May 1, 2013

Look up the word enthusiasm in the dictionary and you ought to find a picture of Garmin-Sharp’s Australian rider Nathan Haas. Since not long after the age of 13, when he began spending after-school hours launching his bike off dirt jumps in his native Brisbane, Haas has dreamt of rolling his wheels over the starting line of Holland’s Amstel Gold Race.

Nathan Haas - Brabantse Pijl

Now that he has done that, plus La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the 24-year old Haas said the reality of racing the Ardennes classics has exceeded his expectations.
“The racing’s been amazing. This is the best racing in the world!”

Haas spent two seasons racing mountain bikes in Europe before switching to the road in 2009. His first serious road race was the 2009 Tour of Tasmania. After winning the king of the mountain jersey there an Australian team made him a contract offer. At the time, Haas was an undergraduate university student studying philosophy and he remembers telling the team, “You know, I’d love to, but I’m a student.”

“At the end of 2010 I was full-time [university,] and, quite honestly, I was not training at all,” Haas recalled. Nonetheless, while at college Haas continued to race when he could, and said he began to find his form through racing.

After winning the hilly queen stage of that year’s Tour of Tasmania, Haas remembers his director telling him, “Hey Nathan, you’ve got a bit of an engine there, and we’d like you to be one of our paid riders to lead the team next year. We are willing to pay you as long as you stop doing [university.]”

After discussing his dilemma with his parents — pursue a university degree or life a pro cyclist—Haas said his parents encouraged him. “I was really nervous to tell them that I was thinking about quitting [university] to go become a pro bike rider,” Haas said.

“And a low-paid one at that. But as soon as I said it, they were like, ‘Oh, thank god. We’ve been waiting for you to tell us that you really want to do this! We can tell that you are good at it. We can tell that you love it. Do it!’”

With his parents’ support underscoring his decision to have a go at the pro life, Haas said he absolutely dedicated himself to training.

“I lived like a monk,” Haas recalled of his total dedication to cycling. And that focus netted results — he won eight out of nine events he entered in Australia — including the Tour of Tasmania, the Sun Tour and the Japan Cup.

Haas said he was initially startled at how concerted training yielded results: “It caught me by surprise. And then once that confidence was there it seemed like nothing I did was wrong. And once you start to become the strong rider in any particular pool, people start watching you and it’s actually easier to be in the front group because they sort of wait for you to create the race.”

Those results led to Haas signing on with Garmin-Sharp in 2012, a year that saw him place second overall at the Tour of Britain.

When talking about his racing successes Haas does not boast. Even in the midst of pinning on numbers for the hardest one-day races on earth he seems in awe of where his cycling life has taken him. Haas said he is especially stoked to be on a team with countryman and ace sprinter Steele Van Hoff, who he also shared a kit with back in Oz.

Speaking of their days racing together in Australia, Haas said, “If I was up the road, I wouldn’t necessarily have to do anything because I just said, well, we’ve got the guy that’s going to win the race in the back.”

With Haas, the GC danger man off the front, and Van Hoff the sprint dominator in the field, Haas and Von Hoff’s rope-a-dope tactics forced other teams to burn matches.

Last year Haas and Von Hoff both took podium places in Tour of Britain stages and they raced together at this year’s Brabantse Pijl. Haas said lining up with his old mate in Leuven, Belgium for the Brabantse start invigorated him.

When Von Hoff got the call up from Garmin-Sharp’s development U23 team last year Haas said he totally revitalized his excitement for racing.

“Not that it was down at all, but when he came as a stagiare, it was just like having one of my best friends that I’ve known for ages and raced with for ages but with a lot of success; that enthusiasm and momentum from 2011 flowed into last year.”

Haas is especially enthusiastic about the Ardennes classics because the route and road conditions of races like Amstel Gold s suit him. Haas placed 75th in his first Amstel and said that doing that race had always been at the top of his bucket list.

“There is always something really special about it. When you watch it it’s an all guts race. It’s one of those really special races, and I think there’s really few of them, where it’s like a competition between the best climbers being able to out climb the sprinters that can climb the best.”

“This is definitely the sort of racing that I’m best at,” Haas said. Where some might cringe at the notion of a 34-climb course littered with bollards that pinch two-lane roads into a single lane — or giant, flower-filled planter boxes placed in the road, Haas thrills at the prospect of such road chaos. “It’s bumpy. There are heaps of turns. It’s technical, and I feel like I’m so comfortable with it all.”

Nathan Haas - Classics post-race

He explained that his ease with the randomness of Dutch and Belgian roads comes from his experience mountain biking, where single track courses make violent direction shifts, and where riders must constantly adapt to obstacles like trees, drop offs, and rocks that move with every lap. “You’ve got to be dynamic. And that’s something that I think mentally I can always be switched on for the whole race.”

As for his start in cycling as an adolescent in the back lots of Brisbane, Haas said his love for wild courses like Amstel may stem back to those days too.

“I think when you are 13 or 14 it is really nice to have that escape, that independence—you’ve got wheels to get you somewhere. It was so cool to have this group of guys that just loved to have adventures every day,” he said of his afternoons exploring by bike.

He even remembers getting in trouble with his mom when he borrowed her wheelbarrow and shovel to build jumps in the bush. Rather than bring them home, he tried to disguise them with brush. When he returned the next day, the tools were gone. Laughing at the memory, Haas said, “I had to buy her another wheelbarrow!”

Nathan Haas - Classics post-race

More photos from the Ardennes Classics:
[flickr-gallery mode="tag" tags="2013, classics" tag_mode="all"]