Australian looking to emulate Phil Anderson and win Ardennes Classic
It has been 31 years since an Australian last won the Amstel Gold Race. In fact, Phil Anderson's win in 1983 would serve as the first and last win for an Australian at the Dutch classic, and Garmin-Sharp's Nathan Haas is chomping at the bit to change that on Sunday, April 20.
The 25-year-old Canberra-native has been enthralled with the first of three Ardennes Classics since he first fell in love with cycling during his mountain biking days.
"Before I was a rider, I was a cycling fan," Haas told Cyclingnews. "I just love cycling, even when I was watching the Amstel Gold Race as a mountain biker, I just appreciated it because it was tough and it just seemed to me a bit more honest than a lot of the other races."
The Ardennes Classics consist of a trio of races including the aforementioned Amstel Gold Race, plus La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège. The races are brutal in profile and participation, with all three hilly courses held within a eight-day window.
Haas says that while cycling as a sport focuses a lot on teamwork, a course like the Amstel Gold Race, which features 34 exhausting climbs over its 251.8km course from Maastricht to the Cauberg, ultimately comes down to who is the world's best rider on the day.
"Last year's winner Roman Kreuziger just had bigger balls than anyone else" Haas said referring to Roman Kreuziger's (Team Saxo-Tinkoff) solo effort to victory.
Fellow countryman Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) came close last year to ending the drought, finishing third overall behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), both 22-seconds behind Kreuziger.
While still considered a threat for win by GreenEdge sports director Matt White, Gerrans has been plagued by illness, giving Matt Goss' recent race replacement Michael Matthews, GreenEdge's best hope for victory on Sunday.
Two-time race winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team) is always a race favourite. Gilbert won back-to-back Amstel Gold Races from 2010-11, and one of only two winners of the Ardennes 'triple' along with Davide Rebellin (CCC Polsat Polkowice).
Other riders have won all three races of the Ardennes, but not in the same year, including Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Michelle Bartoli and serial drug cheat Danilo Di Luca.
This year, Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) join Gilbert as pre-race favourites as well.
For Haas, he considers the Amstel Gold Race a career-defining win.
"I see guys like Gerrans, who have won a stage in every Grand Tour, countless WorldTour stages and monuments, but they are still chasing the Amstel Gold, and if any of them won the Amstel Gold they would retire a very fulfilled cyclist," he said.
"I think something that can be said about what makes the Amstel Gold so favourable, is how so many guys feel exactly the same way about it as I do."
With cycling's biggest names vying for the win, how does the 2011 Herald Sun Tour and Japan Cup winner see himself amongst the race contenders?
"To be honest, I sometimes feel a bit intimidated by these guys," said Haas, who finished fifth at the Tour Down Under in January behind Richie Porte (Sky), Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida), Cadel Evans (BMC) and race winner Gerrans.
"Sometimes I have to remind myself that 'No, Nathan, you actually have moments where you are at the same level' but to feel like I get just a sliver of respect from the guys that I feel set the world standard, many of which are fellow Aussies, is pretty damn cool."
Fresh off a sixth-place finish at De Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday, Haas is ready to leave it all on the line in Limburg.
"This is a race that needs to be 'raced'," said Haas, who plans to bookend the Ardennes Classics with Liège–Bastogne–Liège before doing the same in the Grand Tours with a Giro d'Italia-Vuelta a España double. Haas would like to ride La Flèche, but as of Thursday, plans from Garmin-Sharp had yet to be confirmed.
"My body is feeling awesome at the moment, but to be honest, I wonder which riders on our team are the ones actually getting bottles because in my mind, we are such a strong squad."
Before GreenEdge, Garmin-Sharp was always the unofficial Australian team with guys like Jack Bobridge (Belkin), CJ Sutton (Sky) and the Meyer brothers Cameron (Orica-GreenEdge) and Travis (Drapac) all filtering through the team from one time or another. Now, the team rosters 2010 New Zealand national road race champion Jack Bauer, as well as 2012 Australian U23 national road and time trial champion (2012) Rohan Dennis, current Australian national criterium champion Steele von Hoff and fellow Australian Lachlan Morton.
"Garmin-Sharp has always been a really cool team that gives opportunity to guys that have been identified with having a lot of potential," said Haas. "This is something that [Jonathan Vaughters] has an amazing eye for.
"With the retirement of some key riders, JV has had to be smart and choose the guys that he sees can carry this team into the future and it's quite amazing to be a part of a team that has a load of talented athletes just starting their careers."
According to Haas, the Amstel Gold is a race of feeling as much as it is tactics. In the end, Haas told Cyclingnews that he will not be waiting for the race to unfold.
"Amstel is one of those races that you have to learn each corner and really feel the sensations and understand where the moment is," he said. "I respect the fact that this is one of the hardest one-day races in the world and there are many guys preparing for it, but I'm ready to do whatever it takes to race this race the way it needs to be raced – full tilt.
"I am going to try to be in the most important part of the race for as long as possible and if that means me being at the finish and helping the team then I will be at the finish, but that may also mean me having an opportunity to actually making something happen."
As of Thursday morning, Garmin-Sharp is yet to confirm its Amstel Gold Race roster.
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