Nathan Haas fights his way to Tour Down Under podium: ‘I can’t believe what I just did’

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WILLUNGA HILL, Austalia (CT) – While Richie Porte (BMC) was riding away to his fourth straight win on Willunga Hill, Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) was battling his way towards an impressive career-best finish at the Tour Down Under.

Haas was dropped when the pace increased early on the second and final ascent of Willunga Hill and it appeared his time in the GC’s top five was at an end.

“I wanted to see today if I could go with the first acceleration because I knew it was a headwind,” Haas said. “A few years ago when I was contesting GC here I made the mistake of actually choosing to get dropped. But today I thought I’d made the even bigger mistake of letting myself explode.”

After getting dropped, Haas found a way to battle back through the field, all the way to the elite chase group containing Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott).

“I’ve been doing a lot of swimming this offseason and I’ve been doing some breathing exercises,” an emotional Haas said after the stage. “I just went into the back of my mind and just started doing my deep breaths and asking myself questions with positive answers.

“I started to use guys to move up sort of step-by-step. And then I finally saw [Diego] Ulissi go. And you know he’s had the better of me for a few years in these kind of races, just that little bit. I wasn’t going to let it happen today.”

Haas rounded the final corner ahead of Ulissi, Chaves and Jay McCarthy (Bora-Hansgrohe) having made contact a short time earlier. The 27-year-old managed to hold off a late challenge from Chaves and crossed the line in second to take six valuable bonus seconds.

Haas had come into the stage in fifth place, 27 seconds off the overall lead and just six seconds from the podium. But with second-placed Gorka Izaguirre (Movistar) dropped late in today’s stage, and fourth-placed McCarthy missing out on bonus seconds in fifth, Haas moved up into third overall.

It was a thrilling ride from Haas who, in his own words, has “been on the cusp of great things” for several seasons now. He’s won a handful of bike races in his five-and-a-bit years as a professional — including the Japan Cup twice, a stage of the Vuela a Burgos (see feature image) and the Tour of Britain (retroactively) – and he was fifth overall here in 2014, but he hasn’t quite taken the career-defining victory he’s been searching for.

“I was asked by a bit of a mentor of mine the other day why that is and I resented him for it,” Haas said. “But my answer was it’s gonna make that big win all the sweeter. I think 2017 has a big feeling for me. It’s my second year with the team and it’s really starting to feel like home.”

Haas had crossed the line 20 seconds behind Porte and was quick to pay tribute to the stage winner.

“Obviously Porte’s in another league,” Haas said. “I want to take my hat off to him. He’s not at all my kind of rider so to beat him on something like this takes a monster effort. But I’m still so proud of what me and my team did today. They were superb.

“I’ve got a young squad here, a lot of guys that … we haven’t raced together yet but just around the dinner table we’ve got this energy. The way we’re coming into the races we’re just laughing the whole time. And when you’ve got a group of guys that just love being together and love racing it does help you find that extra gear when you’re suffering.”

Porte’s 48-second lead means he almost certainly has the general classification sewn up. But for Haas, there’s a tantalising prospect of moving from third to second overall in tomorrow’s final stage.

After today’s result, Haas sits just three seconds behind second-placed Chaves. Tomorrow’s sixth and final stage has more than enough bonus seconds on offer for Haas to leapfrog the Colombian climber and finish second overall. There are two intermediate sprints, each offering three, two and one bonus second for the first three across the line. And then at the finish, the top three will take 10, six and four seconds respectively.

Orica-Scott will be hoping for a fourth-stage win from Caleb Ewan, potentially taking the 10-bonus seconds off the table for Haas. The team might also be tempted to challenge for the intermediate sprints — either with Ewan or Simon Gerrans — to ensure Chaves isn’t dislodged from second place. Bora-Hansgrohe, too, will almost certainly be looking for bonus seconds for Jay McCarthy, who sits in fourth, a further three seconds behind Haas.

But Haas still has a decent chance of moving into second overall — he’s a strong sprinter with a handy finish in a bunch kick. He was fifth into Campbelltown in yesterday’s stage 4 bunch sprint, and was third in the Australian National Championships road race last weekend, beaten in the sprint only by Gerrans.

One thing’s clear: Haas will be doing his best to try and move up the general classification tomorrow.

“I race to win,” he said. “Third is great; second is better.”

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