From Donald Trump’s success to terrorist attacks and the deaths of myriad beloved celebrities, 2016 has been a rotten year. Many people will probably be glad to see the back of it.
Not Mat Hayman. Because one Sunday in April, everything changed for this amiable career domestique when he won Paris-Roubaix. In a calendar year of disproportionately many misfortunes, Hayman’s hurrah was a surprise to smile about.
The Australian’s victory was 16 years in the making; every year since his Roubaix debut in 2000 taught him something. In his own words, the Orica-BikeExchange veteran explains how he did it.
It must be love
When you turn professional, you get a chance to ride. I don’t think I was 100 per cent sure even then that it suited me. But I do remember mechanics, soigneurs and other people saying that it did.
You either love it or you hate it. I’ve done Paris-Roubaix 15 times, and it truly is the one race that speaks out to me. The night before is like the night before Christmas. And the day after, you realise you have to wait another year to do it all again.
But maybe sometimes, I’ve put too much pressure on myself there, feeling I would get a chance ride for myself or even get team support. Often, that worked against me in ways. I was still changing from a rider that normally rides for somebody else to taking full responsibility. Sometimes it’s hard to do that just for one day a year.
Let’s get technical
Tyre pressure is the big thing. I think it makes the most difference, more so than changing wheels, stems, frames. How many bars [pressure] you run is a big secret.
I’ve ridden with too few before. The year I was away in a break with Stuart O’Grady , I felt really, really good on the cobbles. But there’s also 200 kilometres of asphalt in Paris-Roubaix and I was stuck to the road on that. You have to find the happy medium.
Normally I’m pretty meticulous, I spent sleepless nights about equipment going into Roubaix, making small adjustments. The one time I win it, I didn’t do that, I said ‘I’ll ride that bike, pump the tyres up and we’ll see.’ Maybe there’s a lesson there too.
Get up when you get down
As a younger rider, I was a lot more prepared to crash if I needed to crash.
I’ve had my fair share of crashes in Roubaix but I’ve never had one – touch wood – that’s forced me to abandon. You tend to bruise pretty heavily when you fall on cobbles, but you don’t take much skin off. I’ve had a couple of haematomas.
In 2016 [after crashing at Het Nieuwsblad], I was able to just use the home trainer to maintain what I’d already worked hard to get. Had I been on the back foot, it might have been time to just call it quits. But I had the level and could just kind of hold onto it.
A Classic for old men
There’s a lot to be said for experience, the knowledge of the roads as well as the experience of having measured your energy and your endurance over 250 kilometres including the cobbles. Looking at all the factors that came into winning in ’16, experience was a big one.
Having also been close when Van Summeren won [2011, Hayman was 10th] and being in a situation where I felt like I let an opportunity go, I used that experience again.
Without all those 15 years, without all those experiences, I don’t know if I’d have been able to pull off the fairytale that I did this year. There’s no real way to fast track that: Roubaix only comes once a year.
Never stop, never give up
Marc Wauters, a rider I really admired, gave me my best advice for Paris-Roubaix: always keep riding. Because you never know what can happen. You can come back into the race, and maybe there’s misfortune for other guys just around the corner.
My most hectic Roubaix was 2008. I was given a wheel before Arenberg and finished dead last, 10 minutes behind the last group, riding the last 70 kilometres alone. I still had good legs, I didn’t want to just get off.
I even had a crash on Carrefour de l’Arbre because people were walking home and the last riders were long gone. Paris-Roubaix is one race I want to finish, it’s special. It’s never really entered my mind to not try and get to the velodrome.
The velodrome’s peeling charm
It loses a lot of its shine when it’s not the finish of Paris-Roubaix. It’s a pretty rundown velodrome in a bit of a rundown part of the city. But on that one day, it becomes pretty magical. Riding onto there never ceases to be special.
It would have been a fairytale for Tom Boonen, coming back from injury at the end of his career. I was pretty aware of that. Living in Belgium, I read the media in the weeks leading up to it. But, he was actually most gracious in defeat, the first person to congratulate me and tell me that I deserved it.
The big memory from Roubaix that’s embedded in my mind is seeing my brother, my mother and my wife when I came off the podium. They were pretty red-eyed and emotional, that’s where it sunk in a bit. You don’t know how happy other people can be for you.
I could probably have got through life without winning Paris-Roubaix. But seeing their tears of joy, they felt I got something I deserved.
Paris-Roubaix 2017: two in a row?
It’ll be a tricky, interesting one because I’m sure the mind has a lot to do with the athlete. And the way that I raced this year was a hundred per-cent because I was so relaxed and had no pressure on me whatsoever.
So I’m hoping that even though I have number 1 on my back, I’ll enjoy the experience. More than likely, I’m going to go into it feeling like I need to prove myself again after winning!
I was very much an outsider in 2016. I do live for Paris-Roubaix and have had some top-10s, but it’d be nice to have another performance to show people that I’m a worthy owner of a cobblestone.