Mathew Hayman triumphed in one of the most thrilling Monuments in recent memory at last year's Paris-Roubaix, and the Australian rider is back to defend his title this Sunday alongside an increasingly impressive Orica-Scott squad.
The 38-year-old, who turns 39 in two weeks, told the Cyclingnews Podcast on Wednesday that he's feeling strong despite taking a decidedly different road to Roubaix this year from the one he took in his victorious 2016 campaign.
"I had a bit of a different build-up this year as I did last year in many ways," Hayman said. "This year, I was a bit hampered in my preparation in January, my wife and I had twins so that was a new experience, I wasn't able to get to any team training camps. But since Paris-Nice I started to feel that I'm back where I need to be."
Orica-Scott has delivered strong results in several of the major one-day cobbled races so far this spring with Jens Keukeleire finishing as runner-up in Gent-Wevelgem and Luke Durbridge landing among the top five in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem. After years as a squad without much to show for its cobbled campaigns, Orica-Scott has multiple bona fide options Sunday, though Hayman pointed out that the team hasn't solidified a leadership hierarchy just yet – and they might wait until midway through the race to do so.
"We haven't had that meeting yet, but – and not just after last year but after 15 years of riding Roubaix – I'm hoping to be in the final, and if I'm not riding myself then helping a teammate deep into the final. We haven't talked specifics yet but I'm the first one to jump in and help if someone has better form and I feel like I'm on my last legs. But that being said I'd love to have another great performance and I'd love to confirm what happened last year and aim to be in the pointy end of the race at the right time," Hayman said.
"Between Compiègne and Roubaix a lot of things can happen and we need to get through certain key sectors with the help of the team, and once we get closer I think it will get a bit clearer to make big decisions about leadership. Right now, as we saw last year, it's probably not necessary.
"Luke is on fine form at the moment and he had a great race last year that was marred with an untimely puncture and had he not had that he could well have been in the final as well. Jens has come into the velodrome with the leaders in the past and was on the velodrome sprinting for the win. And I think my win last year motivated this team to realize it is possible and we are capable."
Hayman has had a relatively quiet string of race performances in the run-up to Roubaix this season, but that didn't stop him from winning the race after a similarly quiet build-up in 2016. Indeed, Hayman did not even start De Ronde last year, which has proven to be a rare decision for top contenders in the last two decades, with five Flanders-Roubaix doubles achieved in that time span.
He finished 91st last weekend in Oudenaarde with 12th-placed Durbridge proving to be the team's strongest rider in the Tour of Flanders this year, but Hayman sees Roubaix as much more suitable to his skill set.
"With the new finish in Flanders, I mean we're not talking mountains but those hills are a different style of racing ... With the old finish you went over the Muur van Geraardsbergen and then the Bosberg, there was a chance of some stuff coming back but since the Paterberg is so close to the finish now I definitely focus more on Roubaix and I do think it's a different style of racing," he said.
"You've got some riders that aren't true favourites that are able to get up there. That's why I think a few more riders dare to believe they have a chance in Roubaix if they get a bit lucky or are spared bad luck – maybe that's a better way of putting it – than they have in Flanders.
"As much as I love racing Flanders, and it's a great day, Roubaix is the one that suits me a lot more because of how flat it is – and how big I am."