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Roubaix redux: Hayman recounts his miracle win of 2016

Everyone tipped Boonen to win a record fifth stone trophy, but the stars aligned for the journeyman Australian.

Mat Hayman wasn’t even supposed to race the 2016 Paris-Roubaix. The veteran Australian had broken his arm in a crash at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, casting a pall over his northern classics program.

With gritty determination, Hayman refused to throw in the towel. After rigging up his home trainer with a ladder, Hayman discovered Zwift training and maintained his fitness. He started Roubaix six weeks later as an outsider. But one thing after another fell into place. He started with no pressure, rode into the day’s break, and then followed the strongest wheels.

By the time he rode into the velodrome and out-muscled pre-race favorite Tom Boonen, Hayman was poised to pull off one of the biggest surprise victories in Roubaix history. The now-retired Hayman recounts to VeloNews the key moments before, during and after his 2016 Paris-Roubaix victory in this interview:

The crash
Someone crashed in front of me at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. I had nowhere to go. Normally you stand right up and get back on the bike. I was lying on the ground and I could not get up. The director showed up with team car, and I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want to be people fussing about me. I had to get into the ambulance and we followed every cobble section until the finish. I was testing my arm and I knew something was broken. It was six weeks to Roubaix and it looked like my classics were over. It was gut-wrenching.

The injury
It was a fracture in the radial head. It wasn’t a compound fracture, and I had my arm in a cast for about 10 to 12 days, then in a brace. I thought my classics were over. But there was something burning inside. With the amount of work I had done in the winter. I had done an altitude camp in South Africa. I had to at least try.

Mat Hayman
Hayman’s indoor training rig before Paris-Roubaix included the innovative use of a step-ladder. Photo: Mat Hayman

The home trainer
I couldn’t hold the handlebars so I put a ladder in front of the bike to support my arm. As a pro cyclist, you define yourself by riding and racing. You want to get back as soon as you can. That first day on the trainer, I was more sore from the cuts and scrapes to my hip and knee than from my arm. The morale was gone, and there were ups and downs. I got off a few times, opened a beer and said to my wife, ‘what the hell am I doing with a broken arm?’ But the numbers were good. I was not losing power. I downloaded Zwift for the first time, and that helped a lot. We mimicked some of the efforts we’d do on Roubaix. The form was there. It was a question of trying to maintain it.

The comeback
I didn’t even ride outside until a week before Roubaix. After the first ride or two, I knew I would be OK. It was a bit sore, but I was not feeling those big shockwaves that come with a serious injury. I was convinced I could race, but some of my team were not. I wanted to race Flanders, but they sent me to two one-days in Spain, instead. I got through those OK, and then we did the recon before Roubaix. Some were worried that I could not only hurt myself, but others as well. People on the team had a close eye on me during the recon. I was confident I could race Roubaix. Never in my wildest dreams did I believe I could win it.

The mindset
I had no pressure at all. Just starting the race was a big surprise. In other years I had put a lot of pressure on myself because Roubaix is so important to me. As a result, I had a mental freshness. I hadn’t been away from home for a month. I hadn’t been beaten down repeatedly. I didn’t have confidence that I had won anything either — but I had also not been beaten and bashed for a month straight. I was super fresh, and super motivated. I was really energized. I could tell on that recon rider on the Wednesday before that I was coming into the race a bit different than the riders who were battle-weary. It takes so much strength and energy to race those races of the northern classics. There is a lot of danger, and you’ve got to be on it all day on those roads, fighting for position. If you’re racing the entire block, that mental fatigue builds up. I came in with a little extra zip in my legs, a little less mental fatigue, and more willingness to fight for it than at the end.

Pre-race tactics
I posed the option to the team that I try to get into an early move. Jens Keukeleire and Luke Durbridge were our leaders. I know my body, and I know what I can do, so I know if it’s not happening, I can get there and do some work once the others come up. I also know that the break can go a long way in Roubaix. The team wasn’t so convinced.

Hitting the break
It was a big fight to get into the break, from 50km to 70km. I took two big turns in the front, and a break went. Then I had a free ride in all those first sectors. It’s so much easier to be in the break at Roubaix. We came out of the Arenberg with about a minute on the front group.

