Mathew Hayman is watching with interest as riders try to maintain fitness and motivation due to the coronavirus crisis. With teams shut down, riders across the peloton are hitting Zwift and other platforms in record numbers as lockdowns push cyclists off roads and onto indoor trainers.
Albeit under very different circumstances, Hayman is the poster child of how indoor training can help deliver real-time results on the road. In 2016, Hayman famously trained indoors for four weeks after breaking his right arm ahead of his dramatic Paris-Roubaix victory.
“I can sympathize with guys who’ve had their goals taken away,” Hayman told VeloNews. “That’s what I went through, and I know how it felt.”
Retired since 2019, Hayman is now an ambassador for Zwift, the online training platform that he used in 2016 to maintain his fitness ahead of his life-changing Roubaix victory. Today, he is working as technical advisor for Mitchelton-Scott’s online training programs for its men’s and women’s teams as the Australian-registered outfit waits on the sidelines as racing across the globe is shutdown until at least May.
Hayman, 41, has been busy these past few weeks as the team pulled its riders out of competition. He’s been helping the team’s riders scattered across Europe to get set up with trainers and online training programs. Last week, the team debuted the first of many online Zwift events and group rides designed to keep its riders busy as well as to engage with its fans.
“We’re doing these online events to give the riders something to look forward to,” Hayman said. “No one knows when we can race again. We’ve always been a fan-based team, so these online events are great interaction with fans.”
Hayman should know. His fairytale 2016 Paris-Roubaix victory was due in no small part to indoor training.
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Refusing to give up
That February, Hayman broke his arm in a fall at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad during Belgium’s opening weekend. With a fracture in his right radius and his arm plastered in a cast, things looked so bleak that newspapers were reporting that his classics season was a wash. Hayman refused to give up.
“Everyone thought my classics were over, but there was still something burning inside,” he told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “It was all the amount of work I’d done over the winter, an altitude camp in South Africa, the long miles. It might have seemed like I jumped on the trainer the day after and had a goal to race Roubaix. That couldn’t have been further from the truth.”
Like any classics rider, Hayman lived and breathed for the cobbled races. He learned Flemish, lived and trained in Belgium, and started 17 editions of Paris-Roubaix throughout his career. So when he crashed at Omloop, he didn’t just want to throw in the towel.
Six weeks to hell
There were about six weeks between the crash and the start of Roubaix. Doctors cautioned him that returning too early could risk not only re-injuring his arm, but perhaps provoking a crash on the treacherous cobbles, putting himself and others at risk.
Yet by late February, his form after training over the winter was closing in on a classics peak. He held out hope that if he could ride the trainer he just might be able to at least maintain his fitness, and have enough in his legs to race Roubaix.
Hayman knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he didn’t give it a try.
“I was questioning what I was doing. It wasn’t so straight forward,” he said. “Someone told me just give up on the classics and focus on getting ready for the Giro. But in the back of my mind, I wanted to try to race Roubaix.”
Once home from the hospital, Hayman was determined to resume training as soon as possible. Simply getting on the trainer was the first hurdle. With his right arm in a cast past the elbow up to the middle of his bicep, holding on to the handlebar was impossible. He had to search out his inner MacGyver. He rigged up the trainer, positioned a ladder in front of him to keep his right arm propped up in an elevated position. Though far from ideal, it worked.
“As a professional, you define yourself by riding and racing,” he said. “If you’re not riding, you want to get back on the bike as soon as you can.”
Though the first days were encouraging and there were more pains from cuts and bruises to his hip and knee, he couldn’t hold full power due to his cast. Doubts seeped in and he started to wonder if the classics would be a bust after all.
