Heinrich Haussler may not have won a race since the start of 2015, and may be on the wrong side of 30, but he still feels his biggest results are ahead of him. He has joined the new Bahrain-Merida team in hope of finally landing that big Classics victory.
The Australian, a runner-up at Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in 2009, was one of the riders on the market from the outgoing IAM Cycling team, and his hunger and ambition, fostered over the course of a season that was disappointing and encouraging in equal measures, led him to Bahrain.
"The thing was, I had the option of going to another team and working for a big captain for the Classics. I know I can also do that well, but with Bahrain they said 'we want you as our leader for the Classics'," Haussler told Cyclingnews in Croatia last week, where he was getting to know his new teammates on an introductory camp.
"I don't want to stop cycling and say 'ah maybe in that year I could have taken that chance, or done this or that'. I'm 32 now, I've still got a few more years in me, but time does fly past. You can't reset like when you're 20; once it's done it's done. So I want to try and do everything I can – do the best training, make use of the support – while I can."
Haussler was seventh at Milan-San Remo and sixth at Paris-Roubaix this year. Those are good results on paper but he shrugs and describes his spring as "not great". He fell and was unable to finish Gent-Wevelgem or the Tour of Flanders. His inability to train left him with the freshness to make the selection at Roubaix, but not the fitness to make it to the velodrome with a shot at victory.
His disappointment is indicative of heightened expectations, and he puts that down to the work he has done with new coach Daniel Healey over the last 12 months. It's the first time he has worked with a coach on a personal basis and he says it's given him 'a new set of wings'.
"Every interval I do, he's on the moto looking at my power, my cadence, giving feedback. I have twins now, and it's really stressful trying to balance everything. You sometimes only get three or four hours sleep, and he'll look at your face in the morning and say 'maybe we'll leave that today'. It's good to have that relationship – someone who understands the situation. It's not like you have a trainer who lives somewhere else, and just says 'OK, today you do six hours, do this, do that', then you get feedback one or two weeks later, and all the while you're digging yourself deeper and deeper.
"Now I've seen what's possible. Seeing what I did this year, now I want to see what I can do when everything goes right."
We're definitely not QuickStep but I'll get the support I need
Haussler admits to initially being slightly sceptical about the new Bahrain team – "no one really knew what was going on – was it going to be another Alonso team?" – but was swayed by his status as the undisputed leader.
The trade-off there, perhaps, is that he won't have a particularly strong support network, with the hastily assembled team surely needing time to find its feet and most of the resources based around stage race leaders in Vincenzo Nibali and Ion Izagirre.
"We're definitely not like QuickStep," Haussler says with a grin, "but I'll get the support I need and I'll have a free role and that's the most important thing."
He picks out Borut Bozic and Grega Bole as names who'll be with him in the spring, along with neo-pros David Per and Ivan Garcia Cortina – first and eighth respectively at the U23 Flanders this year. Despite the lack of strength and experience compared to other Classics set-ups that are becoming "stronger and more specialized", Haussler is happy to rely largely on his own legs.
"As long as you get a bit of support at the beginning, then at the end, you just need the legs – simple as that. If you don't have them you're not going to be there," he said. "I wouldn't say I'm a 'sniffler', but I know how to weave my way round, especially in Harelbeke, Flanders, Nieuwsblad, Kuurne, I say I know these roads just as well as the Belgians, and that can save a lot of energy."
Haussler played football and table tennis with his new teammates in Croatia, and they all went on a gentle ride through the Istrian countryside to taste local cheese, ham, and grappa. It's a strange concoction of riders, nationalities and personalities, and he describes the experience so far as a "culture shock" – albeit one that was "exactly what was needed to get out of that comfort zone" after four years with IAM Cycling.
"Coming into the team with Nibali, you just feel that it's different," he adds. "There's a big leader in the team, and that makes you want to turn up at the training camps and be strong, not let your teammates down. It's very motivating.
"Winning is a big step – I'm not saying I'm going to win Roubaix, though I think it's possible. But getting on the podiums and in the top 10's at the Classics still motivates me as a realistic prospect.