Q&A: Nathan Haas on why he’s leaving road racing for gravel

After a decade racing at the highest level on the road, the Australian is after a new challenge.

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After a decade in the WorldTour, and after seven professional wins, Nathan Haas’s time as a pro road racer is over. But the 32-year-old Australian isn’t leaving cycling behind entirely – in 2021 he’ll turn his attention to the burgeoning gravel scene, racing in off-road events around the world.

In some ways Haas’s move doesn’t come as a massive surprise. He’s done a handful of gravel events this year, he recently started a gravel-related podcast called The Gravelog, and with an MTB-background he’s no stranger to riding off-road.

As his pro road career winds to a close, Haas spoke to CyclingTips editor-in-chief Caley Fretz about the reasons for his switch to gravel, what he’s expecting, and how he sees the state of the gravel scene more broadly.

Caley Fretz: So, why the move to gravel? You were very well taken care of for a very long time as a WorldTour road racer, so why do you want to take care of yourself now? What’s the drive there?

Nathan Haas: Well, I guess the drive, if I can say it in the simplest terms, is that thinking about it has given me drive. I think the last decade in the WorldTour has been fantastic, but I think what happens is you kind of go into this point in your early career where you like, “I wonder where my ceiling is? I wonder how high that ceiling is? What can I do?” That’s the first fifth [of your career] and then you hit your second fifth and you’re like “Hey, this ceiling is getting pretty high. This is cool. Let’s keep going.”

The drive is to see now what I can actually do with, first of all, what I’ve learnt now, capitalising on that, but is there still some left? And then there’s that third fifth where all of a sudden you’re like “OK, this is pretty good level, but it’s now becoming evident that I’m not Peter Sagan. I’m not one of these guys that just keeps developing endlessly and is just going to become one of the world’s most famous riders from their results.”

And then you hit that fourth fifth where you’re like “Oh wow, it’s taken me a lot of work to even get back to that last third’s level. Not only have I stopped progressing, but there’s signs of regression, and it’s taking a lot of effort to boost that ceiling.” On the other side of the coin is “maybe the other guys around us have gotten so good that I’m not so good anymore relative to the level in the peloton.”

And then there was that final fifth of my career, which I would say would be the last two years with Cofidis, where I’d just been working for guys and they’re not winning. I was part of one victory in two years at Cofidis, so it wasn’t even just that I wasn’t winning, I wasn’t part of anything that made me feel like you were in a winning space. 

And you don’t have to win a race to be in a winning space, you know, but it just became self-evident to me that I just didn’t have as much drive in road as I used to have. And I’d started doing lots of gravel riding and as you know, I’ve been gravel riding for ages. But the more I do, it’s just so addictive.

I did a couple of gravel events this year and like, I got nerves. I actually was nervous and I was like “Holy shit, these are the nerves I had in my first and second third”, and then ego kicks in in the third and fourth fifths of my career where you’re trying to see exactly what you can be, but I lost that young man’s hunger. And the coolest thing with gravel is I’ve got it back.

I feel like on a really basic level, you should be doing what you want to do. I sound like a bit of a tool to infer that I don’t want to be in the WorldTour. And it’s not that I’m saying that; I do know that I’ve only got so many years left at the kind of age range where I really can be one of the world’s best athletes or something. And I sort of just feel like that’s not going to happen anymore in road.

The young guys have gotten so good and I’m just not feeling it like I used to. But with gravel, I’m really feeling it, and I know that with that, I can take that to these big races and just see exactly how far I can go in a sport that’s defining itself.

You’re pretty good friends, I think, with some of the other guys that have done this. Have you talked to them at all about their transition to gravel?

Yeah, 100% man. I mean, that’s a little bit what the Gravelog podcast started as. It was to talk to these guys and to fill things out.

The funny thing is Alex Howes, Lachlie Morton, Ian Boswell, Pete Stetina, Ted King – these are all my ex teammates from different teams, right? I’ve ridden with all these guys. Seeing these guys having so much fun … the cool thing is, they all left the sport for different reasons. 

I think Pete and I are a little bit similar. Sort of like “What’s a few extra years in the WorldTour going to do to change our life story? Probably not much.” And our best years in the WorldTour are behind us, likely to absolutely. Whereas someone like Boswell had a horrible incident that took him out of the game and then a guy like Ted King sort of just got pushed out because that’s the nature of the game and so forth.

I can definitely say that, knowing these guys on a personal level, all of them are the happiest they’ve ever been. What they’re doing is so dream-affirmative. They’re defining themself through their pioneering. They are who they want to be. They’re not trying to toe a party line like “I’m hoping to go to this race this year. I’m hoping to make selection.”

It’s the only time I’ve seen riders … actually have free will. It’s like, “I’m doing this race and this is how I’m going to prepare for it. And I’m not going to get called up to some shitty-arse event in France or Belgium for a week beforehand and go in the rain when I was supposed to be at an altitude camp.”

