Heinrich Haussler has found a rich vein of early season form despite being left bed-ridden after contracting COVID-19 last October.
The Bahrain Victorious road captain did not start stage five of the Binckbank Tour in Belgium and, suspecting something wasn’t quite right, took a COVID-19 test when he returned home to Germany. The result confirmed his worst fears, saw him sidelined from the classics and ended his season.
“I was pretty sick for a while. Not super, super sick that I had to go to hospital, but it was definitely a lot worse than the flu, or a cold. I was in bed for about 10 days and then even afterwards, for three or four weeks I just felt like shit. I had no energy whatsoever,” Haussler told Cyclingnews.
“Belgium at that time of the year was a big risk zone, or red zone, and I was like I better go get a test done just in case. I got the test done, it came back positive and I don’t know why, maybe because then I knew I had it, all of sudden I had the feeling I was getting sicker.”
Haussler’s symptoms were considerably worse than that of some others in his team, who he said also contracted the virus last year. The German-speaking Australian was forced to self-isolate at home for two weeks after he was diagnosed, living downstairs in his family’s two-storey apartment in Freiburg while his wife and children lived upstairs for the duration.
“I think [recovery] depends [on] how healthy your body is. Some people it affects more and others not. Some people, for example in our team that had it, they only had a small cough, they didn’t even feel sick,” Haussler said.
The 36-year-old appears to have made a full recovery ahead of his 2021 campaign. He hasn’t been deterred from travelling, saying another interrupted season would potentially be “a disaster for some teams and sponsors”, and has been to Spain for a team training camp and returned to Belgium for cyclo-cross events, including the world championships on Sunday.
“I’ve done another blood test and I’ve still got antibody, which from what they say, it will help you not get it a second time, but that starts to wear off also. And you have seen other cases, like [Fernando] Gaviria, that people have gotten it twice,” he said.
Yet Haussler is mindful of the pandemic that he said has changed the WorldTour landscape.
“It’s so stressful doing all the tests before and after races, quarantine, all the check-ups. The teams are really strict so we’re always in our bubbles, you can’t really meet up with other riders or staff from other teams. Always wearing the mask, it has to be done and I do it because I don’t want to get sick again. If I get sick again now before the start of the season, I’m out for three months,” he said.
To be sidelined again from the Classics, scheduled to go ahead in the traditional springtime slot this year, would be a travesty for Haussler, who believes he is in exceptional form, stemming partly from the addition of cyclo-cross, which he speaks about with the enthusiasm of a neo-pro, to his schedule.
The former Tour de France stage winner finished 35th at the World Championships, which 26-year-old Mathieu van der Poel won, and speaking to Cyclingnews on his way home on Monday was disappointed with the result but still buzzing from the competition.
“Directly from the gun, you know, your heart rate is absolutely through the roof, lactate coming out your ears, and it goes like that for the whole hour. You just don’t do that in a road race,” Haussler said.
“[At the world championships on Sunday] I had snot coming out my nose, spit was hanging down my chin and you’ve got your mouth wide open breathing. You just think, ‘Fuck this is so hard.’ It’s so good.”
“I did a few races last year. This year I did more training for it, more racing. It really helped me last year. Also, this year, we did a lactate test in the camp and it’s the best test I’ve ever done in my life.”
Haussler has re-signed with Bahrain Victorious up to the end of the 2022 season, which he has speculated may be the last of his career, and despite being older than the majority of his rivals is motivated as ever for the classics.
“Everything is going to plan. I’m absolutely relaxed, I’ve never been this relaxed before. I used to always be like, ‘I need to go out and do some more training, I’m not sure how my form is,’ but I’m with happy with where I am,” he said.
“For me, motivation for training, doing intervals has never been a problem. I’ll probably be smashing myself on the bike even when I stop cycling.”
Haussler will serve as a road captain at the classics to primary team leaders Dylan Teuns and Sonny Colbrelli and has taken Briton Fred Wright under his wing.
However, he will have free rein at Opening Weekend and Paris-Roubaix, the latter especially in which he believes age and experience can, with a bit of luck, beat the wonderkids sure to be “killing everyone on the road this year”.
Paris-Roubaix isn’t a pipe dream either when you consider compatriot Mathew Hayman won the Monument at 37, the age Haussler turns later this month.
“I’ve got experience and I won’t say I know the roads better than the actual Belgians, but it is almost like that and that’s my biggest advantage,” he said.
“My role has also changed a little bit in the team because I’m older, more experienced, it’s really about helping out the guys in the team but there is still one or two races, especially this year, where I’m going to have a free role.”
“I’m definitely not the fastest any more or most powerful but I’m more wise. I know what I need to do in the races, especially in Nieuwsblad, Opening Weekend, that first race, that’s one race I really enjoy, and I want to go good there, try and get a good result and, obviously, in Paris-Roubaix.”
“Paris-Roubaix is a completely different race,” Haussler continued.
“Anything can happen there. Everyone has their bad luck, but I want one time good luck on that day and then I can do a massive result.”
Haussler, asked about the strength of the team’s classics squad and ability to help him in that effort, said he’s become accustomed to operating largely solo.
“The last 10 years, since Cervelo, I’ve just done my own thing anyway because I know where to position myself. It would be good to have like a real classics team, I don’t want to brag or anything but it would be good to have another two or three of me,” he said.
“But Dylan Teuns … He’s always been up there, he enjoys it, he’s a Belgian so if he’s in great form then he can also do a really good result in other races like Flanders and Harelbeke. Then you’ve got Sonny Colbrelli, he’s more maybe Waregem, or Gent-Wevelgem, Kuurne that he can also finish it off in a sprint. I think those two guys will be our main key guys for the classics to get results. I’ll be more there to help them deeper into the final.”
Haussler was shocked by the surprise departure of Bahrain Victorious general manager Rod Ellingworth in December, after just one full season in charge, but said the cycling mastermind has left a mark on the squad, which he believes will further assist the team’s performance at the Classics and beyond.
“He has definitely had his impact on the team, it’s changed. It’s definitely changed. Just that winning attitude, going to the bike races to win and not just to be on the start line like it may have been in the past,” Haussler said.
“Just motivating the whole team, staff, riders, everything came together straight away in the first race in Saudi [last year], it just clicked. We were all the same riders; we just had a different motivation.”