British Legend Retires: Rob Hayles

Interview with Olympic medallist, a multi-World Champion, a British Road Race Champion, Cofidis professional and of course, winner of the Colne Chopper race, Rob Hayles is about to leave the building …

Larry Hickmott talks to a British legend about to retire…

“It’s emotional” says Olympic medallist and Endura Racing rider Rob Hayles when we talk the day after he has announced he will be retiring from bike racing. From a family of cyclists and a father who knew how to ‘entertain’, Rob is one of the most likeable and fun loving riders in the peloton who has been racing at the top of the sport since the very early 90’s.

Rob’s last race will be in the colours of Endura Racing

This Sunday, will see him pin a number on for the last time in his final race, the RTTC Hill Climb Championships on Long Hill near where he lives in Derbyshire. It will be a fitting way to end as he chases Michael Hutchinson up the hill!

Especially if the climb is lined with people because Rob always rides better when he has a crowd to race in front of. He’s a showman through and through and fitting that after his last race, he will concentrate more on the media side of the sport.

The night before his final race in anger, he’ll be working with Ned Boulting at Revolution for the ITV showing of an event Rob has had many happy memories in. Asked if he’ll be staying in and around cycling, he replies “I’m unemployable anywhere else!”

Rob will be best remembered as a long serving member of the Great Britain team, a link that goes back to when he was a teenager in the early 90s. In the years that followed, he has won World Championship and Olympic medals  in the Pursuit, Team Pursuit and Madison. He was handy on the road as well and in 2008 won the British Road Race Championship as well two Premier Calendar events. It was a special year on the road, one he puts down to the focus he put on specific events in the same way he would do on the track.

So why a Hill Climb Championship to bid farewell to the sport? “Because I wanted to end my career rather than that have it fizzle it out” he replies. “It’s local and I actually held the course record at one time. Two months ago it seemed like a really good idea!”

“It was about having an objective and working towards it like I did when racing the track. It was my choice but it has been hard watching everyone’s tweets about going on holiday and I’m battering myself up a hill into a block headwind …!”

Rob has seen retirement coming but admits loving the buzz of racing that much, that he wasn’t ready for it until now. “It is quite a scary thing to have to think .., what else can I do?”

“I’m really thankful for the opportunity Endura Racing gave me to keep racing the last few years which hasn’t gone to plan with illness and that but I feel ready for the time to retire now. It’s a good time to stop now as well because there are more opportunities now than there would have been ten  years ago.”

Rob in Endura Racing colours for 2010/11

Rob explained that whilst he had the opportunity at the Beijing Olympics to step into the media more, he wasn’t ready for it then and he would not have been able to have to watch riders he was training with, racing on the track where he felt he should be. Rob was still in team GB at that point and competing for his own place in the team at a difficult period in his GB career”.

Asked if he’s been tempted to do a ‘Malc’ and follow in the footsteps of another legend in the sport, Malcolm Elliott, who at 50 was still racing at the highest level in Britain. Rob replies with one word – ‘no’.

“I’m sure I am still going to ride my bike because these days there are so many other opportunities outside racing to ride a bike and not be competing whereas until recently, you either raced or did club runs. The thought of doing a sportive a few years ago, was like “what would I do that for” but the way those are going, they would help me to keep in and around cycling depending on what I want to do.”

After winning the crit title in 2000, Rob tried many times to repeat that and while he made the podium, the victory eluded him like this one won by Dean Downing.

Adding, ‘never say never’ mindful that Elliott did return to the sport after a long break we can only hope he does have second thoughts at returns to racing even ifs just selected events.

While Rob leaves the sport with a few boxes unticked, like not winning the Lincoln Grand Prix which he admits is a special race, he is nevertheless satisfied that he has done a lot over the years and ticked a lot of boxes. Now, he moves on to a career in the media and some other things which he admits ten years ago may not have been an option.

“I’ve got a contract with the BBC working with Simon Brotherton of Five Live which will encompass every cycling event at the Olympics . Before that, I’m going to have to go to Melbourne (tongue in cheek sigh…) for the Track Worlds which I am really looking forward to.”

“I have been to Melbourne I think three times but only got the chance to ride through the city centre once and so it’s one place I’d like to spend a bit of time in and have a look at.”

While Rob maybe retiring from bike racing, he will be getting to see and work at plenty of bike races including the London World Cup and the BMX Worlds in Birmingham next year as well as the aforementioned events.

A life full of highlights …

We only spoke to Rob for half an hour about his career but it could have been a whole lot longer because there are so many memories, good memories, that he’s experienced over the years.

