Australian Mat Hayman has urged his Orica-GreenEdge teammates to throw caution to the wind in the Tour of Flanders – which there may well be plenty of on Sunday – and be more present in the 264.2km race than they have been in the classics so far.
Hayman, 36 and in his 16th year as a professional, includes himself in that call, knowing that for him the race and next week's Paris-Roubaix are his two best chances in the season to race as team leader before he returns to his road captain's duties.
Hayman does not shy from admitting that of the two races, it is Paris-Roubaix that he loves the most, citing his two best results of eighth in 2010 and 10th in 2011 when he rode for the Sky team. But he pledges to throw all he can into the Tour Flanders.
"I definitely won't be holding back," Hayman told Cyclingnews on the eve of Flanders. "But if I'm honest, Roubaix is the one I like a bit better. I guess it suits me a bit more and I have had better results there. For all those reasons, it is more likeable. "The change of the Flanders course [three years ago] is less ideal for me, having those laps and having Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg near the finish [in Oudenaarde.]
"On the old course I still had a chance. I was still able to come back over the top of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg. Changing the course … I understand the economic reasons, but it made Roubaix a little more appealing. It is the one I live for, but there is no holding back in Flanders. You can't in these races. You are totally committed to them, get caught up in them and I will go 100 per cent come Sunday."
The challenge for Hayman and Orica-GreenEdge
Hayman recognises Orica-GreenEdge are not considered one of the major teams in Flanders; as they usually are for the Ardennes Classics and the Amstel Gold Race. But he believes the Orica-GreenEdge line up of him, Belgian Jens Keukelaire who he says will also be a protected team rider, Australians Mitch Docker, Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn, Dane Magnus Cort, Dutchman Jens Mouris and New Zealander Sam Bewley have it to leave a stronger impression on the race than some may think.
"There are no [past] winners, there but I am sure the guys will bend over backwards to help us [Hayman and Keukelaire]," Hayman says. "We have a solid team. We have a team of guys who want to be there. There are other teams that don't have that...
"It might not be the biggest team, but we definitely have a strong team. And I would like to see guys - as well as helping Jens and I - be active in the race. And I would like to see a lot of guys try and get through that middle section of the race and towards the finale. I think we can be a bit more aggressive than we have been in the last few weeks and maybe put some guys in moves, and start going in the middle of the race."
Hayman said a rider like Docker was one teammate he believes is ready to step up.
"He has shown some great form," Hayman says. "He made a great step in Roubaix last year when he was on the front chasing down a break in the last 20km.
"Early in his career when riding for Skil [2009-2011], he showed he likes these races. That's important … that a guy wants to be there, who loves that stuff, wants to be here and knows what it's all about … how big it is and what it actually means.
"He has a little bit of that which not everybody gets. If you've never been to Flanders and have never been to the race and never smelt and then felt what Belgian people feel for that race … He understands that and I think he will be ready for a big one."
Hayman is confident about his chances of a good race, pending how Lady Luck looks down upon him, or not. He certainly believes he has the form, even if he concedes his results so far this season may not show it with his best from 24 days of racing so far this season being 18th place finish in last weekend's wind stricken Gent-Wevelgem.
"I feel I'm in a really good spot. It probably hasn't shown in results, but I reckon I'm going as well as a couple of years ago with Sky or ever have been," Hayman says. "I'm quietly confident with that in form and numbers – everybody these days talks in numbers, but as we know numbers don't always translate. But I am feeling good …
"I just want to string it together and get the best out of myself … where I'm able to get off the bike and say I didn't make any mistakes and that was the best I can do."
Nothing counts like experience and street smarts …
While Hayman's heart strings pull most strongly for Paris-Roubaix, what he believes makes the Tour of Flanders unique – besides its history and it's meaning for cycling mad Belgians – is how the race's myriad cobbled ‘bergs', narrow farm lanes and shifting winds and weather can make it so physically and strategically demanding.
"You have got to be on it and we have been talking about it in the team," Hayman says. "It's a controlled aggressive concentration for about six hours. You can make a couple of wrong moves, but they add up. There are so many metaphors for these big races – classics - but [Flanders is] about saving energy and using it at the right time.
"If you get carried away, feel you have good legs four-and-half-hours in and then make a move, before you know it the hammer can come down and you are gone.
"It's exciting and nerve wracking at the same time. You are constantly making these decisions about when to use or save energy. Decide to save energy … that can come back to bite you, like when they rode away or a big split happened, a crash, anything."
However, what will help a rider – no matter what – is knowledge of the course and experience of having raced not only the Tour of Flanders but all the Flemish races.
"I don't know how many times I've done it," Hayman says of the Tour of Flanders. "I would have to say, 'More than 10, less than 16.' But its not just doing Flanders … "Okay the Koppenberg is probably the only climb there that we don't do regularly in other races … but the Oude Kwaremont … I have probably done that a hundred times.
"I have done it in reconnaissance and it's in every other race we do in Belgium and if you have done the classics 16 times … it all adds up. It's a massive advantage … to have a good idea of what's around the corner, how long the climbs are, where you can move up and need to be at the front, and where they slow down and speed up."
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer on The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)
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Rupert Guinness first wrote on cycling at the 1984 Victorian road titles in Australia from the finish line on a blustery and cold hilltop with a few dozen supporters. But since 1987, he has covered 26 Tours de France, as well as numerous editions of the Giro d'Italia, Vuelta a Espana, classics, world track and road titles and other races around the world, plus four Olympic Games (1992, 2000, 2008, 2012). He lived in Belgium and France from 1987 to 1995 writing for Winning Magazine and VeloNews, but now lives in Sydney as a sports writer for The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media) and contributor to Cyclingnews and select publications.
An author of 13 books, most of them on cycling, he can be seen in a Hawaiian shirt enjoying a drop of French rosé between competing in Ironman triathlons.
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