There was a strong Australian influence in Milan-Sanremo on the weekend. We talk to Heinrich Haussler, a former runner-up in the Italian Classic who was on the team of the winner in 2018.
The 2018 edition of Milan-Sanremo provided one of the most compelling finales in years. With tension right to the end, it was never certain that Vincenzo Nibali’s impressive attack on the Poggio climb would pay off. In the end, the Sicilian from Bahrain-Merida pulled off an amazing coup.
His triumph was achieved in stunning style and although the results show ‘same time’ as the sprinters, it was an attack on hill 7.5km from the finish that earned him the title.
“The last race he won was Lombardia,” says his Australian team-mate, Heinrich Haussler. “He’s won all Grand Tours. And it was just like a fairy tale.”
‘Heino’ didn’t race a great deal in 2017. An injury picked up in the off-season affected him although the year and he never had much to do with his famous Sicilian team-mate. When they did get a chance to race together, there wasn’t much discussion: Haussler doesn’t speak much Italian and Vincenzo’s English is pretty average (and his German worse). But there is a great deal of respect between the pair.
Haussler explains that the Classics season, from Milan-Sanremo to Paris-Roubaix, is his focus for 2018. This is a time when he is hoping to thrive. His injury is behind him. His form is good. His team-mate is the champion of La Primavera and the 34-year-old believes that, with a little bit of luck, he’ll be able to put on a good show in the weeks to come…
– Click the SoundCloud file to listen to RIDE’s interview with Heinrich Haussler about Milan-Sanremo 2018 and/or read the transcript below. –
Listen to our interview with Heinrich Haussler via SoundCloud (above).
RIDE: It’s the Monday after Milan-Sanremo and I’m talking with the guy who came 33rd, I think, but most importantly Heinrich Haussler’s [Bahrain-Merida] team-mate, Vincenzo Nibali, put on one of the best shows we’ve seen in a long, long time in a bike race. What did you make of it?
Heinrich Haussler: “Yeah, we had the plan. We had a meeting to have one of these options that Vincenzo would go for the win but for everything to play out like it did, especially in the conditions – and how it was in the race, it was just so hectic – and actually to pull it off, to come to the finish line solo… there’s not that many guys, really, in this whole last 100 years that can pull something off like that. To ride solo at Sanremo…
“The last race he won was Lombardia (in October 2017). He’s won all Grand Tours. And it was just like a fairy tale.
“Like I said, we talked about it in the meeting but to actually pull it off like that was pretty amazing. You have to take your hat off to him because that’s just the way he is.
“He likes to go on the attack. He’s not waiting for anyone, even in the Grand Tours and the other one-day races, even if his form’s not good, he just goes on the attack and that’s really what makes him such a special, classy rider.”
I guess if we consider the last little while of Milan-Sanremo, when you came runner-up in 2009, that was probably the last time that there was almost – let’s call it – a ‘surprise win’ that wasn’t a sprint. You know what I’m saying?
“Yeah. That’s what I mean, it was… no one really expected it.
“I think there was that much pressure on [Michal] Kwiatkowski, [Julien] Alaphilippe and [Peter] Sagan that, when it happened, they were just kind of like: ‘Oooh…’
“It was just a whole complete new situation and the thing was: we had that plan for Vincenzo to go on the Cipressa or the Poggio – or to cover moves – and then if it came to a sprint that me or not me, that I would help Sonny [Colbrelli] go for the sprint. We even had that second option, we were up there.
“It was kind of weird because with a kilometre to go, moving up with Sonny, it was like, ‘Oh, we have to kind of stay a little bit back. We can’t pull on the front because our team-mate is up the front.’
“It was only a few seconds. It was like, ‘This could change the whole race if we try and get to the… [if we] pull on the front.’
“It was a bit of a sticky situation but, like I said, there’s not that many guys that win in Sanremo when they arrive solo. So, it was pretty epic.”