If you want to organise a family holiday, you know you’re going to be able to do it. You’re not going to be told all of a sudden you’re doing an altitude camp instead and you’ve already paid for your ticket. I think the freedom aspect of it is so dream-orientated and to a certain extent gives people some space to actually be more creative. And I think that that’s what’s missing in the WorldTour now.

The demands of the WorldTour for these young guys coming in is so self-selective that anyone with an artistic or creative sense of self kind of just gets eliminated because they’re like “Hang on – the demands of this lifestyle now are so … almost boring” that they go and find themselves doing something else. And I think that gravel is actually, you know, the magnet that’s going to be attracting all of these interesting characters and storytellers and people that people can really relate with in a sport that people are also just sort of exploring and finding themselves.

The whole gravel sphere is just really suiting me on a human level. But also the fact that this is a new sport. This is a whole new discipline. This has emerged to a point where there’s going to be the first World Championships next year, and it’s pretty exciting to say, “Hey, I’ve made a life decision to actually go be part of the start of something and hopefully be a positive influence on where the sport goes and grows.” 

So for me, there’s nothing but yeses when I think about “Should I do this?” And leaving the road behind? To be honest, I’m not really upset about it. Would I still love to be going to Tour Down Under and racing Amstel Gold Race, Strade Bianche? Absolutely. But I look back – I did 10 years in the WorldTour doing all that stuff; adding one or two more, it’s really not going to change my experience in cycling that much. Whereas going balls deep into this whole new gravel world could really redefine my entire relationship with cycling and my career.  

Do you think if gravel wasn’t the thing right now that you would have just retired this year? 

No, definitely not. I would have kept going. I think the fact that gravel is a thing is why my eyes have been gazing at something else for the last while, you know, and watching that space grow and being so blown away by it.

And you know, it’s also a financial decision to change. That’s the negative side of changing over to the gravel compared to the road. The decision to become a gravel pioneer, or to choose that line – it is a very different kind of realm of things compared to the road contract world. And it’s also a lot more work.

I’m now booking and budgeting flights throughout the year and choosing my hotels and no longer being angry at race organisers for booking shit hotels. Because that money is coming out of my pocket now! So I’ll be booking what I think is right.

When we were talking on your podcast, we were talking about Pete [Stetina] specifically and I mentioned the fact that I view that shift as a really, really difficult one, like pulling all the sponsors together. You go from having everything taken care of for you, to being your own small business. How has that been for you?

Yeah, look, it’s different, that’s for sure. But I think necessity is kind of the key, right? I have this new dream and there are no teams out there that can just sign you and organise everything for you. So then you kind of see the need to do stuff as more of a choice.

I’m choosing to go do this stuff and have these conversations and creating the kind of story in my own self was the first point. It’s like: what am I trying to do next year? Am I just out there to have some fun? Am I out there to grow some sideburns, maybe a little goatee, drink beers? Or am I out there to try to become the world’s best gravel rider? Or is it somewhere in between?

One of the sayings I love most in life is “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there”. So if you’re going to go down a road, you better know where you’re trying to go. The first part of this whole adventure was actually defining what I want to do and how I see myself moving into the sport of gravel. Once it began to be something in its own right, in terms of the idea, it was quite amazing, talking to partners.

Me having a very clear idea of what I want to be doing and how I want to be doing it has been what’s made this so fun. Everyone’s trying to get into the gravel space, but some people are trying to do it in a cool way. Some people are trying to do it in a performance-driven way, and some people are trying to do it somewhere in between. And it’s really interesting how, when your goals and visions line up with another company, it doesn’t really even feel like a question, should we work together into the future? It feels like a no-brainer for both sides.

I have to say this whole new side of things has been so much fun and I’ve gotten so much energy and a real drive for the business side of this because I’ve not had to think about this. It’s a fantastic experience and exercise in itself to test the validity of the entire project. And then when you start to realise how many people are so keen to be part of it, all of a sudden you start to realise “Hey, man, this is getting off the road and this is going to be damn good.”

And then you start making plans and they kind of snowball into something really big. And then all of a sudden you realise there’s a lot of meat on the bone and it’s going to be an awesome year. You just have to do some extra work.

Haas (right) after finishing third in the inaugural Serenissima Gravel race earlier this year.

You mentioned the World Championships a couple of different times. I’m interested where you think you fall on that spectrum between “go and grow a moustache and hang out and have fun and drink beer at gravel races” and “become the best gravel racer in the world”. Where do you want to be on that spectrum?

You asked me the question before “would I have been retiring at the end of this year if it wasn’t for gravel?” And I said, no, and that’s because I’m not done being a bike racer. I’m a racer and I love the feeling of competition, and I love finding out exactly how far I can go in something.

In road I feel like I found my limit and I had a really, really good time winning some races, getting some great results in other races, but ultimately I found out how good I can be in road. But now it’s time to find out how good I can be in gravel.

I don’t want to get ahead of myself and say “I’m here to win the World Championships. I’m going to win all of this kind of stuff.” But what I’m trying to say to myself is like “Dude, I want to go all in; 100% all in and go for it.”

