Nathan Haas: Taking the road less travelled

Genesys Wealth Advisers’ Nathan Haas has all the attributes of a model athlete; level-headed, university educated, committed to his craft and successful. Just 22 years old, the former mountain biker has so far dominated the Australian National Racing Series with convincing wins at the Mersey Valley Tour, and the Tour of Canberra. Few, however, will have heard of him.

Humble Beginnings

Haas’ story began outside of cycling, and like another of Australian cycling’s current luminaries; Simon Gerrans, it was quite serendipitous. He was told by his physio to try riding a bike to help rehabilitate a knee injury he had sustained while playing AFL. That introduction was enough for Haas, who fell in love with the sport and has never looked back. Since then he’s dabbled in dirt jumping, Mountain Bike Downhill, and quite seriously in Mountain Bike Cross Country before he eventually found his best fit was on the road.

"I started in the more extreme side of competing," he told Cyclingnews of those early days. "Dirt jumping and downhill racing, I did the national series for downhill when I was younger. I found that I did really well on courses that required a lot of pedalling which then got me interested in cross country racing. A mate of mine lent me his cross country bike and I went and did the national championships a couple of years ago [second as a Junior (2007) also placed fifth in the U23 category the following year]."

When speaking to Haas, he makes it sound easy. Not many athletes can switch disciplines so successfully, but with Haas, it seemed almost a formality. Whatever the Australian does he seems to do well, and if he’s not - he wants to know how he can improve and better himself.

"I had a year in Europe racing on my own back and managed to squeeze myself into the then national program coached by Neil Ross (Discover Tasmania)," said Haas. The European cross country circuit proved more difficult than the Australian had imagined however, and ultimately he decided to come back to Australia after becoming disenchanted with his results on the continent.

"You’re racing against the top mountain bike riders wherever you line up. It’s very hard to even push your way into even the top 50," said Haas, reflecting on the experience. When he left Europe, Haas had plans to devote all his time towards study - but fate intervened.

When he returned from Europe he rode a few National Road Series events including the Tour of Tasmania. "I went there [Tasmania] and picked up the KOM jersey. I thought; maybe road racing is my thing; and it just so happened that the Genesys Wealth Adviser team [then Praties] contacted me - asking about what my plans were for next year."

Praties provided an extremely solid platform for Haas. They were also flexible enough to allow him to balance his 2010 program between working, studying full-time and riding. "They just tried to keep me as fit as I possibly could be while I was studying," said Haas. A couple of good results in 2010 were enough to convince the Australian that he had to pursue road riding full-time. He made the big decision to put his final two semesters of his Bachelor of Socio-Legal Studies on hold, and devote 2011 exclusively to the bike.

"It became crystal-clear that the best thing would be to put starting a career with my degree on hold in favour of trying to start a career on the bike," Haas said.

Haas’ 2011 so far

That decision seems to have paid dividends. The National Road Series has yielded Haas five victories so far in 2011, and has also exposed him to be a prodigious talent. Able to time trial and climb Haas is showing a lot of potential, however he’s not getting ahead of himself.

"There a lot of things to a cyclist that makes them brilliant," he said. "Physiology is one thing, but the mental side is another. I’m trying to figure out with my coach Andrew Christie-Johnston - I’m really trying to find what exactly makes me tick in a race. Someone like Cadel Evans is a jack of all trades, but he’s also brilliant at all of them. I’d like to be an all rounder in that sense but there’s a long way to go. I just have to develop my own physiology and see where that can take me."

Christie-Johnston has helped riders like Richie Porte make it into the professional ranks in the past. As a coach he has his own objectives for Haas, but for now just wants to see him continue his full-time commitment on the bike.

"So far he’s been riding full-time for about six months - and he’s been doing well. But six months is not a long time in the greater scheme of a rider’s life," Christie-Johnston said. "Next year we have plans to do some road racing in Europe, and hopefully get him into a ProTour level team, but that’s a long way away and he needs to continue showing his current commitment to get there. If all goes well there’s no reason to say he couldn’t be a Tour rider in the future but that’s still a long way off."

National Road Series

In the immediate term Haas is looking to continue his good form in the National Road Series which has now become one of his big goals in 2011. Despite the racing only getting harder in the second half of the year Haas is relishing the challenge.

"I’m definitely looking forward to the next NRSs because I think that’ll be where the real racing begins. Some of the bigger races are ahead of us and a lot of riders are targeting them - but so am I," said Haas confidently.

One of those "bigger races" that Haas is currently eyeing is the Tour of Tasmania. He has fond memories of the race in 2009 and 2010 hoping for bigger things this year.

"It’s my favourite road race in Australia," he said. "It’s such a purist form of racing, you get the inevitable terrible weather, amazing courses, beautiful landscapes, and generally quite fierce competition, being one of the Cat 1 races of the NRS means all the good riders are in form for it."

Funnily enough, many of the Haas’ biggest challengers for the NRS come from within his own team. Steele Von Hoff was Haas’ closest competitor at the Tour of Canberra, and Pat Shaw is coming off a stellar 2010. Of course, at the end of the day someone has to win, but Haas doesn’t see any sort of conflict arising from competition within the team. The synergy within the team is very much an organic thing; and that’s something he believes helps the team be so successful.

"I’m really proud of what we’re doing [at Genesys], and I think it’s really great motivation - the competition is healthy and I think everyone is glad that we’re all doing well," Haas said.

"We all know each other very well, we can look at each other late in the race and you can tell who’s doing well late in the race just by the way they’re riding. We all know what we’re capable of - and most importantly we communicate we each other - 99 per cent of success in the road comes down to communication and I think we do that really well which is why we’ve been winning races."

Mentors and living in Canberra

If one of the pillars of Haas’ development is the environment of his Genesys team, the other has to be the support from the Canberra cycling community. Haas gets regular advice from the plethora of cycling talent based out of Canberra, particularly in the summer when the European professionals return from their seasons abroad. Matthew Hayman is one person Haas singled out as a really helpful guide and mentor, but guys like Michael Matthews, Joe Lewis and Tom Palmer have also proved invaluable.

"I think Canberra in summer is one of the best places to train in Australia. You can learn vicariously just from riding with a lot of the guys, and for the moment I see myself as a rider who listens more than I talk at the moment - so that suits me well," said Haas.

The foundations are definitely there for Haas and for now it’s just a matter of translating that into a professional contract, hopefully within the next 12-18 months.

"Everybody knows in cycling, that your career is not in Australia, every big race other than the Tour Down Under is overseas. There is definitely a timeline and I do think I’m well within it - but I also don’t want to find myself hanging in Australia for too much longer."

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Alex Hinds, Production Editor

Sydney, Australia

Follow @al_hinds

Alex Hinds is a graduate of Economics and Political Science from Sydney University. Growing up in the metropolitan area of the city he quickly became a bike junkie, dabbling in mountain and road riding. Alex raced on the road in his late teens, but with the time demands of work and university proving too much, decided not to further pursue full-time riding.

If he was going to be involved in cycling in another way the media seemed the next best bet and jumped at the opportunity to work in the Sydney office of Cyclingnews when an offer arose in early 2011.

Though the WorldTour is of course a huge point of focus throughout the year, Alex also takes a keen interest in the domestic racing scene with a view to helping foster the careers of the next generation of cycling.

When not writing for Cyclingnews Alex is a strong proponent of the awareness of cyclists on the road in Sydney having had a few close run-ins with city traffic in the past.