The weekly spin: Philosophy and perspective with Nathan Haas

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Back in May, just prior to the Amgen Tour of California, I had a memorable conversation with Australian Nathan Haas about a number of topics.

Some were timely, such as his season to that point, and teammate Marcel Kittel’s announcement that he was breaking his contract with Katusha-Alpecin. But Haas consistently delivered thoughtful, timeless answers that addressed broader topics around the sport as a whole. And the topic of Kittel stepping away from pro racing is once again relevant after the German’s announcement on Friday to definitively retire.

At the time, Haas was coming off a frustrating early season that had seen him get sick at the Santos Tour Down Under and abandon the Tour of Oman after just one stage. His spring classics campaign had been underwhelming as well; he didn’t crack the top 35 at Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, or Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He was in California hoping for a result that didn’t materialize, and his 2019 season is now his second consecutive year without a Grand Tour.

All in all, 2019 has been a lackluster season for the 30-year-old Aussie, an all-rounder who finished fourth at both Tour Down Under and Amstel Gold in 2017 and won a stage at Tour of Oman in 2018.

Haas turned pro in 2012 with Garmin-Sharp after winning the 2011 Herald Sun Tour riding for Australian Continental team Genesys Wealth Advisers. In 2012 he finished second to Jonathan Tiernan-Locke at the Tour of Britain; that result was later upgraded to a victory when Tiernan-Locke was stripped of the title for an anti-doping violation. In 2014, Haas won the one-day Japan Cup for a second time. He made his Grand Tour debut at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, and made his Tour de France debut in 2015. In total he’s taken seven pro victories between 2011 and 2019.

Nathan Haas wins stage 2 of Tour of Oman
Nathan Haas won Stage 2 of the 2018 Tour of Oman.

After four seasons with Garmin he left for Dimension Data in 2016 on a two-year deal; he joined Katusha-Alpecin in 2018 on another two-year deal that is up at the end of this season. He has not yet announced a contract for 2020, and there have been rumors that Katusha-Alpecin faces an uncertain future as sponsors Alpecin and Canyon are reportedly taking their cash elsewhere.

If the team’s sponsors do go elsewhere, it wouldn’t be a total shock. It’s been a tough season for Katusha-Alpecin, given Haas’ health issues, Ian Boswell’s season-ending concussion, and Kittel’s retirement. In all, the team has won just five races in 2019, and only one WorldTour race, a Giro d’Italia stage win by Ilnur Zakarin.

That said, sitting on a grassy lawn at a hotel in Sacramento, Haas was characteristically philosophical about his condition, his team, and his perspective on life as professional cyclist. I found the conversation to be interesting and enlightening — his undergraduate degree was in philosophy, after all. We spoke for about 40 minutes before he had to head over to the race’s team presentation.

I recently went through the interview and mined it for gems. I came back with a fair bit of treasure, which I’ll present in his words below.

•••

On his health issues this year

In the end it was a bit of a mix of everything. I was on antibiotics for one thing, and I had a bit of a virus going on in the system. My own diagnosis is that I finished Turkey (in October 2018) and 10 days later I was back training, because there was a lot of emphasis to be good for Tour Down Under.

When you finish in late October, and your team camp is already around the corner, I think the reality was that I didn’t have an off season where I got to rest and recuperate, and I think I paid for it at the start of this season. We worked out that that’s what it was — overtraining, coupled with a few viral and bacterial things, but I don’t think they were the primary issue. I think they were symptomatic of just not having a chance to walk into 2019 and separate it from the 2018 season. So we had to take stock, I had to take a few weeks off in February, sort of a ‘post-season part two,’ and then it was just catch up from there.

Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) attended the pre-race press conference for the 2019 Tour of Oman, but went home after just one stage due to illness.

And the level of cycling, everyone’s talking about it this year, it’s faster than anyone’s ever felt. The finals are so hard, but it’s not the final that’s so hard, it’s the whole race. And if you come in, in March, and you haven’t really raced yet, guys are swinging so hard already, they’re just full gas and it’s hard to keep perspective about where you are and that you’re growing into the season.

