Mathew Hayman stunned cycling fans just two years ago overwhelming Tom Boonen and a host of other favorites to win the epic Paris-Roubaix race. For Hayman, winning The Hell of the North was nothing less than the ultimate conquest of a life-long dream. And yet as Roubaix fast approaches once again, Hayman is once again absent from the list of top favorites. But as he showed in 2016, you can never count him out. We caught up with Hayman recently to recall that memorable day and to look back over what will soon be 20 years as a professional cyclist.
PELOTON Magazine: Mathew, you have spent most of your professional career living in Belgium. And it has even been said that you are the most Belgian of the Australian cyclists.
Mathew Hayman: Well, Robbie McEwen would have to be up there too. He is married to a Belgian. I guess it all goes back to my days at Rabobank. My brother raced and dreamed of coming to Europe, and he actually moved to Holland and raced for an amateur team there for a while. So originally I started there. Rabobank started an under-23 team in 1997 and that gave me a chance, and I ended up in Holland. But with some of my teammates we moved down to the Limburg area in the south on the Dutch-Belgian border, and as a result we would race a fair amount in Belgium. Eventually, I moved there and my wife Kym eventually moved there too, and we’ve made it our home in Lanaken. I just have a real affinity with the Belgians. The Belgians love cycling. The Dutch don’t mind it, and they actually do a lot of cycling, but the Belgians love it. It’s their sport. It’s in their blood. It’s generations. It’s their grandfathers, their uncles…everyone has someone in the family that raced or was professional.
PELOTON: You turned professional in 2000 and have been a pro for nearly 20 years.
Hayman: Yeah, I still can’t get my head around that! I’m in denial. It’s gone so quickly.
PELOTON: How has the sport changed?
Hayman: You know, it is interesting, because it has changed in some ways and yet it hasn’t. When you are in it, it’s like when you have kids. If you look at a baby photo they look miles apart from when they are growing up. But when you are in it, the changes are so incremental that it is hard to say. I’ll go back and look at an old photo and go, “Wow, look at that bike that I was riding” or “that helmet that I had on!” But at the time the changes are so small.
PELOTON: How has it stayed the same?
Hayman: Well, it is still a workingman’s sport in Europe. It’s still open to the public. And it is still hard. It hasn’t gotten any easier. In certain moments it all seems more intense. Some races have disappeared, but the big moments, the classics and the stages in the Tour de France matter more. We race less, but when we race, it is much more intense. Because we raced more in the past, racing was often more relaxed. Of course, the Tour de France defined whether the team had a good year or bad year. But that is part of the market. But the essence of the sport has not changed and in many ways it has gotten better. I’d say I’ve enjoyed the last 10 years the most. Even though it has been faster I have had more fun. I like the science aspect of the sport and I like the discipline that you need to have to do it today. The sport is in a better place today. I know that for a fact. I’d be happy for my son to be a bike rider. But in many ways the sport that I fell in love with is still the same.
PELOTON: Is Paris–Roubaix still the mother of defections?
Hayman: Ha-ha! Yeah! You don’t want to get that one under your skin. She’s cruel, but she can be kind sometimes.
PELOTON: Well it is fair to say that you have lived every possible experience in that race.
Hayman: A lot of experiences. I’ve cried more than a grown man should after that race. After winning Roubaix I got philosophical and wondered if, in fact, every time I had ridden a bike was for that day.
Hayman: It was and it wasn’t. I always rode a bike because I liked riding a bike and that is why I ride. But I needed all those experiences, all of those 15 years to get there. I needed to grow up racing on a velodrome. I needed my mom driving me around to tracks in New South Wales as a 16-year-old.
PELOTON: When did you first realize that Roubaix was your dream race to win?
Hayman: Well, after 10 years, I dreamed of getting on the podium. I didn’t dare dream of getting higher. I thought that, maybe if everything went right, I could get on the podium. But winning was a dream I didn’t dare want to picture. It was too farfetched.
PELOTON: Well, the day you won was no fluke. I mean you beat Tom Boonen, who, along with Roger De Vlaeminck, is the greatest Paris–Roubaix rider ever.
Hayman: I needed to have the best day of my life. I needed for everything to go right. And everything did. But that is bike racing. I have had a lot of things go wrong. I used the years of experience and kept my cool. I remembered the times late in the race over the years where I made mistakes and beat myself up about it. So I went into the final relaxed. All of the other guys had a story. They needed to do this or they had to do that. Sep Vanmarcke was so longing to get this win. Boonen so wanted to get a fifth win. Ian Stannard seems destined for that race. I was the odd man out that got to smile at the back.
PELOTON: Did you feel like you were being underestimated?
Hayman: Well, I took my pulls, maybe more than some others. But it wasn’t until the Carrefour de l’Arbre when Ian Stannard and I had a run-in, and I actually got dropped right at the moment when Sep Vanmarcke attacked. It was when I came back from there that I realized that I could win. Until then I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I’ll get fourth or fifth.” But that would have been sad after coming all that way. After that moment, when I caught back up with Tom after we passed the hotel and hit the final section, I said. “Hey, those guys didn’t just ride away from me. I just lost 50 meters and was able to close it down. I’m not as bad as I thought I was!”
PELOTON: And then in the velodrome you just came over the top with freshness that no one else had. It was reminding me of 1997 when Frédéric Guesdon sprinted by all of the favorites.
Hayman: Yeah, it’s funny, but I felt in the press conference that everyone was disappointed. I felt like I had just come and upset the applecart and that Tom was supposed to win and finish the fairy tale. I’ve come to understand that that wasn’t the case really.