Vincenzo Nibali seals an emphatic victory, holding off the sprinters all the way to the line after an attack on the Poggio.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada
Talk to me about the descent. Really, the last seven and a half kilometres was just fantastic television. It was really riveting; you had no idea what was going to happen. But I imagine you guys were slip-sliding all over the place getting as fast as you could down the hill. Is that how it was?
“Well, we were lucky with the conditions. Pretty much the whole day, up until the last 50km, was just terrible.
“It was pretty hectic – crashes… it was, I would say, not a slow race but a slower race due to [having] a headwind all along the coast. It didn’t make it any easier, just because it was so windy.
“It was actually pretty cold. It was nine degrees but when you’re wet the whole day and with the wind and especially seven hours, the cold just drains the energy out of you. So, positioning was very, very important coming into the Cipressa and the Poggio and also on the downhill.
“There’s not much room, really, to move up or to play with. So, positioning on top [of the Poggio]… you don’t stay [in the spot you started] – you still have time to move up – but it’s full-on. The whole race is so fast and then positioning on the downhill is so important.
“Then we’ve seen [Matteo] Trentin pop off the front and then Sagan, he had to do a lot of work on the downhill.
“You could see also, on the downhill, a lot of groups would split up and in the end we were only like 30 guys.
“But I mean: Nibali… he can do that. If it was wet he probably would have even been better, because he loves the wet too – and the cold, and the dirty conditions.
“I think he probably would have had a little bit of an advantage. I’m not sure how many seconds he had on top [of the Poggio]: 10 or 12 maybe. And once you’re out of sight, especially on a technical downhill like that, the guy that’s in front definitely has an advantage.
“But there was also a full-gas headwind on that last two kilometres. He said it too, ‘Those last two kilometres felt like forever’. But [it was] an awesome race…”
Nibali crested the Poggio with a lead of about 10 seconds.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada
When he attacked it looked like there was a spread of Bahrain-Merida guys across the front of the bunch. Is that how it played out? Where you one of them?
“Yeah… well, there’s always, for the two and a half kilometres going into the Poggio, it’s full-gas. It’s just on.
“We’ve seen Marcus Burghardt pop off the front just trying to make the race harder for the other guys, or maybe drop the sprinters, or maybe even line it up so [Van Avermaet] can do an attack… but then those two guys – [Burghardt] and the other guy from BMC – they got caught and then the guy from [the Israel Cycling] Academy went and it was kind of like… everyone started to look at each other because, also, the helpers were gone from the sprinter or the big guys and that’s the moment when Vincenzo just popped off.
“The guys [from our team] were at the front and it was kind of like… you don’t ‘stall’ the race but you just move over. You kind of block the road.
“Not ‘block the road’, but you’re not going to chase your team-mate down… so, I mean, it looked absolutely perfect on TV but it’s also hard to do like that. It’s not that easy.
“Also, like I said, positioning is just so hard in this race. And it’s so fast. To play out like it did was actually amazing.”
Put me inside the peloton when you’re doing something like that. Like, when you’re at the front of the bunch and there [are] guys who are probably really wanting to chase him down, was there talk of ‘Get the hell out of the way!’ What can you hear? Is it just heavy breathing? Is there yelling? What’s going on?
“No, not necessarily yelling but I mean it’s a big, big fight for positioning. Always a big fight and I’m not saying that there’s no respect in the peloton but you can just see, over the years, how many more crashes there are in the sprints or in the finals because positioning just becomes so important.
“The races are raced a lot differently these years than what it was 10 years ago. And that’s also what makes it just so much harder; it just makes it faster and only really the good guys are in the front, the guys who can push the most watts – or have the big power in the final – they’re there.
“I won’t say there’s a lot of head-butting but [there are] a lot of elbows and shoving and diving into the corners. And you really just can’t brake; if you brake, you lose.”
And what about language? Is there cursing? Is there talk?
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of that; a lot of bad language. But that’s all good, that’s the way it is in the race.
“You say things in the race but after the race, actually you’re just friends again. You’ll go up to [someone who you’ve abused] and go, ‘Hey mate, look…’ and he’ll automatically say, ‘Yeah, no worries. It was a race. It’s normal.’”
