Nobody thought it was possible but Mathew Hayman did it. Winning the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, the Australian gave the world one of the most inspiring stories in recent cycling history. And it’s one that rings acutely in these days of confinement, as he won the mighty French Monument with spectacular racing after weeks of training indoors as he recovered from a broken arm. “That was the year that I had the least chance of doing well,” Hayman now reflects as we discuss his masterful victory a year after he retired from the peloton.
This unusual route to victory started with a crash early in the 2016 season. On the roads of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the opener for the classics, Hayman went down. And this time he didn’t get up like he usually did, to climb back on his bike and shake off the pain. The experienced Aussie, riding for Orica-BikeExchange (the former name of the Mitchelton-Scott team) in his 17th pro season, sat on the side of the road.
He only got up to be taken to the hospital where examinations revealed a fracture in his right radius. “The doctors put it in a cast and said it’s gonna be six weeks off the road,” Hayman recalls. I looked at my phone and I said: ‘Ok, that’s one day before Roubaix…’ The team doctor was also there. ‘That’s not gonna happen’, he basically told me. You know, Roubaix is not Milan-Sanremo, there’s the extra stress with the cobblestones…”
The blow was immense for Hayman, who was soon to be 38 years old and had developed a great love for the classics since he first participated in the ‘Hell of the North’ as a neo-pro, back in 2000. “I love this race and I always put massive pressure on myself to have a good ride,” he confirms. But his training opportunities ahead of the 114th edition of Paris-Roubaix looked doomed. Highly esteemed as a road captain, Hayman considered shifting his ambitions towards the Giro d’Italia, starting a month later than the French classic, but there was no spot on the team for him to ride the Italian Grand Tour.
How to prepare Roubaix on a home-trainer
“I think it took me until the Wednesday of the next week to get on the trainer and I did a couple of hours,” he says. Hayman is not necessarily put off by indoor training - “I come from Australia, we have a track background so we know the benefits of working hard in a controlled environment [but] I was just looking at the wall, listening to some music, and it wasn’t really doing it for me.”
Then came the tool that has changed indoor training for cyclists all around the world, pros and amateurs alike: “I started on a training platform, Zwift, and I was able to do one and a half hours, two hours, without fatiguing mentally”, Hayman says from his Belgian confinement. “I could concentrate on the training rather than just concentrating on staying on the bike.”
With his coach Kevin Poulton, Hayman worked on double sessions on most days, and up to three or four on specific occasions. “Kevin definitely broke down what it takes to do Roubaix”, the Australian champ explains. “I was able to keep form, maybe even get some more form through having more rest and being able to train exactly as I wanted to train, which you’re not always able to do if you’re racing all the classics. But that being said, you can be the fittest person and you’re not gonna be able to be the best at Roubaix. Being physically prepared is only half of the equation. I needed the experience.”
Mathew Hayman, now a sports director for Mitchelton-Scott and an ambassador for Zwift, invited fans to join him for an indoor ride replicating one of his pre-Roubaix workouts from 2016.
“I remember kind of holding off on going outside,” he adds. “I was doing really good training indoors and if I went out on the road my arm got sore, or I wasn’t really able to complete the session…” Hayman returned to racing on the GP Miguel Induráin, a week before Roubaix, and was able to do an intense recon on the cobbles on the Wednesday before the race. Things were looking good: “I had good legs, my arm was holding up and I was gonna start in Roubaix on the Sunday.”
Doubts and disbelief
Not only was Hayman’s preparation for Roubaix unique, but the race was also a crazy one. For the first time, the organisers had arranged for a full day’s broadcast, from the first pedal strokes in front of Compiègne’s city hall all the way to the iconic Roubaix Velodrome. And it paid off brilliantly with some exhilarating racing.
Attacks flew from the start, as they often do in cycling, but they didn’t stop for almost two hours! “We raced until I got in the breakaway, which was 80 kilometres into the race”, Hayman describes. Only the fittest can make it to the front in such conditions. 13 riders were at the front with Hayman, including some proper beasts: Sylvain Chavanel, Jelle Wallays, Tim Declercq, Imanol Erviti, Frederik Backaert…
The situation barely settled for a handful of kilometres, before Tom Boonen’s Quick-Step put the hammer down and split the race with 115km remaining, leaving the likes of Fabian Cancellara (winner in Roubaix in 2006, 2010 and 2013), Peter Sagan (2018 winner) and Niki Terpstra (2014) behind. “It was race on!”, Hayman rejoices as a true classics enthusiast. “There were people everywhere and everybody was racing.”
Tom Boonen – already a winner of Paris-Roubaix on four occasions – and Sep Vanmarcke were the main favourites able to reel in the early attackers and fight for victory. But there was no shaking Mathew Hayman, who was in his own zone, and eventually sprinted to victory on the Velodrome despite the uncertainties: “A big part of my victory comes from being in the breakaway. I was able to save energy up there. I was waiting for the wheels to fall off and I was kind of holding back for a lot of the race, nervous that I hadn’t done that extra work. I was thinking this is not possible, not with the training that I’d done. Had I been more confident… maybe I would have shown my cards a bit earlier.”
The first images of Mathew Hayman on the grass of the Velodrome shows a man in total disbelief. “How could it be possible with the wrong training and the wrong preparation?”
Boonen, who had just missed out on the opportunity to become the only rider with five victories in Roubaix, appeared quicker to acknowledge the situation: “You deserve it, man.”