The Ardennes Classics hold a special place in the hearts of Australian cyclists and Cannondale-Garmin's Nathan Haas is no exception. The 26-year-old is the midst of a third consecutive year of racing the Dutch and Belgian classics, which he entered on the back of sixth place at De Brabantse Pijl for the second straight year.
Two races into the three and it's been a mixed bag so far for Haas who explained to Cyclingnews that his form and condition is there only to be held back by mechanicals.
"One-day races are amazing," Haas said. "After Brabantse Pijl I was sixth again and really felt my legs where in the perfect place for Amstel Gold. I rode the perfect race for myself I felt. I was in perfect position on every important section and at the front of the race when it mattered and then with 10km to go I got a flat tyre on the rear and had about one bar of pressure left. I couldn't find anybody on the side of the road to give me a new wheel and the cars where minutes back so I rode the final 10km with a flat tyre and unfortunately had to start the Cauberg in literally last position as I couldn't go around corners.
"I was just on carbon and I still managed to ride up the hill into 38th place. It was a really heavy feeling for me getting to the finish when I knew that I definitely had the legs to be in the front group, I have no doubt about it.
"Unfortunately the cycling gods gift of a flat tyre was not what I needed at that important moment of my favourite race of the year so I was quite gutted in all honestly. Its really hard when you know the form was there as opposed to a day when you might have an accident and you don't really see yourself at the front of the race. Amstel Gold for me was very disappointing personally, I think Dan Martin still did a really nice race to be in the front group and that showed a lot of great form for the two upcoming races."
Shifting to a support role at Flèche Wallone has become almost natural for Haas whose knowledge of the parcours and conditions makes him a key cog in the green machine and despite fulfilling his role, the cycling gods cruelled his chances once again.
"For Flèche, I've always taken on a role where I am somewhat of a left-hand man for the leader and it's a race that I really do know how to look after a rider with the cross-winds and dangerous down hill sections and knowing when to anticipate moving up and so forth," he explained. "So I did a very good job but then unfortunately I had a mechanical issue with 10km to go and had to get off the bike."
"I've been put of two finals personally but thankfully we've had other guys to take on the responsibility of the final and fortunately haven't wholeheartedly needed me in the final to get the result."
It wasn't to be for Cannondale-Garmin as the team lost its leader in Martin early in the race as Haas described the moment the Irishmen went down.
"We had just ridden on the outside at the front to enter the Mur and Dan was seventh or eighth rider on back of our train. Even though you're really close to somebody that can actually have them nearly in the middle of the peloton and whilst our team had amazing position for the entry to the Mur for the first time, unfortunately, as Dan explained, a wave off crashes happened on the right of him and then it just swept over and took him out. Unfortunately there was just nothing he could have done."
"We knew straight away [he was down] and I have to say that our team was exceptionally drilled and disciplined in how we were patient and waited in the situation while the front of the race was actually quite chaotic at that point.
"I think we are all really proud of firstly the decisions we made on the road as a team, our conviction to ride for Dan and our faith in Dan really trying to put himself back in the game after a crash which knocked him quite around a lot. So for us to pull out a top ten result really showed that we had quite a lot of gumption and really good discipline with the team," Haas said proudly of the day's racing.
Even with his flat tyre, Haas still recorded his best yet finish at any of the Ardennes Classics explaining that he can see the fruits of his labour are starting to ripen.
"I've been very happy with how I've been progressing year to year with form in these races and its nice to come back and really hit my stride again on time and its quite a nice feeling that all the work you do behind the scenes is something that is actually becoming predictable as supposed to guesswork when it comes to form so that's one of the silver linings I am seeing at the moment," he said.
With the longest, hardest and oldest of the Ardennes Classics coming up on Sunday, Haas believes he and his highly motivated team can cause serious damage at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
"The Ardennes aren't over yet and Liège is really the big show. Not only personally do I think I am ready to really put myself deep in the final, I think our team is really here with something to prove and I don't think any one is going to be as hungry as our team come Sunday and more motivated to push through what looks like bad weather and harsh conditions. I think adversity is something we always been able to tackle better than most."
