Mat Hayman went into 2016 wanting an improvement in the classics and a start at the Tour de France. On February 27 it appeared both ambitions had been detonated by a crash in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad that left him with a broken arm. The rest, as they say, is history as the 38-year-old ended his season with a standing ovation at the Australian cyclist of of the year awards where he was feted and awarded the Sir Hubert 'Oppy' Opperman Medal.
What could very well have been Hayman's last season as a professional became his best yet with Paris-Roubaix victory and a Tour de France that finished in Paris in his second attempt. Victory in the 'hell of the north' on the 15th attempt was made even sweeter by the fact that he bettered a four-time winner of the race, Belgian Tom Boonen.
"Yeah, very much so. I am not so used to that kind of attention," Hayman told Cyclingnews of how his success has ensured he is enjoying a very different kind of off-season compared to past year. "Some of it I brought upon myself and said yes to a few events but it has been really good. Having a room full of people of how they were yelling at a TV at two in the morning doesn't get old. It has been really nice."
Of all the race wins in 2016, Hayman's victory on April 10 was arguably one of the most significant and not just in season narrative. Hayman first rode Paris-Roubaix in 2000 and since the turn of the millennium he only missed two editions. One of those years was 2007 when Stuart O'Grady made history and became the first Australian to win the race. That victory helped raise the profile among Australian sporting fans who have shared their experience with Hayman since his victory, surprising him with their equal affection for the cobbles.
"Not only did I win it, I finished every time I started and that's 15 times now. The race runs deep with me. It has been significant to see so many Australian following that race, they didn't have any reason to believe an Australian would win this year, and they were all up at two in the morning following Paris-Roubaix," Hayman reflected on a race that he's said he'll never get sick of taking about, and a victory that has certainly changed his life.
"I thought I had a bit of an ownership for loving that race but it seems a lot of Australians love to watch it as well. To hear the stories of what people were doing and their memories seven months later where they were has been very nice to hear."
At 38, there is no doubt Hayman would have preferred to enjoyed his success and financial benefits at an earlier age. At 38, Hayman is well placed to enjoy his success and reflect on that fact that he will end his career, whenever he pleases, as a Paris–Roubaix winner which is the most important detail of all.
"I was quoted as saying that if I won Roubaix at 21 I would have made a lot more money. It was a little bit out of context but at the end of my career if I had had the same results and won Roubaix at 21 and never again, I might have struggled to be here at 38 doing an interview," he said. "In some ways, it has been sweet but it is all about persistence and perseverance and never giving up. If I am going to do something then do it properly and I have always committed to the sport. If I had won it at 21, 22 it would have been hard I think to be a disappointment for the next 15 years. I am pretty happy with how it's gone."
Tour de France dream
For many riders, the Tour de France is the race they live and breathe for. For many riders, it is race that defines their season and often their careers. For Hayman, it was a race that eluded him until his 15th season as a professional. When he did get to start the 2014 Tour, it was a disappointment as he was forced to abandon on stage 10. Finishing the Tour became as big a goal as winning Paris-Roubaix.
After his Roubaix exploits, Hayman returned to the Tour in 2016 as Orica-BikeExchange enjoyed its best grand tour to date with a stage win for Michael Matthews, and fourth place overall for best young rider Adam Yates. Importantly though, Hayman made it through to Paris and joined the legions of cyclists before him who have completed La Grand Boucle.
"Things were going well with Yatesy but the pressure really came off when Michael Mathews won that stage. You saw the reaction from Whitey once he won. We were riding on that high and when the team is happy and everyone is jovial, we have won a stage, we have the white jersey it was really nice to come into Paris like that," he reflected. "For me personally, it was a big thorn in my side that I was a professional for 18 years and there a few guys I told not so long ago that I have raced with all my professional career and I said 'it's the first time I finished the Tour' and the response was 'I thought you'd done ten'. It didn't matter to other people, but it mattered to me. It was a bit selfish that I felt like I needed to but I felt like you weren't a bike rider until you finish the Tour.
"The Tour is the biggest bike race and as a child all you think bout is winning stages of the Tour and winning big classics and world championships. That's the pinnacle of our sport. It was quite emotional to finish in Paris. The day before, it was a big mountain stage and I suffered a bit. It was the first time I didn't feel great all Tour so to finish that stage and realise you had made it to Paris was a huge sigh of relief."