For me, one was the British Road Race Championship victory in 2008 where he was so overcome with emotion at the end, he was trying to hug me while I was asking for a reaction to the win! I’d been on the back of a motorbike that day and watched him tear that race apart, overtake the lead car and us on the motorbike as we couldn’t descent in the wet at the speed he was.

He was quite simply awesome that day and being so close to the action, it was hard not to appreciate just what a bloody great win that was.

“That was one race I went out to win because to have gone through my career and not have won that would definitely would have been an opportunity missed. I’d had a couple of chances at winning it, I had a second to Jez (Jeremy Hunt, Cardiff) and the year Matt Stephens won and that was a chance I felt slipped through”.

“That win on the Ryedale circuit was a big one for me and did my career at that stage of my life a world of good. That was a big big happy day that one and a lot of that was down to the way I rode it. It wasn’t just pop up and win it, but to go out there and win it aggressively.”

His form in 2008 showed he still had it and in 2011, there were occasions when he was able to show that but it was also a season when tonsillitis got the better of him. His last race before the Hill Climb champs this weekend was in Scotland the night before the Tour of Britain started back in September. It was an example of when things go well just how great the sport can be to a rider.

“I love racing” Rob says “… the Peebles crit, okay, it was a small event with a handful of top riders there but because I rode well and felt good in the race, I have to say I was buzzing after it and that’s the feeling I need to have, to feel good in races.”

“I had a really good winter prior to this season considering the weather we had and I raced the ‘Three Days of West Flanders’ (Belgium) and raced over the Kemmelberg! I’d never done that before because when I was with Cofidis, I was always out the back by then in the Tour of Flanders! But here I was up with the front riders and I could not believe it. I was ready for a good year but then had the first bout of tonsillitis just before the Halfords Tour Series and that just grinded me down.”

Of course, one of his major victories was the Chopper race in Colne!

Key  Highlight?

Asked for his career highlight, Rob says the victory in the Madison World Championships in 2005 (Los Angeles)  was really memorable. “That was because it was such a surprise” he explained.

Rob with Mark Cavendish who at 19, won his first World title

“The first World Title with the Team Pursuit (Los Angeles), two days before, that was expected.  So winning that one was more of a relief. I remember going round the last k and I couldn’t believe I was finally going to win a World Title after so many goes. I remember being so scared of us crashing… and was praying, don’t crash, don’t crash!”

“I couldn’t get my words out when we had the interview with Jill Douglas (BBC) afterwards. So that was special but then two days later, the win in the Madison was a completely different feeling because it was so unexpected.”

“We went out to do the best we could but halfway through the race, I thought ‘we’re not going do this’…  and so to do it the way we did (gaining a lap) made it even more special. And to do it with some one that has turned out to be the bike rider he has (Mark Cavendish), that is also special.”

All his Olympic medals are special Rob admits but the first one was rather unexpected. It was Sydney 2000 and lottery funding had only started a few years before with Peter Keen at the helm. Jason Queally had already set the bar high by winning the Kilo so the pressure was on the endurance boys …

“I was never down for the Team Pursuit” Rob remembers. “Myself and Jonny Clay. I’d made the decision to do the Individual Pursuit for two years but then when I saw how the GB lads qualified, I thought, we can win this and so I made sure I got a ride to try and get that result.  Me and Jonny rode the semis and then we got pulled from the final”.

Because of that, Hayles and Clay never got to stand on the podium and get their medals but after a lot of discussion, they were awarded them as Rob explains. “We got the medals on a boat on Sydney harbour, which was special for Johnny and me. We went out for a dinner on the boat with Princess Ann and all the VIPs and it was quite a special way to get the medal.”

Rob had two fourths and that Bronze at those Games which he rightly says was pretty good. Especially for a country that had grown used to not winning anything at the Olympics. One of those fourth places was in the Individual Pursuit, one of the boxes where he feels he didn’t tick during his career, that of being World Champion .

After Bronze in Manchester 2000, it was Silver for Rob in the Individual Pursuit at the Melbourne 2004 Worlds. Rob returns to Melbourne  next year for the Track Worlds but this time as part of the media.

“That was the one event I feel I could have been World champion at” Rob says and having seen him go so close at Manchester at the Worlds in 2000, I can’t disagree with that. “I remember talking to Jens Lehmann in Sydney after the press conference and he said to me ‘you’ll be world champion next month’ and I was so on the pace back then.”

“Off the back of Sydney, we changed things and I went to a slightly bigger gear and I used it in the second round after the first round had gone fine. In that second round, I thought we were going to catch Robert Slippens (Holland) and I just couldn’t get on it… it just killed me”.

