Roger Hammond 2006
British specialists in the art of single-day Classic racing have always been rare creatures. Compared to the number of Britons who have shone in the Tour de France, there have been few successful English scholars in the Belgian school of racing on dirty cobbles through spring snow showers in a northerly gale.
Barry Hoban was one such, and remains the best, that legendary hardman Sean Yates another; Roger Hammond, the current Flandrian graduate, seems an unlikely addition to the list but has every chance of being a worthy successor to the “Grey Fox” and “Tonk” as he goes through his thirties, the decade when most Classics men reach their peak.
Well-spoken and articulate as becomes a Buckinghamshire lad, Hammond’s credentials as a hardman were established very early in his career. You don’t become a junior world cyclo-cross champion unless you can deal with raw conditions; you don’t manage it on home soil – as Hammond did, at Leeds, in 1992 – unless you can rise to the occasion.
What took time, though, was the breakthrough: it was not until 2004, seven years into Hammond’s career that he equalled Hoban’s British best third place in Paris-Roubaix. He followed that with seventh place on a baking hot day in the Olympic road race in Athens, and finally landed a place with a big-league team. Correction, THE big league team: Lance Armstrong’s Discovery.
Hammond will go into this spring’s Classic season looking to improve on that Roubaix finish, to better his 8th place of 2003 in Ghent-Wevelgem, and finally to achieve the high placing in the Tour of Flanders of which he is surely capable. “If things go the right way, I’m training to win Roubaix. It’s the only way you can think of it when you go out for three hours in February when it’s minus one and sleeting.”
The Classics appeal to Hammond because these are the races he grew up with and because they are races he knows he can win. There is no room for sentimental dreaming as a pro. “My childhood memories are all of the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix. I never remember thinking I would like to be in the Tour de France. I did have the ambition as a kid of winning a mountain stage, but I realised that was unrealistic as I grew up. My predominant memories are of Paris-Roubaix, and when I got to Belgium, I realised there are loads of races like that.”
“The Paris-Roubaix where I was third seemed to last an hour” – this is a seven and a half hour event – “because it was so concentrated. There are no transitional moments as there are in a Tour. And no one wins Paris-Roubaix on the trot for seven years. Classics are better for riders like me who aren’t the very, very best, because if you are going for the top 20, you are going for the win. How many guys start the Tour with a chance? In a Classic it will be 20, and another 25 guys thinking they might get up there.”
For most riders, third place in a World Cup Classic would be a turning point, a moment when suddenly they realise they can win that kind of event. Hammond doesn’t see it in quite those simplistic terms. “It wasn’t as much of a surprise to me as a lot of people thought it would have been. Before that, I saw myself as suited to that kind of race. The year before, it was my first attempt, I’d never seen those cobbles and went into it blind, but made the top 20 and knew there was a lot more there.
“The following year, I definitely expected to improve, but third was better than my realistic ambition, because I didn’t know I was riding until the last minute so the equipment was all done at the last minute. I couldn’t use the tyres I wanted to, for example, because they wouldn’t clear the frame.”
That will not be the case this spring, because Hammond is now in his second year with perhaps one of the most prestigious teams in the world, the Discovery Channel squad associated indelibly with Lance Armstrong. That brings other complications however. After six years of riding for the same relatively modest Belgian team under various different sponsors – Collstrop, Palmans, Mr Bookmaker.com – the transition to the big league was not one he found straightforward.
“The beauty of riding for a small team was more than just getting a free rein. If I felt good I could have a go, because the guys weren’t getting paid enough to ride for anyone. Not always being able to show what I am capable of has taken a lot of getting used to.”
For example, at the Tour of Germany last year, Hammond was in fine form but had to limit his ambitions to riding for the team’s appointed leader, Max Van Heeswijk. “It’s part of the job. It’s what I’m paid to do. How often do you go to work and argue with what the boss says? I’m paid to ride a bike not to think, but sometimes it’s hard to shut off your brain.”
Discovery’s reliance on Armstrong – and the near-certainty that he would win the Tour de France – meant that until this year the entire team was centred on four weeks in July, with Hammond and his fellow one-day Classic specialists essentially bit-part players as the rest of the team built to the big event.
“The reality of the situation was that when you saw how the team operated around anything to do with the Tour de France, it was unbelievable how many details they would pay attention to. All the “i”s were dotted and the “t”s crossed. It was all focussed on one person.”
