Nathan Haas is yet to raise his arms in triumph this year but the Dimension Data rider was arguably one of the riders of the early-season. Currently racing the Tour of Slovenia as he embarks on the second half of his season, the Australian has inserted himself into the 2017 season narrative due to his consistency and aggressive approach to racing. Haas is aiming is cap off his year with a debut World Championships appearance, a new contract, and a top-20 ranking in the WorldTour.
One of several current riders to enter the WorldTour ranks via the Andrew Christie-Johnston pathway, including Richie Porte, Haas knows how to win, as his two Japan Cups and overall victories at the Tour of Britain and Herald Sun Tours titles attest. However, in 2017 the 28-year-old has gone to another level and become a key rider for Dimension Data. Of the team's 1530 WorldTour points, he has contributed 695. Omar Fraile, by comparison, is second with 140 points.
"I have always known I can be at the front end of these races, it's just more mentally that I've learnt how to trust myself a lot more in those stressful moments and painful moments," Haas told Cyclingnews in a phone interview.
"You have to try and stay as calm as possible. This year, I think that's what I have become a lot better at mentally engaging but at the same time, being relaxed. Not being scared to miss the moment, just being strong enough of mind to know you'll be there when it does get hard."
Haas' second place on Willunga Hill behind a rampaging Richie Porte during the Tour Down Under was early evidence of this change in approach. Post-stage, Haas spoke of working on his breathing techniques in the off-season and remaining calm in the moment, riding his own race. However, the following week at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race he "got a little bit cocky there and definitely over raced it and paid for it”.
After his run of third at nationals, fourth at Tour Down Under, seventh in the Great Ocean Race, and 10th at the Tour of Oman, it was back to Europe and Girona for Haas, with his attention turned to the Ardennes Classics. Despite being 'stung' by the removal of the Cauberg from the Amstel Gold Race, Haas was one of the riders to make the race despite being on antibiotics on the eve of the hilly Dutch classic.
"I think my system had been shaken from training full gas from November and as soon as I finished Amstel, the next day I felt like I had a sore throat again and the day before Flèche I was properly sick again," said Haas of his career best fourth place in Amstel.
"Flèche and Liège I raced not in good health, and that was disappointing as I felt I had a good chance to have a good crack at all three races. If you have a look at the guys I was in the group with at Amstel, I think nearly all went on to get top-tens in the next two races. I was in the elite group, and I had the legs for it but unfortunately, I got crook."
Haas' Ardennes results confirmed him as a rider to watch at the Giro, and while he enjoyed an aggressive opening to the Italian Grand Tour, the race did not go to plan. Despite his desire for a stage win, Haas' pre-planned exit came on stage 11, allowing him to enjoy his first break since November 2016.
"Leaving the Giro was a bit of a mental release, thinking ‘thank God the first half of my year's racing is done' and then I got home and the weight of all the momentum that I had came to a halt. With that, the inertia stopped as well and I just felt terrible for about a week where I was going from waking up in the morning, going to the couch then finding my way back to bed before lunch. For about a week I did absolutely nothing but it wasn't fun either,” he said.
“I felt like I was hitting my head against the wall and it is slowly coming around, which is nice. It's a big thing to race from January 1 and not just turn up to the races but go as fast as you can. I think without an obvious break at any point this season, even just a small break, I have proven to myself that it is impossible to continue it and then walk away from it in good shape."
While the start to the season left Haas buckled, he has no regrets regarding his race programme and his ambition of cracking the WorldTour top-20 by season end.
"This year I think the progression for me as a rider has been everywhere I was good. I think I took away a top-five from every single race I did and every one-day race, there was only one race I didn't take WorldTour points at this year. I actually performed everywhere, " he said.
"I shouldn't be surprised that my body is absolutely cooked from not just the amount of racing this year but the level of racing I was at at every single race. I wouldn't change it because normally you don't have the kind of fling of form that I had. I would never be angry at my body for going fast on my bike."