Finding the freedom
We were out there until the second feed, when riders started to come across. Boonen, Stannard and a few others pulled up. ‘Durbo’ was in the group, and he asked me how I was going, and then the attacks started coming. I didn’t have much race radio, but I knew there were splits behind. I didn’t know where people were or who was doing what. Boonen attacked again and we went right for his wheel. We went into another sector, and then Luke punctured. Still at that point, I figured I would be helping Durbo because he was our designated leader. He was trying to chase back and I still following wheels. Then it was just me again.

Tom Boonen
Boonen was looking for his fifth Paris-Roubaix win. Photo: Getty / Tim De Waele

Decisive split
The next big split came at Mons-en-Pévèle, which is a real hard sector. There had already been some attacks so people were thinning out. Tom was trying to thin down the group a bit. There was a moment there when I had to make a decision. Do I wait? I was on Marcel Sieberg’s wheel, and I could see guys riding away. I said to myself, ‘I have to go now. I owe it to myself.’ I had been in the break all day. I was still feeling good. I went across, and those were the five guys who came into the velodrome together [Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke, Ian Stannard and Tom Boonen]. A lot was still going to happen between then and the finish, but at 50km to go, I knew that was going to be the winning move.

Over the Carrefour
Vanmarcke put in a big attack, and he was going well. I actually lost the wheel a bit before I could get back on. No one wanted to let Vanmarcke get away. Once we came out of those last hard sectors, I thought it was going to be the five of us coming into the velodrome together. I was thinking to myself that I can have my best Roubaix ever. I was the only one who was in the break, so I can profit off of that. The pressure was on Boonen, not me.

Starting to believe
There was a lot of uncertainty. It was only in last few kilometers that I thought I had a chance to win. Until then I was just going for the best position, and I just wanted to be on the podium in the velodrome. Stannard jumped at 6km to go and I thought at that point it would be all five of us coming into the velodrome. I wanted to get that photo on the podium. I was close in 2011 and I had stuffed it up. We started a bit of cat and mouse, and then Tom really attacked hard, and Boasson-Hagen couldn’t follow. I went over the top of him, and Tom was at 5 meters, and he was hanging on the back. I didn’t know he was in such trouble. It was a full-on attack at the end of Roubaix and we’d been doing that for the final 5km. Tom was on the ropes there. Maybe that’s where I won the race.

Velodrome dreams
We had a small gap and Tom swung over, but I didn’t do a turn. Somewhere I had built the confidence. Had I done a turn with him, I would have been second. Just as we were getting close to the velodrome, he swung over, but I shook my head and said no. Sep caught us and then Boasson Hagen and Stannard came back. If I had done that turn, I wouldn’t have won. Then it happened so fast. We were on the final lap. I was high on the wall and got the first position. I went as hard as I could to the line. I couldn’t believe I had won, to be honest.

Hero or villain
I knew everyone wanted Tom to win the record fifth Roubaix. A part of me almost felt bad for winning. The only Belgian who was happy I won was Tom. He came up to me after the race, shook my hand, and looked me in the eye, and said, ‘mate, you deserve that.’ I was kind of in shock. I was not used to going to the winner’s circle. Tom’s a racer. He put it all out there. I wasn’t in a position to accept that I had won, but Tom is a real gentleman. He told everyone I deserved to win. That meant a lot.

Mathew Hayman
Photo: Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images

Reflections on the win
To be honest, I’ve never watched the race from start to finish. At the time I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. The memories of the race are still vivid, but everything that happened afterward was a bit of a blur. I am so happy we have that ‘Backstage Pass’ video. It showed some of the things I never see, how the staff reacted, what it meant to the team. Everyone said it’s going to change your life. But you wake up a few weeks later, and you’re still the same person. I know my kids don’t show any more respect for me [laughs]. You still have those stresses, fears and anxieties you always do. I am very proud of it. If there’s one race you want to be linked to your entire life and have your career defined by, that is the race. There’s no other race I’d rather win. Maybe a world title, but if I was forced to choose, I’d still choose Paris-Roubaix. I had ridden it 17 times, and there’s no race that’s made me cry more as a grown man. To be forever linked as one of the winners is something I am so proud of. There are so many symbols of that race — the velodrome, the showers, the rock. It’s Roubaix, man.