Few 77th place finishes will mean as much to a rider as Heinrich Haussler at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. After a horrible 2017, where he was plagued by problems both mental and physical, the 34-year-old made his 2018 season debut in Belgium on Sunday and not only got through the race, but animated it, too.
When things kicked off on the Oude Kwaremont with 85 kilometres remaining, Haussler was alive to it and wound up in a strong group of 20 riders. It looked for a while like it the decisive move of the day, though the race would eventually come back together for a sprint in Kuurne.
Even so, after the recurring knee injury that limited him to just 12 race days last year and contributed to bouts of depression, it was the perfect start to a new chapter.
"I've been through a lot of bad stuff last year, more mentally than physically," Haussler told Cyclingnews in Kuurne.
"Going through the winter, things weren't exactly perfect but I still managed to get through all my training and all I wanted to do injury-free, but then I actually came back from the first team training camp and broke my collarbone. That gave me even more motivation, not to come back stronger but to try and do everything perfectly and live 100 per cent as a professional, because I'm getting older and seriously, these races, they mean everything to me."
Haussler's directeur sportif Tristan Hoffman revealed how keen Haussler was to return to action at Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but the team decided it would be more sensible to re-introduce him at Kuurne.
"Yesterday he said he could have smashed the whole peloton. I said, 'Heinrich, the other ones they also did training', and he said 'No, no, no, I will be ready, and today he was there."
Haussler himself admitted he felt like a kid on the first day back at school.
"To be honest I just wanted to smash it," he joked. "But the group was just too big, and no one was really cooperating or pulling properly. If you want be away in a group like that and peloton is pulling then you need to just go hard to the finish. It's only 60km, just go hard. But there were too many guys sitting on the back and too many other guys who just had different interests.
"I'm just happy I could be out there. This is my first race and im really really happy. My knee at the moment is not even an issue, I don't even think about it anymore. The only problem was a little bit with my collarbone. I knew my watts were good in training, but also I love this type of racing, so I'm looking forward to the coming races."
Haussler left Kuurne for the airport with a smile on his face, a spring in his step, and the hope that, after what must have felt like the Fates were conspiring against him, his fortunes might just be on the turn.
"Even yesterday I was just doing some training on the cobbles just testing tyre pressure and stuff and I almost crashed again – I slipped off the bars," he explained. "I just stopped and just looked up and was like 'thank you'. Straight away I had this slow-motion of crashing again and lying on the floor.
"But yeah, it's all good. That's what I mean, all the stuff I've been through last year, mentally, you only can look forward and it makes you stronger. It doesn't matter what comes now, I've done the preparation, done the training – I just need a little bit of luck."