mag­nus Cort, was the one that stayed. Usu­ally, Hay­man thought, if it’s a late es­cape that gets away just be­fore the first pavé at Troisvilles, it never builds up a big mar­gin. The race slows down but the break never stands much of a chance. Nev­er­the­less, by sec­tor 20, still with more than 110km to go, the gap was around 3:45 when EtixxQuick Step sud­denly sent Guil­laume Van Keirs­bulck to the front of the pelo­ton to as­sist his team-mate, Tony Martin. A mo­ment ear­lier, a crash had pinched off the pre-race favourites, Peter Sa­gan and Fabian Can­cellera, and Etixx were all over the op­por­tu­nity. With three pow­er­ful groups within two and a half min­utes there was no let-up in the ac­tion. The brute power and tac­ti­cal smarts of Tom Boo­nen and the Etixx team, the coura­geous­ness of Lotto NLJumbo to keep Sep Van­mar­cke in the frame, the pur­pose, in­ci­sive­ness and then hap­less­ness of Sky, and the moves that put Can­cel­lara and Sa­gan on the back foot – the race had it all. For months after­wards – and prob­a­bly for a few years yet – when Hay­man met strangers who watched the race they told him how they couldn’t tear them­selves away to get the beers in or find a minute to go to the toi­let. Even his fam­ily – Kym and Harper, his mum and his brother – were way­laid. They’d been part of a coach party that had stopped off sev­eral times to watch the race. Now, parked up near the velo­drome, Kym stayed on the bus while Harper slept. No mat­ter: Kym was glued to Sporza’s race feed. Hay­man’s re­la­tion­ship with Paris-Roubaix is com­plex. It prob­a­bly started with a bit of phys­i­o­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism: ‘Here’s a big fella, he’ll like the pavé’ sort of think­ing. Sur­rounded by Dutch and Bel­gians for most of his ca­reer and liv­ing in Bel­gium, Hay­man bought into that. Then he rode the Queen of the Clas­sics a few times, fin­ished within a cou­ple of min­utes of the win­ner and thought, ‘If things go right, who knows?’ He got to know Roubaix’s lore, its win­ners and its le­gends. He might not do it all that of­ten as a road cap­tain but Hay­man knows the the­ory of win­ning races – par­tic­u­larly Roubaix.

For the fi­nal 50 kilo­me­tres, Hay­man was in the front group and among the five riders who’d go to the line to­gether and as­sorted oth­ers. There were some hairy points, like the mo­ment he al­most came down when two Sky riders slid out, or when he got chopped off the back wheel on the Car­refour de l’Ar­bre. Still, there was time to as­sess his ri­vals. Boo­nen had to win to get the all-out record of five wins. The Bel­gian, Hay­man knew, had iden­ti­fied Sep Van­mar­cke as his most dan­ger­ous ri­val and that feel­ing was prob­a­bly mutual. Di­men­sion Data’s Ed­vald Boas­son Ha­gen, so of­ten a fac­tor in Roubaix fi­nales, looked tired. Ian

Hay­man him­self didn’t feel the pres­sure. Af­ter all, he was just happy to be there. In fact, he felt an un­usual wave of calm

Ev­ery­one ex­pected Boo­nen to win the sprint; per­haps even Boo­nen and Hay­man Stan­nard was more dif­fi­cult to read, his rock­ing style de­cep­tive, but pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence had taught Hay­man that give him an inch, he’ll take a mile.

Hay­man him­self didn’t feel the pres­sure. Af­ter all, he was just happy to be there. In fact, he felt an un­usual wave of calm. At 5km to go, near Hem, there was a lit­tle rise in the road and Hay­man felt a brief stab of worry. Riders slip away here, he thought, and he was des­per­ate to get on that podium. But no sooner than they were crest­ing it then he was at­tack­ing and Van­mar­cke was on his wheel. As the velo­drome loomed he didn’t think what gear he was go­ing to sprint in, or where he’d po­si­tion him­self on the track. In fact, apart from the im­per­a­tive of mak­ing the podium, Hay­man wasn’t re­ally think­ing at all. He’d recog­nise later that he was in a state of mind that Sky’s sports psy­chol­o­gist Dr Steve Peters had tried to fos­ter in him back in the day, where de­ci­sions in that fi­nale re­mained sub­lim­i­nal. He opened the fi­nal sprint early, came past Boo­nen with some speed from the bank­ing and had just enough sparkle in his legs to stay in front. A win can do funny things to peo­ple un­ac­cus­tomed to the lime­light. For Hay­man, it wasn’t guilt ex­actly, but it trig­gered a weird, mis­placed feel­ing that he’d de­fied the will of the race. All those peo­ple, he caught him­self think­ing in the podium pro­to­col, had come here want­ing Can­cel­lara or Boo­nen to win. His con­cern was par­tially ab­solved by the mag­na­nim­ity of Boo­nen and also by the com­pli­ments from strangers. For months after­wards, whether in French, Span­ish, English or Dutch, they al­ways men­tioned how great the race had been, that he was a wor­thy win­ner. Be­fore the sec­ond Sun­day of April 2016, he might have felt a pang of re­gret about 2011, or 2012 when he was eighth, but he won the bet­ter race. The next few days were a blur of sleep­less nights, in­ter­views and cel­e­bra­tions. Watch­ing the sprint on news items he felt more anx­ious than he’d been in the race. He asked him­self, did it re­ally hap­pen? Hay­man lined up at Bra­bantse Pijl the Wed­nes­day af­ter and was ner­vous of the ex­tra at­ten­tion that would surely come his way. He was braced for the me­dia mo­tos to cir­cle when he was dropped and peo­ple talk­ing. In the end, though, he felt more, not less re­laxed. He didn’t have any­thing to prove to any­one; he was a Roubaix win­ner.

The vic­tory un­packed a lot of emo­tion, Hay­man told us af­ter he’d given his ac­count of the build-up and the day it­self, three months or so after­wards at the Tour’s first rest day. “It’s val­i­dated a lot of things for me,” he said. “I was happy. I’ve been in great teams, I’ve had a great time and I love the sport… ev­ery­thing was fan­tas­tic but it’s kind of made it all that lit­tle bit more worth­while. All the sacri­fices and the train­ing – it’s been for some­thing great.”

Com­ing close at Roubaix in 2011 and 2012 had been more hurt­ful than sat­is­fy­ing

Boo­nen pon­ders the all-time win record that slipped from his reach by a wheel

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