“As it happened, Slippens broke national record (Dutch) at the time, he flew round so I never saw him and never got the pull out from the catch. I missed the gold medal ride off by a tenth of a second!.”

Rob did a time of 4:21.167 while Germany’s Steinweg did 4:20.915 to go through to meet Lehmann  in the final for Gold. In those finals, Rob was a touch off Lehmann ‘s time of 4:21.836 winning the bronze while Steinweg did  a’26’ to get the silver.

“After that I was absolutely gutted because I knew I had more in me” Rob remembers. “The next day (the final was held the day after rounds 1 and 2), I was in the bronze medal final and the pressure was off me. I rode against Moreau and I cruised and still did a 4.21.998 which at the time wasn’t bad”.

“I hadn’t even really gone that deep because I was saving myself for the Points race. Had I gone full out, I could have gone three or four seconds quicker, easy, which would have made it one of the quickest times in the world back then (2000).”

Sydney World Cup and Rob leads the Team Pursuit home.

Rob’s road highlights …

Whilst Rob’s career has been dominated by the track, I first remember him when I started Echelon-Velo back in the late 90’s and Rob was one of the star riders in the Premier Calendar and the Crit scene. Rob won the crit title in 2000 and they were tough days he remembers with lots of racing though out the season with classic races that have unfortunately long disappeared.

“It was a tough season back then because you had three or four races that all the Premier Calendar  guys were riding as a build-up to the start of the season. Races like the Romford Harlow and they all led up the Essex Grand Prix. Then you had the Archer GP and you knew every year what you were going to be doing. They were all classics and we have lost so many of them which means now you’ll have a couple of races and then go weeks and weeks without a race.”

“That said, it does seem a lot more competitive now and the races seem harder. The crit series has definitely got harder and has got a lot more competitive.  I took a pro licence out in ’95 and that was the year it was ProAm and then in ‘96 it changed to Elite. I rode a crit series which Chris Walker won and the crits have always been competitive but that was, and is, the British scene. You would have these guys come over from the continent and they very rarely got a look in back then”.

Off to Europe for a career on the road …

Post Olympics in 2000, Rob had what you might call a gap year. A gap couple of years actually where he went to Europe and rode for one of the top teams at the time, Cofidis.

“That was an odd period” he says.  It wasn’t really something I wanted to do and had had never been a childhood ambition to do that. I had seen races like Paris-Roubaix and loved what they were but never thought I’m going to ride that one day. But, to have had my career and not been part of the pro peloton would have been disappointing looking back.”

2003: Rob returns from Europe in the Cofidis colours for the British Road Race Championships. Also pictured is Daniel Lloyd who rode for Endura… the connection being Rob rode the last two years for Endura Racing while Dan has been a professional in Europe with Garmin.

“I spent three years at the team, and during that time was around Dave (Millar) who is one of the most amazing bike riders on the planet. He showed last month (Worlds) what a great team leader he is. I certainly had the most fun riding at Cofidis when I was with Dave.”

“Before that, it was a bit weird, especially coming off the back of the squad back then, let alone how it is now. It was a bit of an anti-climax, especially the way it was run. But to have ridden Roubaix three times and Flanders a couple of times, and to do those races with all the riders around back then, it was pretty special.”

“I can remember one of first races being behind Cipollini (Trofeo Luis Puig, Spain) , an early season sprinters race and we could race without a helmet. I just thought, I’ve got the opportunity, I’m going to do this but later in the race, I thought what am I doing!”

“I was battering myself against the World champion Romāns Vainšteins in the line with a cotton cap on my head and I’m thinking what am I doing! Fortunately I was one of those that survived that period!”

Survive he did and Rob came back to win Silver at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and followed that up with the World Titles in 2005 on the track and the Commonwealth Games title in 2006. He continued to be part of the GB team until 2009 before switching his focus to the road with Halfords first and then Endura Racing.

Rob, centre back, part of the class of 2004 at the Athens Olympics where he won a Silver medal in the Team Pursuit and Bronze in the Madison with Bradley Wiggins

Now, other things beckon in life. As well as a young family and a wife (Vickie) who is pretty active having just swum the English channel(!), Rob is keeping himself busy with a bit of coaching and indulging in his passion of tinkering with bikes when time allows. With the Olympics on the horizon now, time to tinker will be less and less but you can bet that Rob will always be a Rob and anyone meeting him will find their day is a lot happier than before they met him … Rob is just that sort of person and I’ll be just one of many many who will miss him in the peloton but will enjoy seeing him at bike races doing his thing … thanks for the memories Rob!

Link: Photo special… more pics of Rob through the years


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