For me, I’m so used to starting so strong in Australia every year, or Oman every year, and then that form just flows into March and April. Whereas this year I’ve had to kind of do it the hard way. It’s been mentally challenging, but at the same time I feel that if you’re not getting challenged each year, it kind of gets boring.

So in a way, it’s given me a cool thing to have to focus on — to really think about health and headspace, dealing with the fact that cycling is so hard when you’re not good enough to be in those races. It’s been a cool challenge because I’ve never had to deal with it before. I think I’m coming out the other end stronger, but from a perspective note, it’s been kind of humbling.

On his Ardennes Classics campaign

Flèche was pretty cool, I was attacking through the front of the race, trying to split it up. There was two parts to that. One was that I’d just had such a frustrated start to the year, I just felt like I was following every race, and I sort of saw this opening where the race was going just a little bit hard, and people were suffering, and I thought, ‘time to just turn the screws.’ It was just to be in control of a bike race again — so that I felt like a bike racer again, and not just a chaser.

But the other part of it, as well, is that Flèche is a ticking time bomb. If you get to the bottom of the Mur de Huy with guys like [Julian] Alaphilippe, you’re not racing for the win. So I’d prefer to just move the race and at least feel like I was activating the racer within, and not just waiting to hopefully pull a top 10. I prefer to go for a win and fall into the top 10 as opposed to already ceding any chance for that.

Nathan Haas (Katusha-Alpecin) opened up the race at the 2019 Flèche Wallonne.

At Liège I felt super, but I really underdressed. I kept thinking the race was going to speed up so that I would got hotter, but by the time really kicked off, I went from having what I felt where great legs to not being able to change my gears. I was using my wrists to hit the shifters. Even now I feel like I have minor nerve damage in my hands, I’m still having trouble opening jars, or brushing my teeth. It was an intense and long period in the cold. To no one’s fault but my own, I underdressed, and I killed myself.

The Ardennes were not indicative of what I can do, or even where I was, but I have to say it was so nice just to be back racing and feeling like a bike racer again this season.

On why the start of the 2019 season was marked by harder, faster races

I have a theory. I study cycling, I watch cycling not just because I love it, but because it’s my job, and if you’re not studying each season as a completely different beast then you’re not going to get to your target races with the understanding that you need to tactically play the race — unless you’re just [Greg] Van Avermaet or [Peter] Sagan, they can do anything.

But for me, I’ve studied it, and my diagnosis is that Europe had the most calm and mild winter of all time. In November and December guys weren’t missing days training. They weren’t on indoor bikes, or going to the gym instead. They were doing huge weeks. If you look at all the guys, if they opened their TrainingPeaks books to everybody, they were doing 28-30 hour weeks from the start of November, and they were never interrupted until February. There was no bad weather.

So for the first time ever, the Europeans weren’t hindered by the elements. There was some unseasonable weather in March and April, but for what it’s worth, the Antipodeans — the riders from Australia and New Zealand — usually have an advantage by training through the summer. It’s not that we’re training so hard in November and December, we just have good enough weather so that we don’t have to skip any days.

And I think that’s what it was this year, guys were given a golden ticket this season. We’re still exactly the same athletes that we were in 2018, 2017, and 2016 — I have a lot of faith in the fact that people are doing it the right way — but we’re going faster [in the spring] because we were given perfect training conditions.

But given that we’re still human, there’s going to be a point where the penny drops. We’re going to see a lot of guys on their knees, with illness and injury. Teams were scrambling to even get a strong Giro squad together. I think that was a response to the fastest start of a season I’ve seen in eight years I’ve been pro.

On team morale at Katusha-Alpecin

In all things in life you sometimes have a cluster of good luck or bad luck. I think we’ve had a bit of a collective cluster of issues. Morale is certainly not low. If anything, similar to how I feel about my own season, it gives you perspective on how hard you have to keep trying and how passionate you have to be about your job.

On Marcel Kittel’s decision to leave pro racing

When it comes to health, there’s many kinds of health. There’s something really obvious, like Ian Boswell’s concussion, that’s something that is not taken lightly any more in cycling, and nor should it be. And then there’s my kind of health, the system down due to overtraining, and secondary viruses coming in. And then there’s mental health, and that’s probably the thing that no one talks about or no one gives enough respect to in this game.

