After 18 seasons at the elite of the WorldTour peloton, Heinrich Haussler thought he had seen it all.
Tour de France stage-win — check. Monument podiums — double-check. After 12 grand tours, 38 monuments, and 22 career wins, Haussler was convinced he had this bike racing thing down pat.
And then he did something crazy. Over the COVID winter, 37-year-old wanted to spice things up. Five-hour training rides in the rain didn’t seem too appealing, yet his body was telling him he needed to get moving.
His answer? Take on a full cyclocross season. The Bahrain-Victorious veteran had dabbled with cross-training before, with mountain biking and even some local cyclocross races near his home in Germany’s Black Forest. This winter, he got serious about cross, and raced in World Cups and a handful of other events as well as the world championship.
The verdict? He was blown away, both literally and figuratively.
“Your heart comes out through your mouth,” Haussler told VeloNews.
“It was something I’ve never experienced before,” he said. “I was absolutely on the limit for one hour. I was blown away. I could not believe how hard that sport is.”
And he was hooked. At 37, Haussler is cross convert.
Experiencing the CX epiphany
Coming into his 18th WorldTour season, Haussler was looking for something to help kick-start his off-season training. The COVID season had thrown a wrench into his 2020 racing calendar, and he even came down with a case of COVID himself last fall that left him bed-ridden with chills and fever for two weeks in October.
By his own admission, it’s not the depth and volume that he needs. It’s the leg speed and explosiveness to be able to keep up with the young riders piling into the peloton.
“I’m a diesel. I need that explosiveness and power,” Haussler said in a telephone interview. “I need that bang, bang, bang that comes with all the accelerations. Cyclocross was just what I needed. It’s helped me so much in so many ways. I am just so happy I found this sport.”
Haussler jumped into the scene with gusto. He had already had a taste in 2019, when one of his mountain bike buddies convinced him to join him in a local race. Haussler went, got blown out, but had an absolute blast. Coming into the 2020-21 winter, he took it more seriously, brought three bikes to the races, and built out a full calendar and training schedule, and jumped in.
So how hard is the effort? Haussler tries to explain it.
“It is so hard, so brutal. You never go that deep on the road as you do in cyclocross,” Haussler said. “Maybe in a final, or riding into a sector at Flanders, or if you’re leading it out on the Oude Kwaremont. But cyclocross is one hour in the red zone.”
Haussler was amazed how the stacked up efforts in the one-hour cyclocross race would punish his body. There is no let up. It’s slamming up a hill, jumping over an obstacle, or accelerating out of a corner.
“Straight away I was absolutely addicted,” he said. “You not out there riding five hours in the rain and cold. You’re smashing yourself for one hour, and it’s fun.”
Haussler raced a bundle World Cups as well as a handful of other events, and the world championships.
Haussler admitted he’s late to the cyclocross party, but added he’s so glad he showed up.
“It’s so hard trying to learn new technical skills at 37,” he said. “These cross guys are so smooth and they make it look easy. When I would see myself on TV or in a video, I look like such an amateur.”
Tapping into one of cycling’s traditions
Haussler remembered his first cyclocross race in the winter of 2019-2020. He thought he’d bring his road bike to pedal home 90km after the race. Wrong.
“I thought I would do this little race, and do another 80-90km on the way back home,” he said. “No way, I was that dead. I could not get out of bed the next morning.”
Of course, cyclocross racing and training has long been a staple for European pros. Things started to change in the 1980s and 1990s, as the road scene became more exacting and demanding. By the 2000s, almost none of the major roadies would have time or interest to race cyclocross.
Training programs evolved, and with a racing calendar and training camp schedule that stretches from January to October, most modern roadies simply needed some time away from the intensity of racing year-round. There was no time for cross.
Haussler isn’t the first WorldTour pro to hit the mud. Zdenek Štybar and retired pro Lars Boom both came out of cyclocross with rainbow bands to have top WorldTour careers, and each continued to race cross. Thomas Pidcock has emerged from the CX scene to join the WorldTour with Ineos Grenadiers. Several other Belgian pros, including Tim Merlier, also race on the mud and pavement.
For Haussler, racing cyclocross was both inspirational and challenging as it was humbling.
“You think you’re a WorldTour pro, and you’re at the start line, and think, OK, I will just sprint for 20 seconds and move up — no chance whatsoever,” he said. “Even the guy who gets 30th in the World Cup will just ride away from you.”
Of course, Haussler often started in the back row in the grid system. After racing the circuit this winter, he actually earned enough points to move up in the pecking order, and will likely start in the fourth row next year.
Haussler cracked the top-25 once, with 24th at a Swiss race at Hittnau. At the worlds, he was 34th in Oostende.
Humbling, yes, but addicting as well.
Seeing the cyclocross light
A son of a German father and Australian mother, Haussler vows to return to cyclocross again next season with even more fervor.
After what he experienced this winter, he has one word: Respect.
“I thought it was a bunch of Belgian guys who get together in a field and run around in the mud,” he joked. “I really thought the guys who did cyclocross were guys who couldn’t make it on the road. I got absolutely proven wrong, and that’s why I have so much respect for those guys.”
And Haussler said it should be no secret to anyone why Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are smashing it so far during the early season races.
Coming into the 2021 northern classics season, Haussler sees a direct line from the cyclocross season to the pavé and bergs of Belgium and France.
Van der Poel and van Aert continue to shine in the early season races. Haussler is convinced that it’s cyclocross racing that’s giving them such dominance in the classics.
“It’s going to be a two-man show this year,” Haussler said. “Maybe [Julian] Alaphilippe will be there, but he’s the only one. They are absolutely in a different league.
“They will smash everything,” Haussler continued. “Having that apprenticeship in cyclocross, growing up racing against each other, has made them absolute machines on the road.
“It’s not hard for me to understand why these guys [Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert] are going so well. It just amazes me how much bike-handling skills they have, and how big their motors are.”
And after watching the likes of van der Poel and van Aert rip through the early spring calendar, Haussler is now a cyclocross convert.
“I’m one of the biggest fans out there. I know I get paid to be a road cyclist, but cyclocross was just blowing me away,” he said. “It’s something that has totally taken my heart at 37. I just love it.”
And this is coming from a guy who won a stage in his first grand tour, and went toe-to-toe at Tour of Flanders and Milano-Sanremo. He’s since transitioned into a road captain role at Bahrain-Victorious, but he still harbors ambitions in the northern classics.
Haussler loves those races, and dreams of pulling off one of those miracle rides that Paris-Roubaix delivers every four or five years, when a journeyman pro like Mat Hayman can upset the favorites.
Also read: How Mat Hayman beat Tom Boonen
“I’ve found a new love for the sport and I just love smashing it, I love fighting for position,” said Haussler, who has a contract through 2022. “When I go training, it’s not because I have to go out and do it. It’s because I love it. Even when I stop racing, I’ll still be riding for the rest of my life. It’s freedom. Just like yesterday, I was coming home and riding past some vineyards, I was just so happy. I don’t see it as a job. I love these races. And I’d love to win Roubaix.”
Haussler has also seen an uptick in his own performances. His legs are faster, and there’s more punch in his accelerations. He puts it all down to his cyclocross racing over the winter.
Coming into 2021, he was fourth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, an encouraging sign for the coming battles. He’ll race Wednesday at Dwaars door Vlaanderen and Sunday at De Ronde.
His rivals took notice.
“You wouldn’t believe how many riders were coming up to me and saying, ‘oh yeah, we’re going to have to do cyclocross this winter,’” Haussler said. “The secret is out.”