Mathew Hayman continued Team Sky's promising start to the Spring Classics campaign with a third place in Wednesday's Dwars door Vlaanderen. The 34-year-old Australian was a constant presence at the head of the race, instigating several key breaks before sealing a podium place behind Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) and Borut Bozic (Astana) in a sprint finish.
"The strongest doesn't always win," Hayman told Cyclingnews at the finish.
"I gave it everything and got a bit lucky with the third place in the end. It could have been eighth because I was caught on the barricades in the sprint a bit, guys were dying in the end, but I just snuck through."
The Australian had joined the first significant move of the race just before the Nieuwe Kwaremont at 93 kilometres. The 14-man move fragmented on the next climb, the Kattenberg, with Hayman breaking free with Geert Steegmans (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Romain Zingle (Cofidis, Solutions Credits), Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team), Assan Bazayev (Astana) and Aleksejs Saramotins (IAM Cycling).
With 60 kilometres remaining, Hayman and Steegmans opened up a gap with Saramotins eventually bridging too. Hayman put both riders to the sword on the Knokteberg and led the race alone before Omega Pharma-Quick Step sent reinforcements in the form of Stijn Vandenbergh to shadow the Sky rider.
The pair were then joined by the race winning move that included Gatto but whereas Vandenbergh tired, Hayman, who had been on the offensive for a majority of the stage, continued to pull on the front.
When Thomas Voeckler launched what looked like a race-winning move on the final climb, Vandenbergh and then Hayman's teammate Ian Stannard reeled the Europcar leader to within touching distance.
"Thomas [Voeckler] could have easily won with that attack. It looked like he had it. Ian did a great job in the end but I said to Ian if you have a chance go for it because I really didn't know how I was going to finish. I could have gone out of the saddle and my legs could have fallen off. In the end I was able to have a run in the sprint and that was the most I could get out having been off the front," Hayman told Cyclingnews.
Hayman is of course no stranger to the Classics. He signed for Rabobank in 2000 and forged a reputation as a hard working domestique. When Rabobank's Classics leader at the time, Juan Antonio Flecha, moved to Team Sky at the start of 2010 Hayman, his faithful lieutenant, sailed ship, too.
With Flecha now at Vacansoleil-DCM, Hayman's role has the potential to change.
"The form is good. All that hard work from November has been worth it.
"Maybe there's an opening [with Flecha leaving] but there's about five guys able to stand in. We've got [Geraint] Thomas, [Ian] Stannard and [Edvald] Boasson Hagen so it's not like you can say Flecha has gone so that's my spot. We've got a strong team but we don't have an outstanding leader like a Tom Boonen or a Fabian Cancellara so we're still missing that Monument. Sky hasn't won a Monument yet and that's what it's all about."
Hayman acknowledges, though, that despite lacking a proven Classics winner Sky can still pull off a Classics win this season. He saw first-hand how Johan Vansummeren won Paris-Roubaix in 2011 when a number of the favourites cancelled each other, and more importantly Cancellara, out of the race.
"I was in that Vansummeren group. And Roubaix is a race like that, Flanders a little bit less. But last year we had numbers in Roubaix and it didn't work so we'll see."