It’s like cricket and sledging?
“Yeah, pretty much.”
Do you have any idea about Vincenzo’s numbers? I’d love to see his power file. Has he let on what he was doing when he was attacking on the Poggio?
“No, but I mean I had a look at my power and for the last two minutes it was around about 550 watts. But I was jumping up and down; I had to close one or two gaps. But he was off the front. I could imagine it was also something around that.
“Probably not massive power but after seven hours that’s going. That’s what makes the race so difficult.
“If they had the Poggio and the Cipressa after 180km, 100 percent it would be a sprint because everyone can push that power.
“The climb is actually not that steep.
“And where [Vincenzo] went off the front, I’m not quite sure: it could even be minus-one percent downhill. It’s definitely flat.
“But there’s not many guys – there’s only 30 or 40 guys – who can produce that amount of power after six hours. And that’s what makes the Classics so special. And that’s why pretty much the same guys are always up there in the final in those six or seven hour races.”
Haussler explains that Nibali’s position is efficient even when stretched out with a long stem, saddle far back on the rails and wide handlebars.
Photo: Yuzuru Sunada
I take the opportunity to talk about Vincenzo with you because you’re one of few Aussies who have ridden on teams with him. I think Cam Wurf probably spent a couple of seasons [alongside him] at Cannondale but have you gotten to know him at all?
“No. Actually, to be honest, I haven’t gotten to know him at all just due to last year [with my] injury and pretty much not racing. And the few races that I did, he wasn’t there.
“Also, at the beginning of the year with different training camps, him being in Argentina then falling sick, then being in the Middle-East for those races, we had different training camps.
“So, actually, this was the first time I’ve even gotten to speak to him or even ride with him. It was a completely different situation.
“Also different, for example: Nibali has his crew with him, his soigneurs, mechanics, stuff like that. For me it was a new situation and it was very, very professional.
“We weren’t planning to stay in Sanremo. Everyone was actually planning to go off to the airports or to drive home… but [Vincenzo] organised a big dinner for the team. The whole team stayed in Sanremo and we had a good meal together, so it was a nice way to celebrate.
“I think, also, if you win a Monument like that, it’s better that the team stays and celebrates a bit. It was our first race together and the guy is… on the bike he’s just got so much class.
“I’ll be really interested to see what else he can do this year.
“He already said that he’s going to focus on the Tour…
“The thing is too: if he says he wants something then, for sure, he’s going to be going for it and he’s going to be good.”
I’m going to ask a really cyclists’ question but I’m curious if you see the same as I do…: he looks like one of the last proponents for wide handlebars. Have you noticed that?
“Yeah, he sits really wide and his saddle is all the way back. That’s another thing that I noticed, just because we hadn’t ridden together on training camps or stuff.
“After training I was looking at his bike: bloody long stem, long seat – all the way back, and massive bars. Yep, definitely.”
But he seems to make it look elegant in a way…
“He is, somehow, when he climbs – when he’s seated – he just seems to have so much power. I don’t know, it looks…
“I was looking at the replay last night of the last five kilometres, and those last two kilometres when he was down on the bars – when he flops his arms over the top like a TT – he seems to be able to produce the best power in that position.”
Just before we went on the record, you were telling me that your love of cycling hasn’t waned. You’re 34 years old. You’ve been racing your bike since you were, what? Six or seven years…? Are you getting bored of your job?
“Oh no, definitely not. This is… I mean, there’s also a life after cycling but I’d like to keep this life going on for as long as possible and, especially due to the injury last year, everything is a little bit up in the air.
“If I couldn’t have actually kept on continuing… I would have had massive regrets for a long, long time if I had to stop.
“It’s kind of like a second chance – not necessarily a wake-up call but I see things a lot differently now in cycling. I also have a family now which doesn’t really make it easier but, really, cycling for me is almost everything.
“There’s only going to be a few more years left and I want to make the most of it because when it’s done, it’s done. You can’t turn 20 again and be pro again.
