“I thought I was going to win.”
I bet he bloody did.
Roger Hammond sits forward on his couch. The memory forces him to sit forward on his couch. “I knew that I was strong.”
He is talking about a race eight years ago [now 15 years ago]. Not just any race, mind. It’s Paris Roubaix, and as he enters the famous beaten-up velodrome, he assumes he has the race won.
“It was a bizarre experience. When I turned in with the front group, I couldn’t hear any crowd noise at all. I thought, God, it’s quiet in here. I could hear the flags up high on the bankings flapping in the wind. I could hear Maggie [Magnus Backstedt] changing gear behind me. It was the only time I’ve ever understood what they mean by being in the zone. Even in the final straight, I thought I was going to win.”
He was wrong.
Hammond winces. “I did 264.9 kilometres perfectly, and then fucked it up in the last hundred metres.”
There’s a smile as he says this. But also a slight, tell-tale reddening of his complexion, too. Clearly, it still hurts.
It’s apparent that a long, dignified career is being distilled down to that one moment, when he almost had it all. As the interview progresses, his third place in 2004 has acquired the absolute density of a black hole.
“Cycling is a harsh truth. There’s nowhere that you can hide away. Realistically, if I was ever going to win Roubaix, I’d have to have the wind blowing in the right direction, just on me, and not on the others.
“But it was my ultimate ambition. It was the race that I wanted to win.”
As a young rider, he grew up wanting to achieve three goals. To win Paris-Roubaix, to win a mountain stage of the Tour de France, and a third one he can no longer remember. His stocky physiology put paid to his Alpine ambitions, and so he was left with just one major goal: the one that ends in the velodrome.
Out on solitary training rides, he would play out different racing scenarios in his imagination. But always they would end in the same way. ‘Hammond!’ the voice of the commentator would scream.
“In my mind I’ve won the race a million times. To be honest, even this winter, when I was training I would quite often imagine myself being in a lone break in Roubaix.”
There’s one word that stands out in that sentence. Lone. That would be his dream scenario, a solo attack. Entering the finishing straight all alone would be the way Hammond would have chosen to win. That’s been a hallmark of his career. An occasionally solitary pursuit of singular ambitions. Recently he’s been thinking it might be time to get his thoughts down in print. He’s even got as far as thinking about a title.
“Square Peg, Round Hole. That’s how my whole career has felt. Everything I did was wrong.”
Perhaps Hammond is the last of his kind. His arrival in Belgium, with high hopes, a bike in the boot of the car and a few quid saved up, is part of an unchanging lineage of British cycling stretching back to the era so perfectly captured in Tony Hewson’s cult classic In Pursuit of Stardom.
2004 was the year in which Hammond had his chance, and took it. Or at least a big chunk of it. The final results from the 102nd edition of Paris Roubaix read like this:
1) Magnus Backstedt (SWE) Alessio-Bianchi 6h 40’26”
2) Tristan Hoffman (NED) Team CSC s.t.
3) Roger Hammond (GBR) MrBookmaker-Palmans s.t.
Just off the podium, in fourth place, a certain Fabian Cancellara, who finished with the others in a breakaway, and was about to announce himself to the world. Also, further down the field, the two great champions, and clear favourites for the race, Johan Museeuw and Peter van Petegem.
It was only the second year that Hammond had ever ridden the cobbles. His team fretted perennially on their prospects of getting a wild card invite, and in 2003 were granted entry far too late for any reconnaissance. So it was that Hammond, and his team-mate Jeremy Hunt hit the famous Arenberg sector for the first time in their lives quite unwittingly.
“All of a sudden we looked up and there we could see the bridge, and we thought: Oh my God. Jez and I bundled up onto the pavement, went behind the crowd, behind the metal seats on the pavement. And then we swung back onto the road, I hit the railway line, and I actually went onto the Arenberg airborne.
