Mathew Hayman wins the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome, relegating Tom Boonen and Ian Stannard to the lower steps of the podium and Sep Vanmarcke and Edvald Boasson Hagen trailing further behind. In a wild race, shown on TV from start to finish, this was the greatest surprise of the day, to imagine any scenario in which Hayman beat all of these riders in sprint would sound fanciful but this was the moment the race was won.
Was it the fault of the television? The early break needed hours to form with a complicated matrix at work. The move needed to have representation from wildcard teams for whom to be seen on air is to exist but also the right mix of the bigger squads. Right from the start Team Sky, Katusha, Tinkoff and Trek-Segafredo were covering the various moves and no breakaway met the criteria, the likes of Nils Politt, Elia Viviani and Stijn Devolder notable for being so visible so early. If only this game was limited to filtering the move it would have been easier to watch but at the same time the open roads and the wind saw the race split into several groups. Finally after almost 100km of trying a move of 16 riders go away thanks to the efforts Yaroslav Popovych, riding his last race. Paris-Roubaix made the Ukrainian after he won the U23 race and the Baby Giro in the same year.
As well as the right mix of teams there were some good individuals in the move. Sylvain Chavanel, Mathew Hayman, Imanol Erviti and Salvatore Puccio among them with Chavanel and Hayman visbibly cruising on the back of the grouo. Let’s call this a lunch time reservation. Why? Imagine the diner who knows they can’t get a table in top restaurant on a Friday night, the places are booked out by the wealthy and the famous. So they book for lunch, sit down and settle in for a long session and end up at the top table night falls despite the frowning staff. The same for our fugitives, they know they can’t match the likes of Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan and Kristoff after 250km so it’s better to go clear earlier, book a spot ahead of the race and wait and see if they can digest what will follow.
Etixx-Quickstep missed the move, the story of their spring so far, and set Tony Martin to chase. There was still 175km to go so this looked hasty but it was their punishment for missing the move. Team Sky later joined in the chase too. The presence of these two teams seemed to reassure everyone that the breakaway, already jettisoning riders thanks to punctures and jammed chains, was going to be contained even if it had two minutes. Then came a big crash in the peloton. This caught out a lot of riders, notably Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff.
This wasn’t Cancellara saying goodbye, more the race saying goodbye to him. He and Sagan were caught on the wrong side of split in the peloton. There was little they could do to fix things. Sagan’s team was lightweight to start with and Oscar Gatto was lost to a crash while Trek-Segafredo had lost riders to crashes too and one of their upright riders was busy in the lead group. Meanwhile Sagan and Cancellara had a queue of riders on their wheel, notably Niki Terpstra.
Ahead those who’d survived the crash included much of Team Sky and Etixx-Quickstep because they were on the front chasing and suddenly the race took on a different allure. Lotto-Jumbo had numbers too with Sep Vanmarcke well supported and they began to distance the Cancellara-Sagan group. Popovych was pulled from the front group and sat up to wait for Cancellara but seemed only able to give the briefest of tows.
With 63km to go, just before the Orchies pavé, the “Boonen group” of Etixx, Sky and Lotto-Jumbo caught the remnants of the early breakaway. Boonen set to work with an attack on the cobbles to shake things up and suddenly he was back in the race like the old days, gone were the images of him struggling this spring. Then Sky took over, keen to use manpower to ensure Cancellara could not return as the Swiss made his move to try and get back. On the next cobbled sector Sky lost several riders in a crash as Gianni Moscon and Luke Rowe fell, Rowe would get up and get back but this must have cost him.
If this was another form of entertainment there would have been an interlude. Attend Wagner at the opera there’s a break for the audience, no such chance for Paris-Roubaix. Even the riders have food and drink handed up to them but for the viewer a dash away from the TV meant potentially missing some plot twist. The reasons behind the six hour broadcast are interesting, probably the subject for a post in the coming days.
By now the lead group was thinning with every cobbled sector and with 40km to go down to seven riders but dropped riders were sometimes making their way back, for example Marcel Sieberg made his way back. With 20km to go Ian Stannard accelerated on the Camphin cobbles, his move eliminating team mate Luke Rowe and shrinking the group down to him, Boonen, Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and early breakaway survivor Hayman. Surely it was Hayman’s turn next to get dropped?
It was. Sep Vanmarcke tore up the Carrefour de l’Arbre sector and Hayman was distanced. Yet by now the race took on a curious slow motion aspect. As much as Vanmarcke was flailing at the pedals he wasn’t pulling away. Nobody had any zip left in their legs and soon enough Vanmarke was reeled by Boonen and Hayman, the revenant, made it back.
Into the last 10km and everyone tried a move or two. Vanmarcke kept insisting as if it was solo or bust in Roubaix. Stannard had a big go too and so did Boonen but again nobody could do much, the jump had gone from their legs, even Boasson Hagen the strongest sprinter, tried his move.
So who was going to win in the Roubaix velodrome? Hayman’s spent 18 years as a pro and finished Paris-Roubaix 15 times with two top-10 performances before this so for him to feature in the finale again is no sudden surprise. Yet he entered the velodrome as most people’s last choice. Boonen and Boasson Hagen are famous for their finishing speed, Stannard has won the Omloop by outsprinting Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke’s got plenty of power on tap. But Hayman? A podium seemed possible if he tracked the right wheels. With half a lap to go Hayman led out the sprint and it looked as if he’d be overtaken by the others. Only he kept going and nobody was coming past. He looked as stunned as everyone else.
Live on TV from start to finish, the experiment paid off with a hectic race that seemed not to have a calm moment. Perhaps the TV had a causal effect, the limelight encouraged some to keep going in search of airtime when they’d have otherwise given up? Either way it was a vintage edition with action and surprise for hours on end.
Later on the race adopted a more classic format with action at the front and back shaping the race, the big crash that split the field the most dramatic example. The early break was big enough and had enough riders to keep going but only Hayman was able to hitch a ride to the finish even if others like Erviti also made the top-10.
What was all the more remarkable is that he’d broken his arm in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and his spring classics campaign was supposed to be over. A good recovery, work on the home trainer and two days of racing last weekend and he was back in what the French would call his “course fétiche“, his preferred race.
In a race that borrows riffs on Emile Zola’s Germinal and Eugène Christophe’s Hell of the North, a race that’s had its own “workers edition” this was a poetic finish with the worker, the domestique finally having his day. It might be a harder sell for the mass media, Hayman does not have the stellar pull of Sagan or Boonen but his win was no less deserved and should be no less celebrated.