Someone like Marcel has spent the last eight or nine years providing cycling with some of the most exciting victories, and I think he’s been one of the truest champions in cycling that we’ve had in the last decade. From my perspective, I think it’s fantastic if he’s finding an opportunity to come back to center after years and years on the road, living in hotels, all these internal and also external pressures to be somebody when it’s not always a human place to be, always thinking about the win, always thinking about being stronger and better, and always fighting.

I think mental health is something we all need to be talking about more in elite sport. I hope all the media give Marcel enough space and respect to just see him as a human and to champion him for the years that he did entertain us, and to give us the space to get back to center.

On balancing success and perspective

Something I find interesting in all sport, but we can use cycling as an example, is that you have athletes who are exactly who they are — and I think that I’ve never come across as somebody that I’m not, in media, or you could talk about it in terms of a personal brand, but I’ve always been very authentic — but there’s a point in sport where you become so good that your results start to precede you as who you are. So you’re not actually seen as the person any more, you’re seen as the multiple Tour de France stage winner.

Look at Alberto Bettiol, he’s never won a race before, now he’s won the Tour of Flanders, and right now he’s going through this massive high for what it is, but his whole life is different now, and who he sees himself is different, because now he’s a Tour of Flanders winner.

Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) won Stage 4 of the 2016 Vuelta a Burgos.

But this is where it gets very dangerous and where I think there needs to be some care, or some resources given into the cycling world, for success management. It’s easy to be an average rider. It’s easy to be an occasionally good rider. But the hardest rider there is to be, mentally, is actually the one who is succeeding the most. It seems counterintuitive, but the hardest person to be on a team is the one who takes the pressure, who takes the stories, takes all the media grunt, the trolls online.

Marcel is a big guy, he’s got a big stature, but he’s still just another person, and he’s no different to anyone else. You see Cavendish as well, all the pressure he’s been under the last few years, and suddenly he’s not succeeding like he used to, it starts to challenge their egos. Suddenly they stop being the Tour de France stage winner, or they stop being the champion, and it’s hard for them. It’s a reality hit. And it’s something that I hope everyone gives a lot of space for, because Marcel has given a lot to cycling, he’s given so much entertainment, that I hope everyone respects his decision for what it is.

On dealing with pressures in pro cycling

I was on the Garmin team when Christian Vande Velde transitioned from a team leader to a domestique. That was interesting to see. In many ways, the more genuine he became in his own self, the better he became, I felt, as a rider.

He was fourth at the Tour de France [in 2008], which was insane — how many people in the world can ever be as good as he was? But the time I spent with him, as one of the best domestiques ever — he was in that rare class of super domestiques — when Ryder Hesjedal won the Giro, that was largely because of Vande Velde’s experience. I think Vande Velde would probably keep that experience as more valuable to him than being fourth at the Tour de France, because it was genuinely who he was.

Nathan Haas (Garmin-Barracuda) at the evening criterium in Adelaide in 2012.

This is something I’m seeing as I’m getting older, that you kind of have to be careful what you wish for in cycling, and you have to have a pretty firm grip on who you are before you figure out what you want in cycling. if you are someone who wants to win a Grand Tour, because that’s what you want, and it’s not what someone else wants for you, then go for it. But if you are somebody that knows in themselves that that kind of pressure might actually be the thing that breaks you, then I think you’re going to get further away from the reality of that result.

In the end, we cycle because we love it, and external pressures can change things. I think a good analogy for pressure in cycling is like an egg. If you have too much external pressure on an egg it will break, and there’s death. If you have internal pressure, it cracks form the inside, and you only have life and growth come out. If the pressure is genuine and real, that’s when you can have a champion. But if there’s too much external pressure, it doesn’t matter who you are or how good you are, things can break.

On memories of his first-ever bike race

I was in a pretty funky period of my life. I was really good at Australian Rules Football. I was on a state team, I felt as if maybe there was a future there, as well. I loved it, I breathed it. And you find out that with that game, the more you play the more you just get absolutely crunched. It’s like the NFL, but more dangerous.

