Since moving from rural Australia to Germany alone as a 14-year-old in pursuit of a dream that at first felt like a tear-inducing nightmare, Heinrich Haussler has only known cycling.
For more than 20 years his life revolved around two wheels – from regimented training in the depths of winter at a foreign sports school, to winning a stage of the Tour de France, being crowned Australian road champion, and assisting teammates to career-defining success.
It wasn’t a job for Haussler, it was a lifestyle and an insulated and selfish one at that, from which nearly all his adult relationships have stemmed.
“You live in a bubble where you’re the number one person,” Haussler tells Rouleur.
“Everyone does everything just for you, even if you’re the worker, how you say it, a domestique, everyone, especially if you’re Belgian where cycling is massive, you’re the king, you’re the absolute king.
“And one day to the next that stops, and then you’re pretty much a nobody.”
At 39, Haussler knew his days competing in the WorldTour were limited. He saw it in his training numbers. His contracts at Bahrain Victorious were limited to one-year deals. And his influence at the squad he first joined in 2017 had become less about physical contribution at a race and more to do with his priceless experience.
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But he didn’t anticipate at the end of last season, when he recovered from another case of COVID-19 to compete at the 2022 UCI Road World Championships that Wollongong would be the last race of his decorated career in which he represented Germany and Australia.
A few months later at a December training camp a set of routine heart tests detected an arrhythmia irregularity, which his team acted on immediately.
Haussler's career came to an abrupt end after training camp tests (Getty Images)
“They picked up a small change in the stress ECG and the resting ECG and from then onwards, directly next day, they were like, ‘Heino, no, you’re not riding anymore, we’re going to send you home, you need to go back to Freiburg, get in touch with the clinic, and you need to do a proper MRI, everything again’,” Haussler recalls.
Haussler returned to his home in Germany and instead of readying for a winter of cyclo-cross, which he took on with genuine enthusiasm in recent years, and the 2023 road season, the Classics specialist did something totally unfamiliar. He put the bike aside and rested.
“The first few weeks, straight away they said you probably won’t be able to keep going on that level as a professional athlete, and then my world kind of fell apart,” Haussler says.
Doctors still don’t know if Haussler has ventricular tachycardia (VT) or supraventricular tachycardia (SVT).
“You know, you go from one day to the next being a professional athlete, completely smashing yourself, to where the doctors just say, ‘Look, you need to act as if you’ve got a broken leg, just rest, rest, rest,” he continues. “That was, for me, the most difficult part, not being able to go out and ride my bike and be with the team.”
Heart issues aren’t something one typically associates with elite endurance athletes, no less ultra-skinny road cyclists, but Haussler counters that’s not true, and he has reminders around him of how serious they can be. Only last year Haussler’s former teammate Sonny Colbrelli, 32, prematurely retired due to cardiac arrhythmia, having collapsed after finishing second to Michael Matthews on stage one of the Volta a Catalunya. Colbrelli prior to that had been at the peak of his powers, with Haussler assisting him to victory at Paris-Roubaix in 2021 and placing 10th himself.
“If you look at what we do, how many calories we eat, how many times you put your body into dehydration, and all the sugar we eat, the caffeine, you put your body under a lot of stress and that over 20 years, you get to an age where your body is, for me, I’m not a doctor, but I put it this way, they’re warning signs. Your body is telling you, ‘Hey look, you need to slow down a little bit, I’m on the limit’,” Haussler says.
“I won’t say it’s not healthy, but we put our bodies on the absolute edge, suffering and smashing ourselves.”
Haussler has suffered for the sport since he was a teenager. Rejected from the first sports school he moved to the other side of the world to attend because they learned he couldn’t at the time speak German, he earned entry into another in Cottbus.
There, students trained in sub-zero temperatures, on rides that sound as regimented as the military. For Haussler, who up until then had never seen snow before let alone trained in it, and in a time before the internet and mobile phones, when letter writing was the primary way to communicate with those back home, crying himself to sleep each night became the norm for a period.
