Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by SWpix.com
Heinrich Haussler is proof that you can in fact teach an old(er) dog new tricks.
At a time when some of his contemporaries have become disenchanted with the sport, are madly hanging on, or even retired, Haussler has embraced a newfound addiction to cyclo-cross, throwing a world championship into his pre-season road training this year.
The Bahrain Victorious veteran finished 35th at the cyclo-cross world titles on Sunday, which Mathieu van der Poel, who is 11 years Haussler’s junior, won.
“I just came directly from training camp; I haven’t been on a cross bike for a couple of weeks. On one side it’s a little bit unprofessional because if you do something like that, especially me, you need to train and really be focused and get ready for it. But I get paid to ride my bike on the road, not in the dirt and mud,” Haussler said.
“I was hoping to go better but that was my first time in the sand and I just couldn’t get through the sand parts … I was a bit disappointed but it’s just the way it is, I’m not a pro cross rider and you can’t just learn better technique within a year when you’re 36 years old. I mean, it was OK. My form is absolutely amazing, and I’ve been using these races to get better [for the upcoming road season] so that’s the main thing.”
Unless you’re from continental Europe, or a Tom Pidcock fan, the chances that you know or have even heard of cyclo-cross are remote.
It is, in an overly simplified nutshell, racing across any and all terrain, getting off and running with your bike where necessary, traditionally during the depths of a northern hemisphere winter. Among the new tricks Haussler had to learn for the world titles in Belgium, was racing along the beach.
“There was a grassy part where the start and finish area was. That was really muddy and [had] a lot of corners where you had to run upstairs, jump back on the bike, stuff like that. Then you went over this massive bridge, that was pretty much manmade just for the Worlds, which goes over the main road and then just drops down into the beach, so you’re heading into the sand at about 60km/h, which actually, for the first time in training I was, I couldn’t just let myself go. I was shitting myself,” Haussler said.
“So, then you go down the bridge, you hit the sand and you’ve got to try and make it to the water. And then once you get to the water the sand is not that deep, so you ride along the water and then it goes back in towards the city. Then it goes along another section where you could ride just on concrete, and then it goes back into the sand, and then back up the other side of the bridge where you came down.”
Haussler, who has the accent of a colloquial Australian but lives in Freiburg and speaks fluent German, was introduced to the sport via his training partner Sascha Weber last year.
It’s been well-documented how quickly the former Tour de France stage winner, who once dismissed the discipline, has become enamoured with it. It was clear, from speaking to Haussler as he drove home to Germany on Monday, that cyclo-cross has not only benefited his pre-season preparations and form but his mentality and enthusiasm for cycling in general.
“Yesterday, I had snot coming out my nose, spit was hanging down my chin and you’ve got your mouth wide open breathing. You just think, ‘F—k, this is so hard.’ It’s so good,” he said.
“I’d love to get into it more. The sport is, for me, so addictive. I’m absolutely addicted to how hard it is. [But] I turn 37 in a couple of weeks, I’m just too old. Also, I just don’t have the technique. A lot of these guys … they started out when they were five and six, and have done it their whole life, their whole career.
“The main reason is to help me get better through the winter and then get ready for the classics because when you get older you lose that power and fast-twitch, that explosiveness, and you have all of that in cyclo-cross,” Haussler continued.
“It really helped me last year. Also, this year, we did a lactate test in the [early season team training] camp and it’s the best test I’ve ever done in my life.
“I haven’t been doing big hours at all, my maximum hours per week have only been between 10 and 14 but those 10 or 14 hours are full gas in the red zone.
“I have that many Grand Tours in my legs, or that many kilometres, I don’t need to be on the bike all winter, freezing cold, doing five-six-hour rides. I’m already a diesel, I can do that no problem,” Haussler added.
“It’s really hard to explain. Before I had done a cross race I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, these guys, they just run around the dirt and play in the sand, or whatever.’ I just couldn’t believe how hard the sport was.
“Directly from the gun, you know, your heart rate is absolutely through the roof, lactate coming out your ears, and it goes like that for the whole hour. You just don’t do that in a road race.
“When I’m doing all the training and the cross, I can go back on the road and you have to do your intervals, I just think, hang on, this is easy. This is easy.”
Physical and mental benefits aside, Haussler’s foray into cyclo-cross has been a learned journey off the bike as well.
Wearing the green and gold stripes of Australia, where perhaps only the most ardent of cycling fans have heard of cyclo-cross, it’s cricket and tennis season here, you see, Haussler was effectively a one-man team in Belgium.
Unlike the WorldTour, where every single task outside of racing, save for wiping a rider’s arse, is assigned to someone else, a mechanic, soigneur, chef, press officer, coach, bus driver, race official, whatever, Haussler navigated everything in and around the cyclo-cross world championships largely solo.
“[Bahrain Victorious]give me permission to ride but I pretty much have to organise everything. That’s another thing that’s been such a pain in the arse. It’s so hard. The bikes are always that dirty and muddy, you need to repair stuff and I don’t have a camper or a bus, like all the other guys do, and then you’re standing there in the cold, cleaning the bikes,” Haussler said.
“Sometimes I just jump in the car completely dirty and drive six hours back home. It’s terrible but the car is a complete mess. It’s a lot of hard work.
“The racing is maybe only 15-20 per cent of what you’re doing – travelling, getting bikes ready, or cleaning them after the training, after the races, you have to do it because if you leave it for one day everything is just f–ked.”
Haussler is set to open his road season at the Tour de La Provence from February 11 before competing in a handful more cyclo-cross events, Opening Weekend, Paris-Nice and then the classics, which the one-day specialist, like cyclo-cross, still gets a buzz from.
“My role has changed a little bit in the team because I’m older, more experienced, it’s really about helping out the guys in the team, but there is still one or two races, especially this year, where I’m going to have a free role,” Haussler said.
“I still want to show all those young b–tards that I can still ride a bike!”