Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Hayman!

10 April 2016
It’s Sunday night. The rest of household is sensibly in bed, sound asleep. We’d returned home from a family dinner at about 8.30pm, read the kids their bedtime book and tucked them in. It was about 9pm by the time I turned on the telly and tuned into the live Paris Roubaix coverage. There was still well over 100km of the race still ahead.

Paris Roubaix. The most famous of the cobbled classics, raced in the European Spring over cobbled farm roads, industrial back waters, and suburban streets in northern France. In some ways, the lack of spectacular scenery focuses concentration on the core business of bike racing. No chalets or picturesque ruined castles. In their place old mining infrastructure, muddy puddles, roundabouts and speed humps. And action-packed bike racing.

Pre-race favourites Fabian Cancellara and world champion Peter Sagan get caught behind a crash and the race starts to break apart and look very open.  Scattered groups of riders morph into different configurations in response to the forces applied. An attack off the front applies a force that stretches one bunch to breaking point. A group of team mates combine forces to pull a disintegrated bunch back together. Punctures selectively remove riders one by one. And crashes. A vortex that the peloton rides into in an orderly way, and emerges from in a different configuration entirely. Or are left in crumpled heaps on the side of the road.

Toward the end, things stabilise, and it’s a small group of five at the head of the race riding toward the finish line at Roubaix velodrome. Tom Boonen, Sep Vanmarke, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boassen-Hagen, and the Australian, Matt Hayman. You could describe them all as second-tier favourites. Except Hayman. Boonen is a four-time winner of the race, but past his best. Vanmarke overcame relative obscurity just 2 years ago when he went close to winning this race, but was beaten in a 2 man sprint by Cancellara. Stannard, a renowned hard man, looking to reverse the fortunes of his big-budget team who consistently win the Tour de France but have never got close to winning here. And Edvald Boassen-Hagen, the Norwegian national champion looking for a long-anticipated and widely-expected break-through performance. And then there’s Hayman.

24 November 2015
In mid-2015 I’d been sitting at my work desk mid-way through the Melbourne winter getting updates from friends who were riding the famous climbs of Europe, watching famous bike races and eating famous food. I started planning a low-budget, family-friendly and not quite so famous version. Along with riding buddy Nick, I booked accommodation for 3 nights in Bright for November. A chance to have my life revolve around bicycles, food and alpine scenery for a few days.

It was excellent. We clocked-up over 400km in two and half days of riding, including the climbs of Falls Creek, Mount Buffalo and Mount Hotham.

It was Tuesday when we rode Mt Hotham. The weather was perfect and there was very little traffic, vehicular or bicycle. But about half way up as we snaked along the edge of the valley, I looked back and saw a small bunch of cyclists approaching around the bends behind us. Shortly afterwards they were upon us. And we both did a big double-take as Simon Gerrans cruised past and said hello. Jack Haig was there too, and stood out because he had only just joined the Orica Greenedge team and wasn’t yet wearing team kit. Most of them looked small and lean, spinning their legs and floating up the mountain with enviable ease. 

But right behind them was the larger figure of Matt Hayman, not giving an inch. He wasn’t spinning effortlessly. You could almost feel the power his legs were generating buzzing in the air around him as he slid past. It was memorable.

Sam Bewley rides up Mt Hotham for the first time.
About 20 minutes later, another non-petite member of the team, Sam Bewley rides by, dropped on the lower slopes. It's his first ever ride up Hotham. We have a chat and he lets me take his photo. 















10 April 2016
I’m lying on the couch watching the race things unfold. Hayman has already had to chase back on to the group after losing ground in an awkward corner. He’s also been in the breakaway. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he succumbs to fatigue and leaves these second-tier favourites to decide among themselves who wants this more. Then Hayman attacks. I sit up.

Stannard, Boonen and Vanmarke have all attacked previously and opened up gaps before being reeled back in. After Hayman’s attack, the others are straight onto his wheel. I settle back into the couch.

Boonen attacks and opens a gap. You can almost see the velodrome from here. There is hesitation from the chasers, and then Hayman gets out of the saddle and closes the gap without any passengers. He sits behind Boonen for half a second and then blasts past. I’m sitting up again, this time on the edge of my seat.

Boonen works hard to gets back and as the two of them enter the velodrome, Matt Keenan, the commentator, notes that Tom Boonen has won 109 professional races in his career. Hayman. Two.

26 March 2006
We’re lining the side of Birdwood Avenue, along the back side of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. I’m about to become a father, with my heavily pregnant partner by my side. We crane our necks peering intently from our roadside position on the finishing straight into the shade of the fig trees beyond. Matt Hayman emerges solo and wins the race. I also remember that federal minister Kevin Andrews presented his medal on the podium.

10 April 2016
They’re on the velodrome, with only a couple of hundred metres left to race. Vanmarcke has joined them. My mind is ticking over fast. A couple of seconds ago, when they entered the velodrome I was thinking that the worst case scenario for Hayman would be second, which would be an amazing result. Now with Vanmarke there I’m thinking about how amazing a podium result would be. But the other two are closing in fast. Fifth. Still good, but not that much of an improvement on his previous best placing of eighth.


Fortunately Matt Hayman is not playing along with my game of self-doubt. He’s leading out the sprint. Boonen, the better sprinter on paper, is sitting behind him, but is boxed in. They’re in  the final straight. Boonen finds some space and is drawing level with him. But the line has past. Hayman has won. I realise that I’m standing in front of the television, pumping both fists in the air. In complete silence, so as not to wake the kids.

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