At several points in the last five years Heinrich Haussler’s career has teetered on the edge of a precipice. The knee injuries, the horrific crash in the 2013 Tour de Suisse that could have ended his career, and a 2014 spring campaign that never got going, had all combined to create a collage of unfulfilled potential.
Yet despite the knocks, and there have been many, the Australian has begun this season with hopes revitalised. His injuries and aliments appear to be behind him, he and his IAM Cycling have made the WorldTour and at the Australian Nationals last month – a race Haussler won – there were flashes of the brilliance his legs still process.
He opens up by describing that win as massive for his morale and self belief. After all, 2014 had been injury free but the Classics had been a complete whitewash. The win in Australia was sorely needed.
"We came into Australia looking to focus on Nationals and Tour Down Under, and then a couple of weeks before we found out that Simon Gerrans had broken his collarbone. That meant we had a really good chance at Nationals because it meant that the race would have been wide open,” he tells Cyclingnews.
While a win in Nationals is certainly something to be celebrated, Haussler would be disappointed if it marked the peak of his season. The Classics are once again on the horizon and when the sun sets on this year’s Tour of Qatar the road of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne will be even closer.
“So far I’m happy with the form and the results but of course the only thing that counts are the wins," he says, as he quickly glances at the national jersey that sits a few feet away.
“And I’ve changed everything. There’s no skiing, there’s no altitude training, no gym work, it’s just me and my bike these days. That’s different but it’s working.”
It’s not just his physical approach that’s been changed. There’s a maturity to Haussler this season that perhaps wasn’t as visible in previous seasons. At the start of the first stage here in Qatar, it’s he who leads the team talk. Standing over the bonnet of a team car, he explains in his native German where the race will be won and lost, dissecting the road map as if it was a battleground.
His teammates dutifully listen in, with the occasional nod of approval as if to say ‘we get it boss’.
After the stage Haussler is calling the shots again. There’s no tension or anger but he points out to the masseur what’s needed for the morning ahead.
When we sit down for his interview he explains the change in him.
“The past is the past and I’m just focusing on the future because there aren’t many years left where I can do this. I want to race as long as I can, but always being away from home, with training camps and this and that. I don’t want that forever. It comes with a lot of stress and there’s a life after cycling.
“My fiancé, she’s having twins in April and life is going to change after that,’ he says with a smile.
“I think that’s why I went to Australia so early this year and started training camps so soon because I realised that I don’t have that many opportunities. I can’t do that when there are two small children at home.
“This sport, it’s been frustrating for me for a long time but I still love it and I’m still passionate about it. But it takes a toll because you sacrifice your whole life for the bloody sport. You sacrifice everything and there’s no real lifestyle off the bike. You have to love it to do it, and you get paid for it but you still have to sacrifice relationships with people and that’s hard.”
At 30, Haussler should be at the peak of his fitness and potential. The injuries he has gone through and the races he has missed perhaps will give him a little more elastic when it comes to maintaining a place in the top echelons of the sport but he is already talking about how he will feel when he looks back at his career.
“What I said about the sacrifices, they can be so worth it. I mean maybe I’ll stop my career in six years and I’ll look back and if I’ve not won a Classic then that’s the way it is. I’ll accept that but I want to know that I’ve tried and gave it everything. If I didn’t have the talent, then I didn’t have it but I want to show I had the desire. I still have a few good years in me and I’ll give it everything.”
The basis for Haussler’s recent form and new-found application didn’t start over the winter. It was forged in the hardships he went through in 2014, when, coming back from his major crash at the 2013 Tour de Suisse, he suffered through the Classics.
The fall in Suisse left him with a broken pelvis and shattered hip and it came just as it looked like he was returning to rider that dazzled everyone in the Spring and Summer of 2009. "Last season was about creating the foundations," Haussler says. "Of racking up the miles and ticking off a Grand Tour for the first time in three years.
“What people really have to understand is that in 2013 I was starting to show some level of my old self. I was really coming back in the Classics and I could attack and do things on the climbs. Then the Tour de Suisse came and I had that crash and I broke my hip and pelvis.
“It meant that I was starting from scratch all over again. Since 2009 it’s been like that. You just need one good year in your legs in order to have a strong following season but since 2009 I’ve just had constant problems with my knees, with crashes and pulling out. I hadn’t done a Grand Tour since 2011 but then I did the Tour last year and even though I had to pull out, I finished with a full season in my legs. That’s been so important when you look at where I am now.
“But last year in the Classics I was just shit. Because of what happened in the Tour de Suisse I missed out on the rest of the season and then in the winter I was training like crazy, staying in St Moritz for eight weeks and I was so determined that I wanted to come back. I remember turning up for the training camp at the start of the year in January and I knew then that I was fucked. But at the time you just don’t want to see it. You don’t want to accept that and despite all the hard work you’re cooked.”
The Tour de Suisse crash, he says, was the toughest point in his career. It was certainly the hardest to come back from but the sight of him at the finish of Milan San-Remo in 2011, when he was simply unable to follow the best riders on the final two climbs, is also etched in his memory banks. He crossed the line that day and broke down in tears soon after. It wasn’t because he had lost or because of the pain in his legs but simply because he couldn’t do what had once come so easily to him.
They are the experiences that have hardened Haussler’s resolve and created the outlook he has now. Over the years, he has been asked which Spring Classic he would like to win the most. Each season he’s given a different answer. One year it’s been Flanders, the next it’s been Roubaix, and so on. Now the mindset is simpler.
“It doesn’t matter which one, it really doesn’t," he says with that smile again.
“It’s going to be hard but you have to have dreams. If you have good luck, if you have good legs and you’re in the right position, then anything can happen.”