Nathan Haas on nerve damage, backing Cavendish and tussling with Sagan

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The intensity of cycling is such that the body and mind take a battering at numerous points of the season. But for Nathan Haas, the Australian rider competing with Team Dimension Data, there was one moment this year that brought home just how far he had pushed, and hurt, his body.

Haas crashed badly in Paris-Nice, then fell again in Milan-San Remo. The first fall caused a locked neck, with the rider unable to turn it more than a couple of degrees to the right.

The second crash exacerbated things and led to a big scare.

“I flew to the UK that night and then the next morning I couldn’t get out of bed as it was just so excruciating,” he told CyclingTips. “Day after day I was losing all feeling in one finger, another finger, another finger until my whole arm was numb.

“From there it gets pretty concerning. It is actually very stressful when you don’t know if the feeling is going to come back. It is a pretty scary thing.”

Asked if the issue was a trapped nerve, Haas clarifies the nature of the problem.

“It’s not a trapped nerve, but it is like a stretched nerve. It is called neuropraxia,” Haas says. “If you imagine pulling a nerve, normally it goes back but if you pull it too fast and too hard, it goes back and looks more like a squiggly noodle. So the nerve is not broken, it is just not able to communicate cleanly.

“After a few days, once the body feels like the nerve has an issue, it sort of just switches it off. So that is where the loss of feeling was.”

He gives a striking example of how it affected him.

“At the time I picked up a kettle and asked my girlfriend if she wanted a cup of tea. She goes, ‘I just boiled that.’ I hadn’t even noticed that it had burned me. I had a loss of all feeling.”

Given the physical nature of his profession, the experience of losing sensation in one of his limbs was a frightening one. Fortunately the issue resolved itself over time, with his body healing and returning to how it was before.

Things are fine now, but at the time it was a very stressful situation. “When a doctor tells you ‘We don’t know if it [nerve sensations] will come back … it should …’ you start thinking ‘shit!’” he says.

In terms of standout memories of the year, that one is right up there for all the wrong reasons.

A game-changing move

Haas is reflecting on his season while sitting outside a café in Girona. Located close to the river which bisects the town, the outdoor tables are bathed in October sunlight.

It’s warm, he sits in a t-shirt and sips a coffee as he talks.

2016 was all about change. After spending four years with the Garmin/Cannondale setup, he moved over to the Team Dimension Data squad and began anew. Talking to him, it is clear that he is pleased with how things worked out with the African squad.

“It was game changing,” he enthuses. “It was amazing. I turned a new page at the end of 2015 after four years with Slipstream. Those were great years in many ways, but it was just nice to come to a team that really suited my own style of being and ambition.

“They are a growing team with new energy. I think for me I have always seen [the value in] newer teams with the right philosophies on clean sport, on having extra meaning behind what you are doing. Slipstream had that energy when they started. We saw it with GreenEdge – they came in with that new fresh blood, new energy, and we saw them hit this huge peak in results early on. And that enthusiasm is still there.

“For me it was really nice to go to a team that was new on the blocks with something to prove. I certainly felt that reinvigorated my love for racing.”

Nathan Haas in Girona, October 2016. The Australian has been based in the Catalan town for several seasons.
Nathan Haas in Girona, October 2016. The Australian has been based in the Catalan town for several seasons.

Haas got 2016 off to a strong start with fourth in the Australia national road race championships. He was ninth on a stage in the Santos Tour Down Under, sixth in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and then rode solidly in the Tour of Oman.

He was building up for what was a major goal, Milan-San Remo, and felt his condition was extremely good in March.

“My form was just out of control … I still think maybe the best form I hit this year was in the block coming into Paris-Nice,” he stated. “We didn’t get to do anything in Paris-Nice [early on] as there was snow, there was rain. Then when I crashed it was when I was attacking solo 15 kilometres away from the finish on a climb … I fell on the downhill.”

His crash happened on stage four and put him out of the race. His nerve issues cropped up after a subsequent fall in Milan-San Remo, and saw him begin a block of time off the bike. He recovered from that, came down with the flu, and then hit the deck again while out training, colliding with a tractor which pulled out suddenly on a country lane.

Looking back, Haas admits that he didn’t handle things as well as he could have. He believes he became too insular, being consumed by what had gone wrong instead of taking a more positive outlook in relation to recovery.

With the benefit of hindsight, he believes now that he should have talked to more people during that time, including the team’s medical staff.

“I think I went into a bit of a negative place,” he admits. “I am not saying that I am old but as I am getting older, I am starting to realise that the positive headspace is something that you have to stay on top of.”

Haas returned to racing in Brabantse Pijl and while he was a non-finisher in it, the Amstel Gold Race and the Tour of Croatia, things started turning around in the Tour de Yorkshire. He won the mountains classification there and rode aggressively.

However the build-up in form came too late to follow through with a planned ride in the Giro d’Italia. Instead, he headed elsewhere. His plan B ended up being one of the standout memories of the season.

“I think my biggest highlight from this year was probably the Tour of California. I originally wasn’t due to go, but I got a call two days beforehand, hopped straight on a plane and went there,” he states. “I ended up having some great rides.

