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Mat Hayman: I'd do it all again

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Mathew Hayman (Mitchelton Scott)

Mathew Hayman (Mitchelton Scott) (Image credit: Tim de Waele)
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Matthew Hayman is in his last race at the Tour Down Under

Matthew Hayman is in his last race at the Tour Down Under (Image credit: Cyclingnews)
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Mathew Hayman gets ready to start his final race

Mathew Hayman gets ready to start his final race (Image credit: Ellis Bacon)
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Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott)

Mat Hayman (Orica-Scott) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)
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Mitchelton-Scott's Mathew Hayman and Luke Durbridge

Mitchelton-Scott's Mathew Hayman and Luke Durbridge (Image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
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Mat Hayman with some fans

Mat Hayman with some fans (Image credit: ASO)

Back when magazines were a sustainable business model, the now-defunct Cycle Sport ran a series of features entitled 'Introducing', in which they would highlight up-and-comers who had burst onto the scene. One month it could be Santiago Blanco, the next, Danny Pate, Angel Casero, Chris Jenner, and so on.

In one edition - April 2001 to be precise - it was the turn of Mathew Hayman.

The previous season had seen the Australian turn professional with Rabobank after three years with their development team, and in those days, early spring Spanish stage races were virtually tripping over each other on the UCI calendar. The 21-year-old impressed and duly made it into the 'Introducing' hall of fame by virtue of a 180-kilometre solo break, stage victory and GC title at the Mallorca Challenge.

I haven’t seen the copy of the magazine for years. It’s stored away in a cabinet, either at home, the Cyclingnews office, or at the home of my unappreciative parents, who for some unfathomable reason don’t see the value in hoarding magazines from 20 years ago. Regardless, what’s memorable from the double-page spread was the image that accompanied the piece. On the left-hand side of the fold sat the interview, conducted by Alasdair Fotheringham, while the entire right side was devoted to a picture of Hayman during what was presumably his stage-long break in Spain. Back in those days, there was no social media and no television coverage of such niche races. This was a genuine introduction.

Twenty years later and the article and accompanying image are still vivid in my mind. It’s funny how we can remember almost every facet and every detail from when we first fall in love with cycling, yet still struggle to name the last winner of this spring Monument or that Grand Tour. I can even remember that Cycle Sport wrote that Hayman’s resting heart rate was 38 beats per minute, and that his ideal holiday location was Canberra – somewhat amusing given that he was born just a few hours away in Camperdown.

However, the image I’ll remember now, as Hayman hangs up his wheels, is of the Australian taking one last pull on the front of the peloton on stage 6 at the 2019 Tour Down Under and then quietly, and without fuss, slipping back through the wheels as the battle for GC leaves him behind. There’s no fanfare, no fancy show, just a 40-year-old pro dropping back as riders from his generation and those that followed offer a pat on the back and a few words. It’s almost like watching the sands of time themselves slip away. It’s quiet, it’s dignified. It’s so Hayman.

Two days earlier, at the start of stage 4, Hayman is quietly going about his business, applying sunscreen while his two young children stand on the other side of the barriers with Australian flags and race paraphernalia in each hand. Retirement is close but, after a brief morning chat with the family, there’s still a job to be done.

"Most of this week I thought that this would be business as usual, and during training I didn’t really think about it too much," he tells us as he adjusts his shoes and makes sure the back of his neck is covered in sunblock.

"From yesterday it started to become a bit more real. I’m not sure why. Before, you’re just counting down to the race but now I know I’ve only got two more days. During the racing you’re just focused on racing but the crowds have been amazing. I was out the back on Corkscrew and they made it really special. It’s been well worth coming back for this race and not just ending things at the end of last year."

Twelve months earlier, at the exact same race, and during an interview with Cyclingnews, Hayman joked with the idea of riding one more Tour Down Under and then bowing out Cadel Evans style. He had one more year left on his contract with Mitchelton-Scott and, while his legs were still willing, the factors of age, family life, and the solitude of being on the road were beginning to shadow every decision.

As 2018 rolled on, Hayman wrestled with various ideas. Bowing out at the Worlds in Austria wasn’t an option. He had crashed out at the Worlds in Bergen but Innsbruck was too hard a course, and the Commonwealth Games – a race close to his heart – came too soon in the year. Another Paris-Roubaix in 2019 meant virtually riding half a season at full gas and all the stress that came with it. In the end, and with the blessing of his family, a plan was put together for a Tour Down Under swansong.

"I actually had a bit of a rough time... well, not a rough time, but I was trying to make that decision and I didn’t really know what I was doing. Part of 2018 was me being undecided about my future and second guessing everything," he says as he opens up about the difficult choice he had to made. Knowing when to say enough is enough is never easy, even after such a long career.

"When I made the decision to stop, and do it here, I felt a lot more comfortable. Now it’s real, and people are trying to talk me out of it, and are saying I’m still going well but I’m happy they’re saying that and not saying I’m well and truly done and not interested anymore. For me, this is a nice way to go out - that people think that I have the form to keep going.

"My wife, she was there as a sounding board. It was my decision with her support and I’m sure she would have been happy if I had decided to continue racing but I feel… my two kids are there, and I need to spend a bit more time with them."

It’s hard to boil down Hayman’s career as a professional cyclist into just one story or verse. His iconic win in Paris-Roubaix will forever be etched into the sport, and his gentlemanly conduct in commiserating Tom Boonen on the finish-line just one of the acts that made the Australian so esteemed among his colleagues. Yet, what made Hayman the rider he was wasn’t the fact he won Roubaix, but the long and arduous journey that took him there in the first place.

"It’s hard for me, even as a seasoned pro, to imagine what that was like," he says when asked about the then 20-something who ventured from New South Wales to Europe with just a suitcase, a bike, and a dream of turning professional.

"Lucas Hamilton, who I’m rooming with here, he’s had some fantastic rides but to remember what it was like when I didn’t know what was going on, and seeing Europe, it was so long ago. It’s such a distant memory.

"It’s been an amazing journey and it’s hard to think back to those days because so many things have changed. It’s gone very quickly. There’s always been a race around the corner, I’ve rarely been injured in 20 years. It’s flown by. It’s been a long time and when I look back at the footage it’s a lot grainier than I remember. It seems like yesterday but then I look back at old videos and I remember that I was racing with riders like Museeuw and Pantani."

Hayman looks around the peloton gathering for the start as he speaks. "Some of these guys, they don’t even know who Pantani is."

It’s almost time to go and sign on.

Just two more days in the saddle before a short break and a new phase of Hayman’s life as a director begins, but there’s time for one more question.

"How do I want to be remembered? Just that I raced hard but fair. That I was a loyal teammate and I always did my job as a professional. I’ve no regrets and I’ve loved every minute of it. I’d do it all again."