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It’s six and a half kilometres to go in the 2017 Amstel Gold Race, and Philippe Gilbert is about to play his hand. He is part of a select group of riders still in contention, and signals the end of their cooperation by moving to the front on the Bemelerberg climb and upping the pace.
Nathan Haas rolls through, Michal Kwiatkowski kicks hard and surges clear; Gilbert answers the dig. Haas is a couple of bike lengths back, head bobbing with the effort as he strains to get up to Gilbert’s wheel. He inches up to it, the strongest of the rest, but Gilbert immediately rises from the saddle, accelerates hard and snaps the elastic.
Kwiatkowski matches the surge as Haas’s legs finally explode. He swings to the right, muscles screaming, and while he’ll soon put in one more jump to try to cross the widening divide, he can’t make the junction to the two former world champions.
Gilbert and Kwiatkowski stay away to the finish, taking first and second, while Haas finishes behind Michael Albasini in the sprint for third. He’s fourth in the Amstel Gold Race. It’s not the result he was hoping for, but it’s still perhaps the most important of his career.
It was the moment when he realised he could, maybe, become one of the greats.
“It was the ride that I was most proud of last year,” the Australian tells CyclingTips. “Because that’s my kind of Holy Grail event. If I could win Amstel, I could retire that day and just leave the sport. Not that I would, but I could.
“The thing I was most proud of race was when Kwiatkowski and Gilbert attacked on the last climb with four and a half kilometres to go, I totally responded well to Kwiatkowski’s attack. And then there was the three of us. And then on that small crosswind bit of false-flat over the top, Gilbert counter-attacked.”
Haas wasn’t able to go with the move, yet takes satisfaction from how hard he tried.
“It was an experience I have never, ever felt in racing,” he continues. “My vision actually went dark on the outside and I could just see the wheel in front. And I’m on his wheel and … I just couldn’t. And it wasn’t from lack of trying. I’ve never felt like that ever before, and I’ve never had my vision actually sort of close out from effort … I wanted it so bad.”
Looking back on that effort now, many months later, he’s clear that he couldn’t have given any more. He got 100 percent out of himself in that moment and while he’d have given everything to have been there at the finish, sprinting it out for the win, he knows he did his utmost.
“For the number geeks, I still did over 700 watts for a minute on his wheel, at 260 kilometres into the race and with almost seven hours done at this point,” he says, explaining the data side of his all-out effort. “I still could do that power. The thing I was really proud of was first of all making that three, then when I went back to the chasing group behind it at 15, 20 seconds, I was really the only one, I felt, in that group that was still racing to win.
“I was trying to get the group moving and then I still tried to hit across to the front guys when I realised they weren’t going to work. So I think for me my proudest moment was not just being in that situation, but not being scared to fail because I want to win. And that’s the only thing I want to do.”
Haas has been getting closer to a really big victory. He’s triumphed on stages of races such as the Vuelta a Burgos and the Tour of Oman, won the Japan Cup twice and taken GC victory in the Jayco Herald Sun Tour and the Tour of Britain. But Amstel Gold? That would have been a career best.
“I had a massive smile when I finished, in the sense that I knew I didn’t have any more that I could have done in that moment,” he says. “So I wasn’t left wondering. I went to bed and I went, ‘right, I’m now in the finalist group. But now there’s another little click of a gear that I have to find for next season.
“Now I know what that is, and I know how deep you can go. So I think in a way I learned from not winning.”
Since then Haas has been obsessed about the race. He’s replayed the final kilometres in his mind time and time again, and used that near-miss as motivation in training and racing. When his heart is pounding, when his legs are howling and, yes, when his vision is going dark, he’ll think of the 2017 race and what he learned of himself there.
“I don’t want to get third. I don’t want to get second. I want to win Amstel Gold,” he says, with determination. “So fourth, third or second is neither here nor there.
“Now I know that I’ve sort of graduated into that group … where I know I can be the winner. And I’m not going to stop trying to win. I’m not.”