“I didn’t touch the first cobbles. I remember looking down at the cobbles thinking ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen here’. I’d hit something that had thrown me up in the air. I was totally out of control, and landed on the Arenberg cobbles for the first time ever.”
But it taught Hammond a lesson: to ride the race on instinct, not to fret too much about the strengths of those around you. To try, if it’s not an impossibility, to enjoy the race. In 2004, the following year, he did just that.
“It was like chucking a pack of cards up, and that day they all fell back down nicely in their suits. It’s funny how major cock-ups work to your advantage. That day, I forgot my food. I started the race with no food. 20k into the race I went to the back to get some, and I ended up just sitting at the back doing nothing, waiting for the team car.
“Up front there were attacks going left right and centre, but I was just sat in this bubble of riders coasting along. The field would string out, but then concertina back up. But we didn’t notice anything. I got a free ride through the first 100k.”
Then, when the racing did start in earnest, he would be the first to admit, he was aided by a series of misfortunes which befell the favourites. But that would be only half the story. His form was good, and he made all the right calls, almost all the way to the end.
“I was in Arenberg with Van Petergem and Museeuw. I thought, if I can follow these guys here, then why can’t I win this race?
“On sector 9, Museeuw attacked and I went with him. Then he looked around, and we could see that it was all strung out, and I just hit him. I thought, God I feel good. I’m on TV as well!”
That attack dispensed, at least for now, with George Hincapie.
“I remember looking around and thinking: Fucking hell! I’ve just dropped George! The problem was I’d gone so deep on that attack that it buggered me for the next few sectors of cobbles.”
To that point, Van Petegem, the winner the previous year, had been impressed with what he’d seen of Hammond. He rode up to him.
“He came up to me, and said: ‘Look, I’m going to go on sector 5. I want you to come with me. Just make sure you’re on my wheel’. I thought: ‘Mega!’”
But van Petegem punctured. On the Carrefour de l’Arbre, Museeuw then attacked.
“I thought, well, this it. This where you’re either going to win, or you’re not going to win. And all hell broke loose. The lasting impression of my whole cycling career will be following Museeuw on the Carrefour de L’Arbre. I put my life on the line.
“This was the opportunity of a lifetime. But I was thinking, this is going to be embarrassing, because I’m going to shit myself here; I was literally trying that hard. And a slight recollection of people by the side of the road. Even to this day, I remember all I could see were the two yellow lines of his Hutchinson tyre. I didn’t see a cobble the whole way along. A bomb could have gone off and I wouldn’t have noticed it.”
That broke the race up definitively. Now there were just five. Cancellara, Hoffman, Backstedt, Museeuw, and Hammond. Fate intervened again.
“I could see the stone, and I knew he was going to hit it, and I felt like shouting out to him. But he hit it and punctured. Perfect. Brilliant. Best thing that’s ever happened.” Museeuw, along with van Petegem was now out of the reckoning.
“Those punctures handed us a unique opportunity, and we just grasped it with everything we could. I had too much respect for the guys behind me. My one regret is that I didn’t have enough respect for the guys in the group. It didn’t cross my mind that they could actually beat me. I came to the velodrome, and I was too confident. Cancellara was unknown at the time. Maggie had had a horrendous Classics campaign. And Tristan didn’t ride for the last 15k, so I didn’t really think he was going to sprint.”
Entering the velodrome, he thought he was perfectly placed.
“I was second behind Cancellara. But it never crossed my mind that he wouldn’t be riding for a win. It never occurred to me that he would be content to ride for a podium place. He’d figured that all he had to do was beat one person. But he opened the door for the others to come through underneath. I thought, why the hell would you do that?”
Backstedt and Hoffman came through. Hammond’s final judgment, the one that really mattered, misfired.
“It ran through my mind for the next three years. Immediately I knew what an opportunity I’d missed. The best two riders in the race that day both punctured. I thought, days like that aren’t going to come around too often.”
And now they’ll never come again.
This is an extract from a feature which first appeared in issue 29 of Rouleur magazine.