Australian Mat Hayman finished Paris-Roubaix 17 times but he’s remembered for one edition – his victory in 2016 – where he tapered to perfection via overdosing on Zwift. After retiring in 2019, Hayman took up a DS position with Team Jayco-Alula. He’ll be back at Roubaix this year but influencing tactics from the car rather than the bike. Here, we catch up with Hayman to talk all things cobbled…
How does Roubaix compare as a DS to riding?
You roll out of Compiegne and the nerves that have been building up all week start to settle. But as a DS, they don’t leave as easily as that. You’re less in control; you don’t really know how everybody’s feeling as you’re not in the centre of the action. I guess I’m a bit of a control freak and, as a rider, I knew exactly what was going on. There’s much more guesswork in the car. It’s just really hard to make a call on someone’s mindset.
How do you keep track of an at-times frantic situation?
Like all the teams, we use VeloViewer. But we also utilise television footage, WhatsApp groups, guys collecting bottles from the car, even people watching it at home. You’re just trying to collect information from every source available. A race like Roubaix is so chaotic and hectic that things can change really quickly. You must calculate the situation and then deliver news to the riders who often don’t know what’s going on themselves. They’re looking for answers but sometimes you don’t have them.
It's also important where your car is positioned. For a race like Milan-Sanremo it’s not that important. But once you get into the Belgium roads, it can make a big difference about how quick you can get to a rider depending on if you’re car one or car 25. There’s around two to three minutes between them when it comes to servicing a rider.
Who’ll be in the Team Jayco Alula line-up in Roubaix?
The team’s still to be confirmed but I’m sure we’ll have seasoned Roubaix campaigners like Luke Durbridge and Zdeněk Štybar. And then we have some younger guys in contention like Kelland O’Brien, who really enjoys riding the Classics.
How does the week prior to Roubaix pan out?
Well, we’ll race in Belgium the Wednesday before at Scheldeprijs and then travel down to Compiegne. We’ll then undertake a recon on the Thursday, albeit the rider selection often dictates which sections of the parcours you’ll reconnaissance and if there are any new sections. For instance, the older riders might want to check out changes, while for the younger riders, it’s better to cover the first sectors rather than the Carrefour de l’Arbre or velodrome because by those two points it’s not really about positioning anymore. It’s more getting to the finish.
All teams are different, though. Some teams skip Scheldeprijs to go on a couple of Roubaix recons, while others head there after the season finishes, though that’s often more about testing equipment than tactics.
Let’s return to your victory in 2016. Remind readers of the build-up.
About six weeks out, I’d crashed and fractured my radial head, just towards the end of the elbow, which was put in a cast for a couple weeks. I remember feeling disappointed because I had no pain in the cast and thought it had healed, but that changed when the cast was removed. So I wore a brace that I could lock into place for training on the home trainer, which I wore for the next couple of weeks.
This was back at the start of Zwift and I’d heard about it from a few people. Before Zwift, I’d tried to do ergo sessions just looking at the wall, which wasn’t great for motivation. Anyway, someone set up my computer and trainer, and the next minute I’m doing double Zwift sessions every day.
I then headed to Spain the weekend before Roubaix to race a couple one-day races including the GP Miguel Indurain as a test to see if I could race the cobbles. This clashed with the Tour of Flanders but we felt Flanders wasn’t the place to start testing if you could race!
Was Roubaix your goal event before the injury?
The spring Classics were something I worked towards every year. But during that period, when it was looking unlikely that I was going to be able to ride any of those races, I talked to the team about maybe moving me on to the Giro d’Italia squad because if I’d missed Roubaix, I felt it’d be too long without proper action before the Tour de France.
As it transpired, after Roubaix I actually went onto ride Amstel Gold and, for the first time, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where it rained and snowed. That suited me because those conditions really slow some riders down but I’m not too bad in them.
Still, it was tough on the trainer. There were many days where I was wondering what the hell I was doing training twice a day. In fact, before we decided I’d head to Spain, I asked the guys if I could try racing in Belgium and they said my bikes weren’t even in Belgium, they were still in Italy! So the team had written me off. It was only really on the Wednesday where I rode the cobblestones on a recon that the directors were like, okay, maybe he can start on Sunday.
What was your role in Roubaix?
I had a pretty open role, really, with the idea to utilise my experience to help some of the other guys. Both Jens [Keukeleire] and Luke [Durbridge] had been racing pretty well in the other Classics and were keen to go after a result. So, I was going to get into the race as far as I could, help them out and then make a call from there. It wasn’t like I was jumping in the early moves. That wasn’t my role.