Taking the clearest path
On Sunday the Amstel Gold Race departs Maastricht and again heads towards a showdown on the climbs in the finale. The scenario is the same, but much has changed. In the past few months Haas has taken a stage win, the points classification and fifth overall in the Tour of Oman, gained motivation and changed teams. Previously with Dimension Data, he has moved to Katusha-Alpecin.
He believes that could make a big difference.
“For me, I didn’t want to have any feeling at the end of my career that I didn’t give myself the best environment to succeed in,” he says, “in terms of having the best support at the biggest races.
“Dimension Data was fantastic. It gave me all the opportunities that I needed to become the rider that I am at this point. I have got a lot of thanks to give to him for that. But they were going in their direction with Louis Meintjes for the Grand Tours and, of course, keeping the commitment to the Cavendish train.”
Haas points out that the team doesn’t have a very big budget compared to other squads. That in turn means that the focus on Meintjes and Cavendish plus their support riders meant that he couldn’t get the backing or the support he needed for his type of racing.
He doesn’t feel any frustration with his time there, but simply recognises it was time to move on. “It was exactly where I needed to be at that time,” he says. “But moving to Katusha … I felt that I needed to be in one of the five superstar teams, when it comes to owning races. And having the real ethos in the race that breeds success.”
Thanks to performances such as his promising Amstel Gold Race ride, he says that he had ‘hyper-choice anxiety,’ in terms of changing teams. In other words, he had several options and had to ponder over each of them.
In the end, the choice was clear. “For me Katusha was the team with the clearest path for me as an absolute leader in those races, as opposed to shared leadership. So for me this was the clear home.”
Haas started with the team in the Australian championships, taking fifth in both the road race and time trial. He was then seventh and fifth on the opening two stages of the Santos Tour Down Under, and went into the crucial fourth stage poised in sixth place overall. That was one he marked out beforehand as an opportunity, but instead he suffered heat exhaustion and slipped back.
Looking back at that now, he believes he would have been better positioned had he returned to Australia earlier, giving himself time to get accustomed to the high temperatures there. But he also accepts that sometimes the body doesn’t respond as you hope it will.
“Normally I’m good at the heat. But I think I think we also have to have a look at ourselves and say ‘we are humans.’ We have biorhythms that are out of our control. Sometimes your biorhythm can handle anything, and sometimes you’re on this knife’s edge.
“Even if you’ve trained well, I think there’s a lot of things that are actually not in our control. I think I’ve probably put a lot of anxiety on myself over the years to try to time it right, but the reality is your internal system controls itself. We’re kind of at its beck and call.
“This year it didn’t call to say, ‘let’s have a good race.’ It said, ‘sorry man, you’re shutting down for a bit.’ And you have to respect that, because I want to race for a lot of years and I don’t want to do any damage that shortens the career.”
Haas’ reaction to the heat affected him for the rest of the race, and he believes the slump it caused was still in his system when he rode the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. But once he lined out in the Tour of Oman, he was good to go.
Heading towards the finish of stage two, he was part of a select 16 man group created when Niki Terpstra (QuickStep Floors) attacked with four kilometres to go. BMC Racing Team rider Alberto Bettiol rode for Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet, who then launched his sprint, but Haas was strong enough to come around him and blast home.
He crossed the line with a huge roar of delight, celebrating what was his first victory since stage four of the 2016 Vuelta a Burgos.
The relief was pronounced, his satisfaction easy to see. The win was a joy in itself, but it also brought that drought to an end.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I had one of the highest amount of top tens out of any rider in the whole WorldTour,” he says. “And a crazy amount of top fives, a lot of podiums, but no wins for over a year. I was like, ‘how could I be that close so many times?’ I was starting to doubt my ability to get the job done.
“The nice thing was, [Katusha general manager José] Azevedo said, ‘Nathan, I know you haven’t lost it, don’t be silly. You just need this extra bit of support.’ I had that support at Down Under but I cracked. But in Oman I had the support and I didn’t crack. I cracked through.
“So it was a big deal to me. And I know it’s not the world’s biggest race, but it was just something that I had to do. And, you know, why not be happy at the end of a race?,” he says, referring to his roar of jubilation with a laugh. “If you win, why not be happy?”