“I love these one-day races and I want to get the most out of it and just have no regrets. When I stop, I know, okay if I didn’t get a top-10 or a top-five or a win… it doesn’t matter. I just want to know that I’ve done my best and then start with The Next Chapter.”
We could talk for a long time but wanted to overview Milan-Sanremo. But given that you’ve been on the podium of the Tour of Flanders – and that’s the next big one – just give me a quick prognostic of what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks. You going to be up there?
“I’m definitely going to be up there. I’m not quite sure I could say ‘Podium’ but it all depends. In these races you need luck. Obviously, you need the legs too. You’re not going to be up the front if you don’t have the legs but anything can happen in these races, especially in the way the races are now.
“You have these big favourites like Van Avermaet and Sagan, Kwiatkowski is also doing the Classics… when these guys go, there’s not many guys in the peloton who can actually go with them. So, it’s going to be an interesting race.
“You’re going to see guys go off the front early and, like last year [when] there was a big group that went off the front already with 100km to go, and then the race was over: [Philippe] Gilbert jumped off the front. Especially in Paris-Roubaix and Flanders, you could see it probably happening again.
“With the reduced riders – now we’re down to seven [per team] – it’s going to… I won’t say it’ll necessarily make it harder for the big guys but they’re going to have less helpers to keep it together. It could actually make the race more open.
“Also, it depends on the conditions. If it’s windy, if it’s rainy… right now the conditions here are absolutely terrible. I’m looking outside now and there’s 20cm of snow here in Freiberg in the middle of March which is absolutely not normal.”
Is that something that makes you grin because you tend to relish when it’s terrible?
“Oh yeah, for me it’s no problem but it makes the race more unpredictable with crashes and flat tyres and stuff like that. It just makes it a lot harder and makes positioning also more important.
“For me, I like the rain. I like the cold. But it also makes the race super dangerous.”
We could talk for a lot longer Heinrich, but I think that’s a good overview of what we wanted to have a chat about. Maybe we could keep in touch in the next couple of weeks.
“Yep, no worries. I mean for me, pretty much, in three weeks my season is over.
“The next races that are coming up, they mean the world to me. All the cobbled races up there. I’ve been putting a lot of work in over the winter, testing a lot [of products]. I’ve been working [well] with Merida – they’ve been really interested in getting the best out of me on the cobbles so we’re working with the position [on the bike], different materials, wheels, different tyres, tyre pressure… so, that’s also because I didn’t race [much] with the Merida last year.
“I had to do a lot of testing here at home or even on the cobbles in training.
“You don’t want to turn up to the Classics and then test out or change wheels or different tyre pressures – you’ve got to have that all dialled in. The team has been really good with that.
“Everything works really good. The work has been done. The form is good. The bike is good. All I need now is a little bit of luck.”
You’ve raised it so I’m going to have to ask: what amendments have you made based on what testing you’ve done?
“Apart from Roubaix, where I’ll be riding 28mm [tyres], all the other Classics 25mm Continentals…
“For the ‘normal’ Classics like Flanders, Harelbeke, Wevelgem – those proper races – I’ll be riding the Reacto from Merida. It’s just a little bit stiffer. And then, for Paris-Roubaix, we’ll be riding the Scultura with a few differences… softer seatpost, different bars, just to make it more comfortable on the cobbles because Paris-Roubaix, to be honest, it is the most brutal race in the world.
“Every time you do the recon on the Wednesday or the Thursday before the race, you just think, ‘This is not possible to race on. It’s actually dangerous…’ you know? And then we race on it.
“You get to the finish and your body is just absolutely stuffed. It’s completely wrecked: your hands, your muscles… that’s also what makes the race so special.
“For me it’s the hardest race. You can’t compare it to the Tour de France because the Tour de France is three weeks long but for me Paris-Roubaix is the hardest race on the calendar.
“I’m super excited for the next three weeks and, like I said, just a little bit of luck and things will be good.”
– Interview by Rob Arnold