Several times, I moved through the group to help others out but, in all honesty, I got through some of the toughest stretches without doing too much work. A lot of Roubaix’s about good positioning in the hardest sections. If you miss out on a good position, you end up having to make a big effort to get back to where you need to be. So, I managed to avoid all of those accelerations for the first three hours of the race.
But I was worried about the distance. Around 260km is tough enough when you’re fully fit. Even then the hammer can come and knock you out near the end. I was conscious that I was probably short of endurance, so I kind of protected myself for much of the race. It wasn’t until around 5km to go when I thought, if I’m feeling good now, there’s little time for the wheels to come off. My legs just kept on going.
There’s a moment in the velodrome where you looked shell-shocked that you won despite raising your arms at the finish. How come?
There’s just that brief moment where you think, ‘Oh no, there wasn’t someone up the road, was there?!’ It was just surreal. I’d never even dreamed about winning. I’d raced it so many times and thought that, at some point, I might be able to drag out a podium spot. But winning! Then in 2016, in the last 10km I thought there’s five of us [Tom Boonen, Ian Stannard, Sep Vanmarcke, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Hayman] and three podium spots. Wouldn’t it be incredible to be on the podium, to stand there in that velodrome and raise your hands? But I never expected to win it.
Mind you, I say that but at the same time, with 1km to go, I was away with Tom. If I wanted to ensure a second place, I could have had a turn with him and we would have been first and second, but I know who would have won. So, deep down, maybe there was somebody racing for the win because I played it pretty cool to let those other guys come back who aren’t slow in the sprint.
How did you celebrate?
[Teammate] Mitch Docker had a pretty bad crash in the Forest of Arenberg. [Ed. It was very bad. Docker underwent an operation on his eye socket, most of his teeth were smashed up and he needed his tongue sewn back together.] He was in hospital awaiting an operation. So that was a bit of a downer for the whole team.
On the positive, after many years of skedaddling straight to the airport, we stayed for the night after the race. We’d had a long block with most of us preparing from the Classics from November. You do the Middle East races, Paris-Nice… all at 100%. So, we thought this year we’d get a bite to eat and have a few beers to finish this part of the season. Luke [Durbridge] booked a restaurant in Ghent and we enjoyed a nice meal.
We then went back to the team hotel that we’d used for years and celebrated with the owners. It was fun, though I didn’t sleep much. I double-checked my phone 100 times to check I’d won.
Was this your hardest Paris-Roubaix?
No. In many ways, it was my easiest as I reached the finish line quicker! In 2016, there was a tailwind most of the day. I was feeling good all day. Roubaix’s a nightmare when you’re feeling bad, you’ve crashed, taken a few punches and are riding against a headwind over the cobbles by yourself. In 2016, I finished full of adrenaline; in 2008, I finished last!
Talk us through your cobble-winning gear set-up.
I was one of the first riders to use a full aerodynamic bike (a Scott) with deep-rimmed wheels in Roubaix. I’d used that bike at other races and training camps, and just didn’t want to play around with a different bike on the Wednesday before the race. I knew it had the right seat height and, after fracturing my arm, I just wanted to ride.
I remember chatting to Heinrich Haussler at the start line. He was one of the few to have a similar set-up to mine but, while we were both using 50mm-deep rims to start with, he’d planned to change bikes featuring 35mm wheels for the main cobbled sections, whereas I’d remain on 50s. But I wasn’t concerned. I spent a lot of time working on tyre pressures and I really believed – and still do – that you can vastly change how a bike performs and feels by changing tyre pressure rather than equipment. Of course, since I won, tubeless tyres have taken off and tyre pressures have dropped across the board. It’s why I never bothered with double wrapping handlebar tape that I know many guys do.
You make mistakes too, of course. I remember one year I was in a break with riders including Stuart O’Grady and it became clear I’d ridden too low a pressure. I was feeling good on the cobbles but I was just getting such a drag on the road. It’s a trap that you can fall into – that you go and do a recon where you’re probably riding 5km/hr slower than in a race and mainly over the cobbles. Come race day, speeds are higher and you realise you’ve got 200km on the asphalt. If you’ve got spongy tyres, you’re giving away a lot of energy.
Finally, where’s your victorious cobblestone?
When living in Belgium it had a spot in the middle of the living room with a spotlight on it. But we’ve moved back to Australia where I have it on the mantelpiece. It’s one of the few places of cycling memorabilia that’s in the house, the rest is in the garage. For that stone, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you know nothing about cycling, I’ve got a cobblestone from France above the fire; anybody who knows about the sport asks several times if they can touch it. It’s not gold, it’s not a diamond, but for me it’s priceless.