Haas hopes – expects – to be in that position a lot more now. He’s got a clear leadership role from Katusha-Alpecin in the races which suit him, and also has the manpower he needs to set him up for the win.
He points out that even with big engines backing a rider, there is a period of adjustment when everyone learns how to work together. “When you’re actually the guy that’s trying to seal the deal to win the race, to get that result, there’s a big learning curve in actually learning what resources you have in the team.
“I know all the guys are super-strong, but how do you use them, and how do you get those guys to rally around you? At what points in a race is it important to use a particular guy because of his characteristics, and then also not knowing where he is in his form bell curve. Is he superstrong now, or is he stronger later?”
Haas feels the first couple of months was all about this learning. The day he got his win, things all came together. “Oman, for me, was like a great confidence booster. Look what happens when you actually do have the right guys in front of you at the right moment?
“You put yourself in them in a winning opportunity, not just to get fourth or fifth here and there.”
Chasing a whale
It’s a spring evening in Girona at the end of March. Haas is at the Bike Breaks shop in the old town, one of the biggest cycling businesses in the area. It has signed a retail deal with Katusha clothing, and both he and teammate Willie Smit are the big guests at the launch.
Haas is in a relaxed mood. After Oman he rode races such as Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo, placing 18th in the latter. He is now in a period building up for the Ardennes Classics, and is about to spend a block of time at altitude in Andorra with his coach.
He’s feeling good about where he is. He stands on a low wall and gives a short, impromptu speech – well, speech might be too formal a word – about the Katusha team and the clothing brand it has established. He also stands for photographs in front of some of the jerseys, larking around and playing for laughs before a couple of more serious shots.
After that, he does a couple of relaxed one-on-one media interviews.
Talking to Haas is different to most riders. When asked a question, he often pauses for several seconds. He doesn’t give cliched answers or media-trained responses, but rather thinks, mulls over the question and then responds. His answers are thoughtful rather than thoughtless.
Asked where his form is at at that point in time, he admits he isn’t sure. “But I never know, until very close to it [a key event],” he says. “I was super-sick at Volta Catalunya last year. And at this point in the year where I am now, 12 months ago, I was really stressed. I was thinking ‘it’s not going to come around, it’s not going to happen.’ And things worked out well then.”
He says that he feels his build-up has been better this time. And while he was a little ill after Tirreno-Adriatico and San Remo, he isn’t panicking. “Both myself and my coach trust our process,” he says.
At that point of time there’s still 19 days until the Amstel Gold Race.
“I don’t have to be ready today. I have to be ready in a few weeks’ time,” he explains. “Driving back from Milan – San Remo, I heard a great saying from one of our directors. He said, ‘when it comes to stress on the bike and stress around form, don’t put yourself in hospital before you’re sick.’”
In other words, don’t second-guess yourself ahead of time.
“So I’m trying to stay out of my head a lot here and just trust the process. Because it’s why I’ve been working with my coach for so many years. It’s because he seems to time it as well as we can. Okay, sometimes factors are out of your control, like at Down Under. But I’m quietly confident that I’m going to be exactly where I need to be.”
Sunday will show if that is indeed the case. Unlike last year, he didn’t ride Brabantse Pijl in the build-up to Amstel. Katusha-Alpecin didn’t take part in the event and, besides, the team is hoping that missing Wednesday’s race will mean he has more left in the tank for Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Haas believes both of those events suit him, although he suggests that Alejandro Valverde, Dan Martin and Julian Alaphilippe are the clear favourites for the podium in Flèche.
Liège, he says, is more suited to his characteristics.
But if he has a choice, he’s clear on which race is the one he would love to shine in. If he could win any one of the Ardennes Classics, his heart is set on Amstel.
“If I won that, I could probably quit and be totally stoked with where my career ended,” he says, smiling. “For me, if there was a standout race that was more important than any other, it is that one.
“If I won that, that would be for me like my white whale. If I can catch that … that would be amazing.”