The reality is gravel is cool anyway. I don’t need to put extra paint on the canvas to be “this is such a laid-back sport. It’s great.” It is a laid back sport and it is great. But on the other hand, guys like Pete Stetina, they’re still doing 25 to 30 hour weeks training and coming to a race with their own mechanics. So it’s not like they’re not taking it seriously. And that’s where I kind of want to be at.

I want to enjoy the racing. I want to have a beer afterwards. But truth be told, I’m there to try to win it. If I end up not winning it or getting top 10 or not even getting into the top 10, that’s not really how I’m going to judge my success in gravel. My success in gravel is the application of what I want to do, and that’s: I want to go into a new sport that’s emerging, that’s growing into something [where] these results are starting to matter.

And I know that the articles [about], say, Ian Boswell winning Unbound got more hits on different news outlets than any other bike race during that month. And that’s the month where the [Criterium du] Dauphiné is on, Tour de Suisse is on. It’s showing that these races are starting to matter on a global scale and also a commercial scale. And I think the time for gravel is now. And I kind of want to see if I can be a big part of defining and shaping this new inception of the sport. 

Haas racing on the gravel at Strade Bianche back in 2019 (when he was with Katusha-Alpecin).

Do you have a rough race calendar for next year?

Yeah, I mean, you have to keep in mind a little bit that the gravel thing is a bit funny because you actually have to apply to get into the races and there’s a lottery. So it’s even a bit of a lottery if you get into the races you’re planning.

Some of the partners and sponsors that I’ve got next year are partners and sponsors of those big races so I’ve been rest assured that I will be at them. But at the same time, the gravel world is a little bit interesting because they’re mass participation, but you’re not guaranteed that you’re in there until you’ve got your ticket, so to speak.

But when we talk about unsanctioned races, the unofficial world championship is Unbound. There’s no question. It’s the biggest race, it’s the one that everyone knows, and if you talk to anyone in the gravel world, that’s the one that you want to win. But then there’s Steamboat and then there’s some of the Belgian Waffle Rides that are definitely making me excited.

And then there’s the Migration [Gravel] Race in Kenya, the Iceland Rift [the Rift Gravel Race Iceland], the Traka 360K in Girona. I think at the moment they’re kind of the coolest unsanctioned races going on.

But then there’s this whole new, exciting thing of the UCI getting involved and they’re piggybacking on a lot of races across the globe next year. They’re not necessarily putting on their own races – they’re just sort of putting their UCI touch to it and making it a series. And then also having the World Championships. I’m not going to hide the fact that I’m pretty keen to do some of the UCI races.

I know that there’s a lot of contention from all the guys in the US who are like “Don’t let the UCI get involved!” And for whatever reason they think that the UCI is going to ruin the sport. But my view is the complete opposite. I think it’s easy for the Americans to say “I don’t want to get involved in those races”, but for the guys here in Europe, we don’t have that many races on. 

If the Unbound promoters want to come over to Europe and start putting on some races, then maybe we won’t need the UCI. But as it stands, it’s just not enough racing here in Europe yet to just do unsanctioned events. So I’m pretty keen to be someone that does unsanctioned and UCI-sanctioned events and not really see that one defeats the purpose of the other, which is what a lot of people’s narrative seems to be right now.

Haas in action during the Serenissima Gravel race in October.

Yeah, the front and back of these races can feel very different and I think that’s an OK thing …

I just don’t understand what people have as an issue in terms of someone saying “Hey, we’re trying to put on a race where there’s a series and some regulation.” One of the things that the UCI actually brings in is accountability. You know, a race organiser can’t just disappear if all of a sudden, there was a really big issue that happens out on the road.

If there’s a safety problem, the UCI is involved and there’s actually a bottom line of accountability. And I’m not saying that I’ve seen any problems in gravel races yet, but there are certain advantages that the UCI getting involved brings.

And as gravel becomes more commercial and it becomes more competitive and it becomes people’s jobs, we also are going to need doping control. Right now, there’s nothing. So, does it sort of change the overall vibe of gravel? Maybe I’m not the right person to speak yet because I’ve not gone and done these events in the States and I don’t necessarily know how they feel. I’ve done the ones in Europe and they feel very laid back and very cool and very fun.

But you know, is the question different when I pose it in light of saying … is the outcome of the Tour de France different because the Bay Crits were on in Australia? One’s sanctioned and one’s unsanctioned. They’re both bike racing, and I think they’re both really important in their own right. And I don’t think that the Tour de France cheapens the Bay Crits, and I don’t think the Bay Crits existing cheapens the Tour de France. 

They’re all bike races and everyone knows that the unsanctioned races are going to have a different vibe. And if that’s the vibe that you want to do, then cool, just do those. But if you also want to dabble in the UCI races, then do that as well.

There’s no love lost for me. I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think let’s just all be super happy that more bike racing in an evolving sport is happening. And then we can kind of go from there.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.