“I almost won on the Laguna circuit [he was third on stage four – ed.]. It was just amazing to be on such an iconic racecourse. That highway that we ride the whole day along the coastline is just so beautiful, and then to have such a cool finish … I think that was my favourite stage of the year.

“But in terms of the race, it was just so cool to be racing with Cav and Tyler [Mark Cavendish and Tyler Farrar] and all the guys there. It was just a great atmosphere during the whole event.”

Nathan Haas was in very good company on the podium at the end of stage four of the 2016 Tour of California.
Nathan Haas was in very good company on the podium at the end of stage four of the 2016 Tour of California.

“Without sounding like a fanboy, it is an honour to ride for him”

Talking to Haas, it is clear that relationships with his teammates in general and Farrar and Cavendish in particular gave him a big morale boost this year. Moving to a new team requires a period of adjustment, but it seems he got a big kick out of the new environment.

“In terms of highlights, there were so many really awesome points in the season,” he says, reflecting on what the year brought. “I think for me my favourite thing was just getting back with Tyler in a team. We have got a really good friendship and for me racing is just 10 times more fun when I am with Tyler.

“When you have fun, you tend to get better results.”

Farrar was previously the main sprinter with the Slipstream team, and the two riders’ careers overlapped there between 2012 and 2014.

Having a familiar face at Dimension Data helped the transition and ensured he settled in quickly. Then there was riding for Cavendish, something he seems to have got a lot of satisfaction out of.

“It is Cav, man … he is one of the living legends of the sport,” Haas says, smiling, when asked for his impressions of the Briton. “Without sounding like a fanboy, it is an honour to ride for him. He shows time after time that when you do ride for him, he tends to get the job done. But he doesn’t put pressure on the guys that we can’t handle.

“The nice thing is that he is probably the best leader I have actually seen in cycling.

“I have witnessed how he goes around to everybody, makes sure everybody’s mood is right, everyone is positive. He is asking people to really buy into the role which they think they can have for the day.”

Like Haas, Cavendish also moved to the team this year. He has thrived since then. While racing in Dimension Data colours, he returned to his top sprinting form and clocked up four stage wins in the Tour de France.

Haas regards him as leading by example.

“On the road he is the captain. Like I said, he executes, which is 9/10ths of leadership. And then when they are doing that, everyone else tends to step up around because the pressure changes. It goes from being a negative pressure to a positive one.

“I think Cav’s huge success has probably come from his interpersonal skills.”

Nathan Haas won stage four of the 2016 Vuelta a Burgos in August.
Nathan Haas won stage four of the 2016 Vuelta a Burgos in August.

Victory and future targets:

While Haas enjoys riding for Cavendish and helping others, he also has his own ambitions. Finishing just behind Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) on the fourth stage of the Tour of California underlines Haas’ form at the time. It also highlights his potential.

Sagan and Van Avermaet went on from that race to win the world championship and Olympic road race, respectively. Their subsequent achievements underline that he was keeping good company.

While he was frustrated not to take the win in California, Haas ended up topping a podium just over two months later when he triumphed on stage four of the Vuelta a Burgos.

“It was great to get a win. I feel like you have to win a race every year,” he states, looking back at that day and the emotions it brought. “It is important to keep that side of things switched on. I think a lot of guys don’t focus enough on winning. They go to a race and they are always focussed on doing a role.

“Even when they are trying to win, they don’t necessarily, say, hit out in a sprint.”

His point is that tunnel vision on one particular role or objective can eliminate spontaneity. It can stifle aggression.

“I have been criticised a lot of times for going too early in a sprint, but the thing I hate even more than going early and getting caught is getting boxed in and crossing the line going, ‘my legs are fresh. Damn.’

“So, that [victory] was awesome. And to win it in such a cool town as well, up a cobbled climb, was just unreal. It was really nice because I got to try again for myself at full flight form. I had just come from a month in Boulder in Colorado to try to get a bit of altitude training in for Burgos and the Vuelta.

“It was nice to actually have a goal and to hit it.”

While the Vuelta was frustrated by an illness which led to his withdrawal, Haas did show more good form in the Canadian WorldTour races.

He competed in the Grand Prix Cycliste de Quebec and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal in 2015 and while he didn’t have the legs there, he noticed that the courses were very suited to his racing style.

This time around his form was much better and he was one of those in the hunt in the finale. Sixth behind Sagan in Quebec and fifth in Montreal were very solid results, and lead him to pinpoint those races as a major focus for 2017.

However to win either event he knows that the world champion may well be the biggest obstacle.

“When you have got Sagan not fatigued enough from a race, he is virtually unbeatable,” he admits.

“I don’t ever want to say that, but you have to force the error from him which means going early. If the race hasn’t been hard enough, then his racing instinct is so good that he can kind of adjust.

“I don’t know if you saw the sprint from this year but it was just another level. I think that it put some things into perspective for a lot of guys.”

Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained. He’ll work hard, aim high and hope to deliver.

“Next year I will be super-focussed on trying to finally pop Sagan in a sprint,” he says. It’s a very clear goal, and one he knows would mark major progress if achieved.

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