Tour de France selection
A Tour de France debutant in 2015 with then team Cannondale-Garmin, Haas has ridden one Grand Tour per season since 2013, except for 2014 when he rode the Giro and Vuelta a España. In 2017, a second Grand Tour of the season could again be on the cards for Haas, explaining his place in Dimension Data's Tour team is "not undecided and it is not decided”.
With Mark Cavendish's place in the team unsure due to Epstein-Barr Virus, and the on-going recovery of Steve Cummings due to injury, Dimension Data's squad and tactics for the race are still very much up in the air. For Haas, a major appeal of the Tour is to help Cavendish break Eddy Merck's record of 34 career stage wins.
"I would love to go, but at the same time I am not torn up about it," a relaxed Haas said. "I have been at the Tour, and I would love to go back, but it is not like that first itch where you have to get the Tour de France. I would love to go to the Tour de France riding for Cav. That would be a pretty special experience if you are there when he breaks the record. That is just going to be something else. I am just taking it pretty easy, trying to control expectations and focus on the most important thing, which is to get fit. "
Missing the Tour would open up Haas' programme to WorldTour races such as Tour of Poland, Eneco Tour, GP Ouest France, Vattenfall Cyclassics, and the one-day Canadian events, opening the door for his ambition to chase the highest possible ranking in the WorldTour standings.
"There is no reason why I can't end up in the top 20 of the world this year if I really fight for it," Haas noted. "If I go to the Tour de France then maybe it makes the later goals a little bit harder because it will place too much of a load from the first two thirds of the year onto the last third. If I don't do the Tour, I am full gas ahead for the other goals that I have. The reality is that I prefer one-day races to anything anyway. We'll see what comes, but I am easy come, easy go at this point."
Into the last year of his Dimension Data deal, Haas' second half of 2017 will also help determine his next contract. Whether that is with the South African squad or elsewhere.
"It's been a great 18 months so far on Dimension Data, I've loved every minute, and I've grown a lot as a rider. But at this point, after lots of interest, I don't know where the future lies."
Road Worlds debut
The Tour de France may still be up for debate but the road World Championships in Bergen, Norway, are firming as a certainty for Haas. Selected for last year's sprint-friendly Worlds in Doha, Haas ultimately turned down the opportunity due to a variety of reasons.
"I decided not to go to Worlds last year when I was offered a spot to go because I was racing super well over in Canada. They were like, 'Nathan, what do you think?' and I said after my last race it is going to be five weeks later that I would have to train for with no racing in-between. And knowing that I have to start in January, I wanted to start my break earlier," he said.
Having ridden several mountain bike Worlds, including the 2008 Championships on his doorstep in Canberra, Haas is fully committed to making the 2017 Australian team, particularly as the parcours suits the characteristics of Michael Matthews.
"I grew up with Bling in Canberra, and I have always had this feeling that he is going to be world champion on the road one day and I feel that this is going to be one of those opportunities that would just be huge for him," he said of the 2010 U23 world champion.
"He is so good in bad weather conditions, he is just so strong, he is so smart in racing, and I think if you can combine the team that Australia can take to that race, it is pretty incredible."
Highlighting the depth of riders Australia could take to the Worlds, Haas is dreaming of helping the team to a rainbow jersey on his debut, be it through Matthews or Simon Gerrans, who have both led the squad in recent years.
"What is interesting this year is all the riders across all different teams. You have Rohan Dennis and Richie [Porte] on BMC, me at Di Data, Bling [Matthews] on Sunweb then you have guys like [Luke] Durbridge and [Michael] Hepburn and [Alexander] Edmondson, who has really come up a treat this year. Then there is Adam Hansen from Lotto, so I think what is going to be cool is that there is a lot of different styles coming into one team," he said of the riders in the mix for the green and gold in September.
“The one thing you can always say about Gerro is that he knows how to peak for a race. If this is really what is on Gerro's mind, to try to win the Worlds, then you know he will turn up in incredible shape. I think we are going to have a pretty fun race and I think as well, guys like Jay McCarthy and myself are going to be pretty dangerous in the later parts of the race when attacks are going. It is a race I can't miss and one I really think we can win.”