To have emerged from the cobbles victorious on the 15th attempt and to have completed a maiden Tour de France in his 18th season ensured the 2016 season will go down as Hayman's best yet. His year also fits into the sporting narrative of the underdog and the upset in 2016 that has seen the likes of Leicester City do the undoable and win the Premier League, the Western Bulldogs break a 62-year premiership drought in the AFL, the Chicago Cubs end a 108-year wait for the World Series, and Portugal win the European Championships to name but a few.
"If I wasn't happy with the team and things weren't going well, I am old enough to retire now and to going from those kinds of thoughts at the end of 2015 of 'how long am I going to do this?' To having my breakthrough year or finally feel like I have grown up and become a bike rider at 38. To have your best year when you are 38 years old is pretty nice."
"It is the year of the underdog and year of the upset and I think it gives people hope. I think that's what sport is about. That's what I feel when people talk to me about the emotions had they had when they watched me win. They had no connection to me, besides being Australian, but they feel an affinity for someone who's worked hard to achieve something and that's sport. I am glad people can say to me 'you're an inspiration and you make me want to ride a bike'. We get very caught up in our own worlds and it gets quite insular when you are away with the team and the self-importance of a bike rider."
With a second child due January 15, there will be no Australia racing programme for Hayman in 2017. A decision that at first he was fine to have made but one which has been complicated by his visit home during the off-season.
"We spend a lot of time away from home and I am out here doing this stuff and I am looking forward to getting back to Belgium and being with my wife in what is a special time and really looking forward to it," he said. "To miss Tour Down Under, when I left Europe I didn't have a problem with it, once being back here and seeing the reaction from the fans, it is pretty bitter to not be at Tour Down Under next year. That is a bike race and sometimes we get a bit insular and life is bigger than a bike race and I am sure the team will do fine and maybe it is an opportunity for someone else to step up."
One race that is certain to be on Hayman's schedule for 2017 is Paris-Roubaix where he will have the honour on April 9 of lining up in Compiègne with the number one dossard on his back
"It is going to be special of course. I look forward to it. First I have to battle through all the other classics which is always fraught with risks but to put on the number one will be special. There is always a special atmosphere in the bus, it is a special race, but to have the number one there I think the banter in the bus will be nice that morning and the guys who are there want to be there," he said. "Hopefully I don't revert to the old me of trying to push for a result and I ride with the relaxation of knowing that I've achieved it and anything else is a bonus and get a bit more in that mental state of having a bit of fun in a race that is more and more becoming my race."
While the 2016 season has been of great personal success to Hayman, it has also been a year in which Orica-BikeExchange have enjoyed even greater success. At Rabobank and Team Sky, Hayman was part of teams that enjoyed great periods of sustained success but 2016 with Orica-BikeExchange as something different altogether as he explained.
"I think one of the big takeaways, and not just 2016, is that different riders win on this team. So many different riders win races. Even in the Vuelta, you have three different riders winning stages of a grand tour," he said of the race in which Esteban Chaves was third overall and Magnus Cort, Simon Yates and Jens Keukeleire all won stages. "That speaks volumes of what kind of team we have. The excitement and anticipation that is building around the Yates boys and Esteban, which is also maybe a good thing for Caleb Ewan who is also fighting to really put himself on the world stage. He has come in with a lot of fanfare and done some great things but I am sure he is hungry to be the one that we talk about here, not instead of and in place of, but I am sure he is hungry to prove himself as the world's best sprinter and go head-to-head with the absolute best. These guys are all super hungry and I love working with all of them. They all have their own personalities and idiosyncrasy and the way they go about their business and the passion that they have, I think after the season we had this year we are in a difficult position to replicate it and people will expect to see us in all the grand tours and monuments and that is new but hopefully we can live up to it."
2017 will be Hayman's fifth with Orica-BikeExchange where he has been able to "dream [a dream] that I didn't even dare dream" thanks to Gerry Ryan and Shayne Bannan. Having now achieved two career goals in a single year, Hayman will be calling shots when he decides to retire. For now he is enjoying his moment in the spotlight and basking in the golden Australian sunshine.
"I said a few years that I think when you get to the end of your career that is a defining factor if you are going to, I won't name teams, but if you were to take a contract at certain teams where you are not happy it can shorten your career by one or two years. That also includes finding a management that respects and appreciates what you do and having the right balance of riders," he said. "It is a good spot but maybe in12-months time there are things about this sport that are hard, and I am not going to complain about being a pro cyclist, but there are hard parts to this sport and when you are 21 you gloss over them because you are doing what you want to do. When are you contemplating going into retirement then those things weigh on you and when that becomes too much it is probably time to call it."