Mathew Hayman can’t get the ringing out of his ears. It’s been over 36 hours since sleep and his overtired body aches from head-to-toe.
As he drops his suitcase to the floor of his new Dutch home, the 18-year-old looks back at the front door. He could open it, taxi to the airport and go home to Australia. It would be that easy. Instead, with one last effort, he carries his heavy limbs to the door, pins up his flight home ticket for six months time, before collapsing on the bed.
Fast forward to the present day and the 31-year-old is in his 11th year as a professional bike rider. As he sits down in the luxurious Hotel Messeyne in Kortrijk, Belgium, overlooking the river, it’s a far cry from his first steps in Europe back in 1997, when he rode for Rabobank’s development team.
Over those years Hayman has carved a position in the sport as a ‘Mr. Dependable’, a domestique for many of cycling’s past and present leaders. Now it’s Juan Antonio Flecha who blossoms from his loyalty but before that, riders like Rolf Sørensen, Erik Dekker, Michael Boogerd, Marc Wauters, and Oscar Freire were the riders Hayman devoted his efforts too.
He’s well respected within the bunch, and was one of the first riders Team Sky approached when it began setting up a new team. It’s no coincidence that the team’s management consists of former riders, who were also of domestique stock.
“I’m doing my job,” he says with a shrug. “You can’t go into Roubaix with guys that have been on the podium and have a dream of doing well and then look the other way because you might run top 20. These guys have a handful of chances and out of that handful they’ve got to have good luck and a team around them.”
Going into this weekend’s Roubaix, Hayman will put all his efforts into supporting Flecha, a rider who like Hayman came from Rabobank and lives and breathes for the cobbles of Roubaix. And Roubaix is a race that typifies Hayman’s style of riding – a race for hard men on hard roads, no place to hide and where a workhorse plays a crucial role in the outcome of the action.
“I’m sure I rode Roubaix as a neo. I’ve finished outside the time cut a few times. All I remember as a neo is having to make my selection for the race. I rode pretty well and got the spot.”
But it hasn’t all been a bed of roses for Hayman in Roubaix. While the camera never lies, television images pan over the leaders on the road but it’s at the back of the race where some of the best action occurs and where some of the bravest riding takes place. “One year I stopped for Sørensen when he punctured and waited for him. I wasn’t much help. He had his brakes adjusted on the next set of cobbles and I never saw him again,” he recalls.
In another edition of the race the peloton exited the Arenberg forest and Hayman came a cropper. The Arenberg is one of the most dangerous sections and has been the scene of many crashes.
“I’ve never lead through it but I have been on the front in the last kilometre leading into the forest, last year I was 10th coming out,” he says. “I came out one year and crashed, on the 15 metre wide road with not a cobble in sight. Everyone was looking over their shoulders and my front wheel went into someone.”
Hayman’s adventure in Europe began in 1997 when he moved to Holland with his brother to race. He signed for Rabobank’s development team and although his brother didn't turn professional he lives in Holland and owns his own bike shop. Mathew impressed enough to turn professional with the Dutch squad, where he remained until the end of 2009.
“I came to Europe as an 18-year-old and at 31 I’d only over ridden for Rabobank and they’d pretty much been my family since I moved over here,” he explains. “There are riders who are now directeurs that I used to work for when I started.”
But when Sky came knocking it was time for Hayman to address his future and despite numerous offers coming his way throughout his career the Sky ticket was too good to turn down.
“At Rabo at the end of every year we have a couple of days with the sponsors and I had to get up and say a few words and it wasn’t easy. I really enjoyed my time there.”
His time at Rabobank was marked with seldom individual success but even though his devotion was to the team he admits that he had his chances to shine. He was given the role as a protected rider in races like Gent-Wevelgem. Sometimes it worked, like last year when he finished fourth.
“I had a few chances. I don’t like to hear that people don’t get chances because I think that every bike rider does,” he says. “I don’t think you need to be disloyal or malicious to get your chances but it’s pretty easy if someone has a good chance to win. Whether it was riding Tirreno, Tour or somewhere, there are plenty of chances and you’re not always asked to work tirelessly for someone.”
Signing with Sky
Hayman is a cautious rider, evident by the duration of time he spent with Rabobank, where he said he enjoyed the structure that the team provided. Sky’s philosophy to racing and teamwork lured the Australian from his safety net however, even though two years were on the table from Rabobank.
“I’d been talking to the team - Scott Sunderland and Dave Brailsford - and at one point I was told that Flecha had signed or was coming but the fact that they were going to put a lot of emphasis on the Classics interested me. I think there are advantages to being in a strong Classics team," says Hayman.
“You can go to a smaller team and be the leader but not sure how well that works. I went into Gent-Wevelgem with a protected role along with Greg Henderson and it didn’t really work out and I’m not sure if going through the whole Classics season being the only guy that they’ve got is good; I would prefer to be in a big Classics team where everyone is having a chance and you can play off each other.”
Although he won’t admit it, things were beginning to become a little stale for him at Rabobank. Although he enjoyed his time there, he didn’t get the feeling that he was being pushed or motivated.
“Maybe I needed to go out of my comfort zone,” he muses. “I’m pretty structured and straight down the middle, so it was always easy to stay but I’ve grown up a bit. Not only was I impressed with the way things were taking off with Sky and the philosophy behind Sky, which was something that really interested me, and starting at a ground level in something new.
“I was pushed into a corner on what I was capable of the expectations were to just perform and that was good enough,” he adds. “We went into Flanders last year with three leaders so you need a lot of workers for that. I did get chances there and I enjoy working for people but Scott and Steven put a bit more confidence in me and I think that’s already showed.”
Whatever team Hayman races for there’s the impression that he still loves his job and as the peloton hurtles toward Arenberg on Sunday don’t be surprised to see him near the front. He’ll be the rider doing 60km/h with a grateful looking Flecha and the only ringing in his ear will be from the Roubaix crowd.
“I don’t know how it works, I don’t know why I enjoy doing a five-or six-hour ride,” he said. “Really, after doing it for so many years it should be mind numbing and it should be tiresome but every year it’s a different programme and I always love it.”
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