The punchy stages on offer at the Tour of Oman are well suited to Nathan Haas, who was victorious in Al Bustan 12 months ago, but this time around he has all-but ruled out any hope of a repeat after a chest infection derailed his start to the season.
The Katusha-Alpecin rider started the year strongly – ‘flying' as he puts it – with fourth place in the time trial at the Australian national championships, where he surpassed even his own expectations. However, illness struck during the Tour Down Under and he ended the race – a perennial target – fifth last and out of sorts.
"Bike riding's a pretty fickle game. The difference between being at 100 per cent and being unwell is not very much; it's a knife edge," Haas told Cyclingnews in Oman on Friday.
"Someone once told me that elite athletes, when they're really in form, have the immune system of someone in the emergency ward in hospital."
Haas decided to skip Race Melbourne and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, but the sickness lingered and he was soon prescribed antibiotics, followed by a lengthy spell off the bike.
"The team decided from a performance perspective to give me a bit of time off the bike and do a proper re-set so I don't bring any poor health into the most important races, which for me are the Classics. That was just a clever decision from the team to back it off and look at it from a global perspective. We want a long season and not to chase short highs," Haas said.
"I had about two weeks off. I wouldn't say completely off, but at least eight or nine days was completely off then a slow tinker back. It's going to be tough now, getting back into real training. It makes you feel you're behind the game a bit, but you catch up fast, and all the work I've done is still in the body – I've just got to find it again."
As such, while many had earmarked Haas for a repeat of his 2018 Oman stage win on Sunday – with stage 2 using the exact same finale – or perhaps for victory on the uphill finish on stage 3, the 29-year-old has rather different expectations.
"I'm not in top shape at all here, which is disappointing because this race means a lot to me. It has always been a big focus for me and I love this race and being able to win here. It's not meant to be this year, but c'est la vie," he said.
"To be more realistic, our team has some really good opportunities with some younger riders that are developing. If I can even pass on some good experience at this race while I'm getting fitter, I think that's the ultimate goal."
Blessing in disguise
After Oman, Haas will hit the spring classics, with Strade Bianche in the second weekend of March followed by Milan-San Remo, then the week-long Volta a Catalunya ahead of his favoured Ardennes Classics.
The early targets and the Australian summer may have gone down in flames, but Haas is hoping his illness can prove a blessing in disguise. From Australia to the Ardennes is the best part of four months, and the re-set might just add freshness. Besides, he is well aware of the success that can unexpectedly spring up when the best-laid plans go awry.
"If you look back through the archives on Cyclingnews, how many stories will you hear when someone says ‘I've never been in this condition before at these goal races, and the strange thing is I was in crisis not so long ago, not being able to race or train'," Haas explained.
He picked out Mat Hayman's remarkable underdog victory at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, five weeks after breaking his arm, as the prime example. You could also point to Greg Van Avermaet, whose 2016-2017 winter training was derailed by an ankle break but who went on to dominate the spring classics in what was the breakthrough year of his career.
"The truth is that so many of us are over-trained, over-raced, and not in good health. You just have to look at Hayman's Roubaix as probably the gold standard of this. Sometimes things do happen, and whether you believe everything is for a reason or not, sometimes it just ends up being a good thing for you," Haas said.
"The biggest thing and most important thing is keeping your head on. I'm actually very relaxed, I feel very happy. The team environment is very nurturing, knowing I have the capacity to perform in these big races. For the moment it's not a crisis; it's actually about limiting the loss so we can maximize the win."