Five months have passed since Rohan Dennis abandoned the Tour de France in mysterious circumstances, climbing off the bike seemingly without cause during stage 12, the day before the race’s major time trial.
It was a classic story of the seasoned pro upstaging the fancied prodigy.
But Heinrich Haussler, a 30-year-old who has stood on the podium at some of the world’s most prestigious races, needed every bit of his experience to overcome an effervescent 20-year-old, Caleb Ewan.
Even if Haussler is not exactly the forgotten man of Australian cycling, he was rarely listed among the favourites to win the national road race title.
Yet in the finish, Haussler had the wit and the legs to come around his younger opponent with plenty to spare – enough to raise his arms and drop his chain as he crossed the line.
It was a perfectly measured ride from Haussler, swooping to victory at the last moment, after a level-headed show of mature racecraft.
Ewan’s aggression had ignited the race, but may have cost him the victory as his legs couldn’t quite back up his intentions. A series of flashy attacks looked amazing on TV, but nothing quite stuck, and he’ll probably spend a few sleepless nights going over a handful of tactical errors in his head. Still, it’s a measure of his talent that despite some rookie errors, this neo-pro nearly stomped off with the elite national title.
I’m not suggesting that Ewan himself underestimated Haussler. The repeated attacks on the climbs in the final two laps, including from Ewan himself, show that Orica-GreenEDGE well understood the danger from IAM’s man and were desperate to shake him off before the finale. The tactic very nearly worked: Haussler was dropped twice but managed to steadily work his way back to the group as cat-and-mouse games sucked impetus from the group.
Still, when Michael Hepburn (having put in a series of huge efforts) eventually cracked, leaving his teammate Ewan alone in the group, there was a sense that the national champion’s jersey was slipping from Orica-GreenEDGE’s grasp for the first time since the team’s inception.
Drapac Cycling’s Darren Lapthorne certainly thought so, and attacked persistently, hoping to repeat his 2007 victory.
So too did Avanti’s Neil van der Ploeg, one of the best sprinters on the domestic circuit (and eventual bronze medallist).
Ewan was forced to chase each of these attempts, spending precious energy. Haussler followed the wheels, saving his.
And so calculated professionalism won out over youthful exuberance. That’s Bike Racing 101, really: don’t do any work until you absolutely bloody have to. It’s a lesson that Ewan, who we need to remember is beginning his first full season as a professional, will have learnt well on Sunday.
Despite his defeat, Ewan’s ride was outstanding. We knew he could sprint, but to see him attacking the break on the climb of Mt Buninyong, in the final stages of a national championships stacked with some of the toughest riders in the world, was to understand that here is a rider who is a lot more than just a flat-track bully. There’s no shame losing to a guy who’s won Grand Tour stages and been on the podium in several Monuments, and Ewan’s time will come.
The Buninyong circuit is supposed to be too hard for sprinters to win on. Pure sprinters, perhaps.
Haussler is the right type of classics-hardman sprinter to do it. At his best, he can go with the toughest riders in the world, on the hardest courses, then win in the sprint. He’s got an excellent palmares, so how did he manage to slip under the pre-race radar?
Many observers would admit surprise that he is in such good form this early in the season. He has very limited history at Nationals: his only previous appearance was a DNF, in 2012.
Since his golden year in 2009 – where he won a stage of the Tour de France, was second at Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders, and seventh at Paris-Roubaix – there’s been a lingering feeling that the straight-talking country boy has not achieved the results to match his talent. Not criticism as such, just a slight aftertaste of disappointment after that champagne year.
His 2014 season was mediocre by his high standards: a stage win at Bayern-Rundfahrt and a second place on Stage 15 at the Tour de France his best results, surrounded by plenty of filler.
“I came here with good form, I knew I had good form, but obviously it’s very hard [coming here with] just me and Dave [Tanner]. Bit of poker, you know, but everything just sort of worked out perfectly. It’s probably the best day of my life.”
Haussler played a perfect hand, but he still needed a lot of luck for the race to play out in his favour:
“Especially with Simon Gerrans not being here, it really made the race open. Orica-GreenEDGE had to send guys up the road, they were super-strong again with Caleb, he was unbelievable how he attacked up that last climb.
“He’s a very good sprinter and I just think… young. Maybe if he would’ve waited he would’ve done things differently, but he’s a young rider and you just have to follow your instinct, I was the same when I was younger.”
Haussler’s experience was the difference, as he picked the winning break, saved his energy while others attacked, then left his sprint into the wind to the last possible moment. Textbook stuff.
Haussler will now turn his attention to stage wins at the Tour Down Under, then focus on the classics, with Milan-Sanremo his first priority.
Despite all the hype directed at Cadel Evans and Richie Porte, it’s impossible to meaningfully assess their performances. They never had a real opportunity to get involved in the race, and were forced to be reactive by mutual lack of teammates. A lot of very good riders had fairly uneventful rides. We will have to wait until the Tour Down Under to see what form they’re really in.
As for Orica-GreenEDGE, they leave the national championships without a single elite title. That’s none out of six. After three years of dominance, it must be a chastening experience for the team, but it says more about the growing strength and diversity of elite Australian cycling than it does about any particular failure from the team.
Sometimes it’s good to share.