“For Lance, the guys would have this superhuman motivation to do that extra bit of hard work. Because there was a winner on the team, with no fighting, everyone knowing their place, no one wanted to be the person who let Lance down, because the only way he could lose was for someone to let him down, and no one wanted to be that person.”
This year, with Armstrong having retired, there are subtle changes afoot at Discovery, Hammond notes. “Now they are going into the unknown. Everyone knows the quality of Yaroslav Popovych, George Hincapie and Tom Danielson, but for the first time in seven years there is a degree of uncertainty.”
“It’s filtered through to our side of the team, because for the first time in seven years they can’t rely on Lance winning the Tour to keep the bosses happy. So the Classics are more important this year, and the approach they’ve had to the Tour team is filtering down to the Classics guys. We trained longer and harder at the training camp in California, we had five days at home and then a training camp in Benidorm which we didn’t do last year. It’s to cover every base.”
The former British national road trainer John Herety, who has worked with Hammond since he was a junior, believes the Buckinghamshire rider was wise to avoid moving into the big league too early. “He’s made very steady progress over the last seven or eight years, and made a smart move by sticking with a small team. He’s not overdone it, he has allowed himself to mature by riding year-in, year-out, and has really matured in the last few years. Because he hasn’t overdone things he will get better and better in the next few seasons.”
Ironically, given Herety’s high opinion of him, Hammond was at the centre of the furore which ended in the national trainer’s resignation; the episode at last year’s world road championships in Madrid when two Great Britain riders, Charly Wegelius and Tom Southam, refused to work for Hammond because they had been offered cash to assist the Italians.
Having finished seventh in Athens, and with the flat Madrid course expected to suit him, Hammond was bitterly disappointed for several reasons. “The way I look back on it is that everyone talks about the money involved and who the riders are answerable to, but I came away thinking that money was irrelevant. It’s a small amount involved compared to the amount of time and effort invested by so many people.”
“I spent the time from July to the world championships doing five stage races back to back to be in the best form I could be, and the lack of confidence shown in me before the start was demoralising. I was more disappointed with myself than with the two riders involved, because I let it get to me, the disappointment of being sold out on the day before I had a chance to show what I was capable of.”
That negative side of Hammond’s involvement with Dave Brailsford’s World Class Performance Plan is, however, counterbalanced by his work with Brailsford’s head coach Simon Jones, who has also been responsible for Bradley Wiggins’s Olympic success. “He’s brought me a lot of common sense and knowledge, he’s a very good listener and he’s good at explaining things.
“A few people have offered to help me but none has made as much sense as Simon. He’s unbelievably motivated as well. I’ve never worked with anyone with as much motivation. I like to understand why I have to go out and hurt myself for four hours or whatever, and Simon is very keen on that side of it.
“Last year I was getting one month training plans from another trainer, but he wouldn’t phone me beforehand and I wasn’t really able to phone him up and get feedback. With Simon the week’s training never stays the same because we are constantly modifying it to fit my circumstances. He’s made my training simulate the racing situations I encounter.”
Now that he is over 30, Hammond finds more people asking him how long he will carry on racing. That’s ironic, because he feels he has margin for improvement, and most Classic riders are at their best once they are into their 30s. “I believe winning a Classic is an achievable goal so I want to win Paris-Roubaix, and win the Tour of Flanders.
“I’ll have no regrets at the end of my career if I don’t ride the Tour de France. To win a stage of a Grand Tour is incredibly difficult, as hard as a one-day Classic, but if you win a stage of a Grand Tour you are famous for a day, whereas if you win a Classic you are famous for a year at least.”
Roger Hammond factfile
Born: January 30, 1974
Professional team: 1996-2003: Collstrop/Palmans
2004: Mr Bookmaker.com
2005-6: Discovery Channel
Major results: 1996: 1st, Grand Prix Roger de Vlaeminck
1998: 1st, GP Aalter
2000: 1st, stage, Eperons d’Or; 1st, Archer GP; 10th, Ghent-Wevelgem
2002: 1st, Tour of Benenden-Maas, Holland
2003: 1st, National road championship; 1st, stage and overall Clasica Uniqa (Austria); 8th, Ghent-Wevelgem
2004: 1st, National road championship; third, Paris-Roubaix; seventh, Olympic road race.
This article appeared in Cycling Plus in 2006. Since then Hammond has continued racing, most recently for the Cervelo Test Team and Garmin-Cervelo squads. He finished 2nd in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2007, while in 2010 he managed 7th in the Tour of Flanders and another fourth in Paris-Roubaix.