I was 16, and I’d had a concussion here, big hematoma there, I was injured, and I was cycling to get a bit more fitness in. I’d met some kids who lived around my streets who were building dirt jumps and doing downhill. I did some downhill racing, but to be honest I was really crap at it, I just didn’t have the balls to do the gnarly stuff. Then all of a sudden I did really awesome in this one downhill race that had a big pedaling section in it.

A few weeks later I did my first cross-country race. One of my oldest friends, his name is Angus, was really into cross-country racing, and his family had a spare bike for me. It was a two-day stage race called the Tour de Dirt, and it was also the national championship. So I went along and gave it a go. They gave me this bike, and it just fit. Everything was cool. I went to the start line, everyone was in Lycra, and they were all looking at me funny; I was in baggy shorts and a sleeveless football jersey, with a CamelBak on my back.

I didn’t really understand how racing went, I just thought you went hell for leather and just went bananas, and it was exactly that at the start. So I was sticking with this group, just sticking with them, and then we hit this downhill and they were going way too slow — I was used to downhill racing — so I absolutely fleeced them on this downhill, and then on the next uphill only one guy caught me, so I was second at the national championship in my first-ever cross-country race. And the national coach came up to me and was like, ‘Who the hell are you?’ And I was like, ‘Who the hell are you? I’m just a football player, doing this for fitness.’ And he was like, ‘I don’t think you should be a football player. Here’s my card. I want you on the national team for mountain biking.’

It was the first thing I ever felt in my life that just clicked. I feel like it was kind of representative of who I am as a person. I don’t really care how things have to look. I don’t really care about trying to fit in. I just do it my way, and when it’s my thing, it tends to go well.

That was probably my first self-finding moment in cycling — not just riding around, not doing silly downhill races, but all of a sudden I’d found my sport, my happy place. And it just built from there. It’s come a long ways from days of cross-country races in football jerseys, and now I wear Lycra, but that was my first racing moment that really was something.

On switching over from mountain to road racing

I never did a road race until I was 20 or 21. I was a stoic, hardcore mountain biker, a ‘dirt till I die’ type of guy. I never really respected the road riders, I thought they were kind of soft, not hardcore, because they weren’t doing hectic stuff off road. Then I tried road riding, and I realized it’s actually way scarier, and way more hardcore, and more soul-finding than mountain biking, because it tests you in ways mountain biking doesn’t.

I did two years in the elite mountain-bike World Cup circuit in Europe, and raced in North America as well, in Vermont and Mont-Saint-Anne. I was going pretty well, I was top 10 in the world rankings for the under-23 category, my best-ever result — and this was back when elites and U23 still raced together — was 16th in a World Cup, at Mount Stromlo in Australia. For what it’s worth that was a pretty big feat that I’m still proud of.

It was just too hard. I was working all my summers in Australia in bars and restaurants, saving every single cent that I had to go race for three or four months in Europe, and coming back literally broke, having sold my car to get enough money to go over and then start working again. And I realized after two years it was just not achievable.

And that was in 2008 and 2009, after the global financial crisis. There was no future in mountain-bike racing. I actually quit cycling in 2009, after the world championships in Canberra. It just made sense to me. I loved it, it was super cool, but I didn’t need to be a pro cyclist. I needed to get my life together.

Then this guy called me up and said he was trying to get a team together for the Tour of Tasmania, and they needed another rider. He said, ‘we know you’re fit, come along.’ That was my first real road race. And I ended up winning the KOM jersey for the whole tour, and then was signed directly onto a road team after that.

It was just about pure performance, it wasn’t about setting expectation on a result or anything. I didn’t even really know what I was doing. If I had gone thinking I might be able to sign a pro contract, I would have waited instead of attacking and doing all kinds of stupid stuff in the race. That was a really pure moment for me.

It all happened super quick and in my own weird way. In my own headspace I was done with competitive cycling, I’d given it all up, and a week later I was on my road bike thinking, ‘Ah, this is kind of cool.’ And now I’m deep into a cycling career.

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