Nathan Haas will ride for Katusha-Alpecin in 2018 after signing a two-year deal with the team. The Australian advanced into a leadership role during his two seasons at Dimension Data and capped a fine 2017 spring campaign by placing 4th at Amstel Gold Race. At 28 years of age, Haas will look to continue that progression in the colours of Katusha.
"It really is my time to graduate into one of the biggest teams, and Katusha is exactly that for me," Haas told Cyclingnews. "They certainly seem to have a lot of faith in my ability and they want to help me convert a ridiculous amount of podiums and a ridiculous amount of top five finishes into big wins."
Haas has raced at WorldTour level since 2012, spending four years at Garmin-Sharp – now Cannondale-Drapac – before moving to Dimension Data ahead of the 2016 campaign. His consistent sequence of results over the last season and a half has netted Haas a sizeable haul of WorldTour points and elicited considerable interests from other teams, but it was Jose Azevedo and Katusha who proved most persuasive.
At Garmin, Haas rode predominantly in the service of others, while at Dimension Data, he was one of a number of fast finishers with similar skill sets, alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen, Kristian Sbaragli and the emerging Ryan Gibbons. Katusha's lack of an established leader for races such as Amstel Gold Race and the Tour Down Under meant that there was an obvious vacancy for a rider like Haas.
"The nice thing talking to Jose Azevedo was that he had done his research on me and he knew the results I'd had and how I'd got them. They're obviously very observant and when he listed the race programme he had in mind for me it was more or less my wish list of races," Haas said of a spring schedule that is likely to start at the Tour Down Under and build towards Amstel Gold Race.
"It's exactly what I want for my career. I'm going to get enough rope to choke myself on, it's going to be up to me from here to convert it to the win. If I can't, at least I can say I had everything at my disposal to win the biggest races. If I can't, I'm fine with that, but I really feel going to this team is going to be the difference between where I keep finishing and actually crossing that line first.
"What a lot of people don't see in the peloton is the sort of hierarchy of positioning. If you're on one of the smaller teams, even if you're one of the favourites for the race, it's very hard to position yourself where you want on the peloton. The biggest teams in the WorldTour command their own version of respect in the peloton. That was one of the biggest decisions for me, to go to one of the biggest four or five teams in the world, who can command the race and you can sit where you want. I just wanted to go to these races and keep as fresh as possible for the first 75 per cent of the race. Although after that, the fight starts and it's still a free-for-all."
When Haas was starting out as a professional, Katusha's record of doping cases was such that it was initially excluded from the 2013 WorldTour on ethical grounds, before eventually appealing the decision successfully before the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
In recent years, the team has set about attempting to rebrand itself. In 2017, the German shampoo concern Alpecin came on board as a title sponsor, and the squad shifted its registration from Russia to Switzerland. Haas admitted that Katusha did not seem a likely destination when he first considered switching teams.
"I pushed some of the hard questions and the answers I got were all very surprising and I started to warm to the idea of what the team is trying to do," Haas said. "Everything I asked, I kept getting exciting answers. The conversation did not begin with me wanting to join Katusha but as the season rolled out, it started to become a very exciting prospect."
It was also becoming increasingly clear to Haas that his future lay away from Dimension Data, not least because the South African team could, for the time being at least, commit only to a one-year contract extension. "When you have offers for multiple years in front of you, and you're already in July coming into August, it doesn't really feel like an extension where you get to race stress-free from a contract perspective," said Haas.
Haas admitted that he was disappointed, too, to be overlooked for selection for the Tour de France in 2017, considering his form and the fact that he was withdrawn from the Giro d'Italia in order to prepare for it. At that point, Mark Cavendish's participation was uncertain due to illness, but when the Manxman proved his fitness in June, Haas was among those to miss out.
"With the spring I'd had, I was very disappointed not to get a spot at the Tour de France. I'm not at a point in my career where I've got years to wait, I want to get there," Haas said. "The team pulled me out of the Giro strategically after 10 days to freshen up for the Tour de France. I would have liked either to have finished the Giro or gone to the Tour de France, but I don't feel I was given a very fair run at those races, especially after the season I'd already produced.
"Last year I'd had injuries and illness, so I had no qualms about not going to the Tour, but in 2017, I definitely felt I'd earned my spot. It's hard not to go, it is the biggest race in the world. At Katusha, it's definitely the plan for me to end my spring at an appropriate date and then rebuild for the Tour. Nothing's ever set in stone but if it all goes to plan there's a spot at Tour de France in 2018. That's where I need to be."
Haas' departure from Dimension Data is not an acrimonious one, however, and Doug Ryder's team will not withhold him from WorldTour action in the final weeks of the season. Indeed, just as Matt Brammeier did after leaving for Aqua Blue Sport this season, Haas plans to continue his involvement with the Qhubeka, the bike donation charity associated with the Dimension Data team.
"Matt Brammeier and I are running the Girona Gala for Qhubeka again in October and this is something we want to keep doing as long as we can,"Haas said. "Leaving the team does not mean the end of working with Qhubeka."