Raising the suffer tolerance
Last year Haas rode and finished the Giro d'Italia for the first time in his career having made it to stage 15 the year previous. Haas then repeated his grand tour, feat at the Vuelta a España in September as he racked up 91 race days for 2014, by far his longest season to date. With almost 7000km in his legs from the 42 combined race days, Haas explained there is no doubting he is reaping the benefits.
"Its another gear you really do get when you finish a grand tour and last year two in the same year was a pretty heavy load on my body and I gave myself the weeks in the off season to really decompress from that," he said. "When I stepped back on the bike all season I felt there is another cog in the gearbox."
Its not only the physical benefits of the grand tours that Haas believes will take him to the next level, describing the ability to suffer as a key characteristic to success.
"The reality is that with these races is that the difference between winning and losing is such a small difference between the guy who is winning and getting tenth. Its quite amazing and I think physically we are all a lot closer to winning than we think and I think its actually just a mental game that we need to play better and I speak for everyone when I say that," he said. "The suffering you see on the guys who are getting one-two-three on the podium is different to the guys who are crossing the line in fifth, sixth, seventh.
"I think it comes down to one of my original philosophy in cycling is that its all about suffering and knowing how to do it more and I think that when you finish grand tours you exceed the level of suffering that you ever though possible and I think that opens your mind to experiences in one-day races and that's certainly getting me deeper into these.
"The suffer tolerance is higher and I hope that continues to grow with the more grand tours that I continue to do and that I am at the front of the grand tours. I think everything is just going to keep progressing and progressing and I hope that within the next few years that puts me in the front and off the front of the worlds biggest one-day races which are the races that I love the most."
Haas will find out on Tuesday just how much he is ready to suffer as he pins on a race number at the Tour of Romandie describing his trepidation at having to do so with a laugh.
"I do Romandie on the Tuesday starting with the team time trial, which I am a bit nervous about. Last year after Liège I was at home and walked down my stairs and realised there was no way I was getting to the shops for lunch so I went straight back up and order pizza to the house," Haas laughed. "It's pretty hard to walk after a race like that. The Tuesday team trial I going to be a bit of a sufferfest."
Tour de France long list
Now into his fourth year as professional racing in Europe, Haas is on the precipice of making his debut at the biggest race of them all, the Tour de France, with focus firmly squared on making the nine-man team.
"I finish Romandie then have a small break building up for the Tour as I am on the team long list and I am really hoping to make the most of all these opportunities to really try and cement a place in the team," Haas said.
With the team backing Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky on the climber friendly parcours, Haas is aiming to balance his team duties, "a serious role and something I love doing" with his personal ambitions in the second and third weeks.
"As the race progresses the opportunities to arise and we are a team that takes opportunities when they arise and there is no reason why guys like myself and Ramunas and Jack [Bauer] cant be contesting sprints and some of the harder sprints where maybe the bigger sprinters have been dropped," he said. "I think we are a very multi faceted team and whoever we end up taking to the Tour, we will be challenging not only GC but challenging the best at what we do.
While the unification of Cannondale and Garmin-Sharp for the 2015 is yet to fully blossom on the results sheet with just two victories and 17 WorldTour points almost five months into the season, Haas believes it's a long term arrangement that will produce the goods as the riders fully integrate.
"Yeah I'd totally forgotten about the whole thing," he said of the merger. "It seems like a really nice natural environment. The whole thing is every few years teams tend to do a little bit of a clear out of riders as certain riders get older or directions change in the team regarding what their aspirations are and it's quite normal to suddenly have an influx of guys. I think what made our influx easier was that all our guys knew each other, which made it easier than having eight to nine different individuals coming to the team.
"I would describe it as being very easy. The Italians who were having language issues early in the season have all been working really hard on their language skills and for a lot of us, we've been learning Italian as well so its been something that's added to all of our lives."
Haas adds the early-season adaption by the riders is over and done with and it's just a matter of time before they're peppering the podiums.
"The biggest thing is that a lot of the guys are really young and the Cannondale school of racing was a little bit different to how we ran our tactics and it took maybe a couple of weeks for the guys to see the changes and adapt to that but I feel we are really working well together and I think its just a little bit of luck in the season and we'll pull some really exciting results."