“There were ups and downs at first,” he said. “My trainer was telling me the numbers were good, and that you’re not moving backward. That first week was hard. I got off a few times, opened up a beer, and said to my wife, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”
Getting dialed in
That’s when he discovered Zwift. Former teammate and ex-pro Bobby Julich suggested he give the platform a test run. Back in 2016, Zwift was just starting to take off. Hayman set up a screen and linked up the software, and immediately set into a routine. Eventually Hayman settled into double ergo sessions per day, with two days on, and one day off. He would train about one and a half hours in the morning, and another hour and a half in the afternoon, mixing it up with hard intervals and engaging group rides on Zwift.
“It just made it a whole lot easier,” he said. “It’s hard if you’re just looking at the wall or watching TV. It was engaging and it gave me a sense of purpose.”
By then, it was two weeks after the crash, and the clock was ticking. His coach said he was maintaining his pre-crash form, but Hayman knew it wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t race. In what was the next in a series of milestones, the plaster came off.
“The cast was filling up with sweat,” Hayman said of the intense training sessions. “I didn’t have any skin off or any cuts, so we weren’t worried about it getting infected. When I walked into the hospital to get it taken off it was getting pretty smelly.”
The first big test would come out on the roads. Instead of rushing it, he spent nearly another two full weeks on the indoor trainer after the cast was removed. He went out for his first real ride on the open roads four weeks after his crash, just to see if his arm could handle it. There was some soreness, but no sharp pain or jolting pressure that meant he couldn’t race.
The main hurdle would come with racing. The team still wasn’t convinced, and management advised him against starting the Tour of Flanders. Hayman wanted to ride Three Days of De Panne, then a mid-week stage race between Flanders and Roubaix. Instead, the team sent him to Spain. In the first weekend of April, he raced a pair of one-days in northern Spain. His arm withstood the pressures of steering, braking and acceleration. A glimmer of hope grew.
The final test was the Roubaix reconnaissance ride. It was the first time he was on the pavé since he crashed at Omloop nearly six weeks earlier. Again, he defied expectations and survived the hard day of testing the decisive cobbled sectors at near-race speed.
“I reckon people on the team were keeping a close eye on me,” he said. “As an athlete, you’re in touch with your body. The sensations in Spain were good. I was confident that I would be able to race Roubaix. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would win.”
Race to nirvana
Hayman got the green light to race, and what happened that magical Sunday was something that changed his life forever.
In fact, Hayman reckons it was the fact that he missed so much racing ahead of Roubaix that he came into the race fresh, without pressure and without expectations. What he did have was a great base of fitness, thanks in no part due to his indoor training sessions.
“The fitness was there, it was just about maintaining it and maybe coming into Roubaix with that mental freshness and that top end which I would have knocked off by racing so much during the northern classics,” he said. “Because of the crash, I was specifically training for one event. It was almost like peaking for a time trial at the Olympics.”
Keeping the engines humming
So what advice does Hayman have for today’s pros? Many of Mitchelton-Scott’s riders live in Spain and Andorra, and are going into the second week of a mandatory lockdown that bans outdoor riding.
Initially, when Mitchelton-Scott sidelined its riders earlier this month, the team was hopeful it could resume racing at this week’s now-canceled Volta a Catalunya.
“The situation has changed a lot. We were supposed to be racing again this weekend,” he said. “We keep moving the goalposts.”
Hayman and the team’s coaches and trainers said without a definitive race date, there’s no pressure to keep pushing the riders too much. With many riders going into the second week of lockdown, they’re trying to find the right balance between maintaining fitness as well as the right mental attitude.
“There’s also the element of how each athlete is handling the situation,” he said. “They’re people, too. We’ve got guys who have three kids at home, and 19-year-olds who’ve never been away from home. We need to treat each situation delicately.”
Home-training for a few weeks is one thing. Trying to maintain race fitness for months on end is something else.
“That’s the hard part of dealing with uncertainty as an athlete,” he said. “There’s no clear goal.”
Just as Hayman’s amazing Roubaix win revealed, easing from home training toward a major goal is possible. Now they’re entering unknown territory as riders and teams look to an uncertain future.