RIFUGIO PANAROTTA, Italy (VN) — The race comes in waves up the mountain. A crowd gets loud, and the leaders barrel through. No smiles in the front group, not ever. The guys in purgatory chase back moments later, grasping at fading wheels. Then the mountain goes silent.
And then, the crowd builds again, down the hill. The grupetto is making its way up to the Rifigio Panoratta. Nathan Haas gathers himself and pops a wheelie, one hand on the bars, the other hand waving. On this day, life is good in the grupetto.
VeloNews caught up with the 25-year-old Garmin-Sharp rider from Brisbane, Australia, at the Giro d’Italia.
VeloNews: It seems like you’re having fun and keeping it light in spite of how hard this race is. Is that true?
Nathan Haas: If you’re at the front of the race, obviously you’ve got to take things pretty seriously. And all of the stages my job was a done a little bit earlier than the final kilometers of the climb, because that’s not the kind of rider I am on the long climbs. But if you’re in front of the grupetto in no-man’s land and you’re safe for time and the crowd’s as magic as they have been, if you ride past and you don’t do anything, you get a few claps. But if you make it fun for everyone it becomes a really huge energy, and it’s just cool to be part of.
VN: Clearly the energy in the grupetto is much different than it is at the front of the race. Do you guys have time to talk, tell jokes — have a nice ride, in other words?
NH: It depends on the day, you know? If you arrive all together at the bottom of the final climb then you’ve got time. But some days the grupetto is really fighting for their life. I think there are a couple days, fortunately for myself, I wasn’t in those groups. But there were a few days. On the Stelvio/Gavia crazy day, the peloton was fighting for its life back there. I don’t imagine it would have been a nice experience to be there. But I was in the grupetto nearly every mountain stage last year here, and it’s just a little bit nicer to be just ahead of them.
VN: How’d you come to cycling?
NH: I used to be a downhill mountain biker. I did better in the races with lots of pedaling, and then I realized maybe that cross-country was my thing. I did well at cross country straight up, and then did two seasons of the [UCI Mountain Bike] World Cup. And then basically realized that it was too hard. And you know, mountain biking is a crazy sport and financially I just couldn’t afford to keep doing it, and then someone threw me a bone and gave me a spot on a team in Australia. I was still at university at the time … I also did a year mucking around with them, realized I liked it, then did a year full time in Australia, and then won Sun Tour, Japan Cup, and then Garmin gave me a contract and it all kicked off from there.
VN: If I heard that right, you said cross-country World Cup racing is harder than road racing.
NH: Totally different, but yeah. It is. The thing with road biking is you’ve got Continental level and then Pro Continental and then WorldTour. There’s mountain biking World Cup. You’re 18 and you’re racing the world’s best guys, so there’s no intermediate. For mountain biking it seems a little bit like you’re jumping into the deep end.
VN: When you look back on the Giro of 2014, how do you think you’ll remember it?
NH: I don’t know, to be honest. I won’t forget that first crash we had in the team time trial. That was so scary. I’m just flying through the air, going, ‘Oh, gosh.’ But there was a day where I actually hopped off the bike and my director kept me going. He said, ‘You’ll regret it if you don’t just try to get to the finish.’ You know, I finished that stage, then managed to finish the next, and they all just became a little bit easier as the body healed. So I think, for me, it’s one that you can overcome a fair bit of adversity.