However, Haussler not only adapted but learned to thrive in such conditions. Some of his biggest wins came in wintry weather that rivals couldn’t operate in. He recalls it being 10 degrees Celsius and pelting rain the day he celebrated a solo victory on stage 13 of the 2009 Tour.
“If you look at the races I won over my whole career they’ve either been in absolutely filthy dirty weather, or I’ve really had to use my head, really tactically, even my first win at the Vuelta, I was only 20 years old but I rode already then so smart and just tactically outplayed the riders in the group I was in,” he says.
Haussler thrived in conditions where others struggled (Pauline Ballet/ASO)
Haussler maintained a low profile as he underwent further examinations at the beginning of this year, hopeful of a different outcome than the one that eventuated: retirement from professional racing, which Bahrain Victorious announced in a statement days before Paris-Roubaix.
MRI scans revealed he also had myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart.
“They can’t tell if it was recently or old, on the MRI scans, and that’s why I had to take almost three months off, with beta blockers and medication, to see how the heart reacts, if this scar tissue would disappear. I’ve still got some kind of scar tissue on my heart,” Haussler continues.
At no point through the process did Haussler feel unwell. But the combination of having to suddenly consider retirement, the end of life as he knew it, and awareness of what could happen with his prognosis prompted him to see a psychiatrist.
“I haven’t had any problems whatsoever. I feel healthy. It’s more in your head because then you start imagining things. You go on the computer and start Googling stuff and your fucking mind just plays games, it runs completely wild,” he says.
For the longest time cycling was everything to Haussler. He moved to the other side of the world and learned a new language for it. But now, with a full palmarès, 22 pro wins to his name, and his wife and their eight-year-old twin boys, Haussler has more to live for.
“To be honest, especially with family, I just don’t need to push it, or even take that risk of something happening. After all [the] specialists getting together and communicating, they say there is a risk there, so just decided, yeah nah, fuck it,” he says.
“I’ve already had three months off the bike, to get back into form again would take me at least three months and then the season is pretty much done for me anyway because to be honest I was always, for me, my season was always over after Paris-Roubaix. I’d keep on racing for the rest of the season but you’re always thinking about the classics.”
The psychiatrist has helped Haussler to navigate his changed circumstance, which saw him return to Paris-Roubaix last week in a team car as he prepares to transition into a new role as a sports director at Bahrain Victorious.
“Heaps of time has passed. I still am with a psychiatrist, not that I need it, or I don’t think I need it, like I’m not depressed or anything, especially I noticed on the weekend, being with the team, being with the directors, being at races again, I was my normal self again, but it is just a big difference,” he says.
“One thing that’s helped now stopping is just the last years, I’ve always said to myself give everything, what I have, so that when I do stop, I’ll have absolutely no regrets, and that’s also the way it is.
“In the beginning it was difficult because you’re living in this bubble for 20 years where you have your daily routine, your training and everything, and that all comes to an end and you start to think about all the little things; growing up in Inverell, moving to Germany just for that one thing… The sport has given me so many opportunities. But it’s like it’s all bang, from one day to the next it’s over, and it takes time to process.”
Haussler has for several years considered his future as a sports director but his love for racing and ability to do that outweighed it.
Now, with the decision in some ways made for him, he is focused on performing at the highest level in another field, and already has a clear and very passionate vision for it, stemming from his time at the former Cervélo Test Team where he spent two influential years learning about real and effective teamwork.
Haussler's biggest victory came in the pouring rain at the 2009 Tour de France (Getty Images)
“I was fortunate enough to learn from older guys that taught me and then pretty much sat me down after races and really, they didn’t beat me physically, but they beat the shit out of me mentally, telling me, ‘Hey look, you can’t do that anymore. You’re not the only one in the team, it’s all of us.’ I was fortunate enough to have those teachers around me who taught me that,” he recalls.
Building something special
Haussler concedes that technological advancements in the sport have elevated it to another level where nearly everything is automated and delivered to riders in a neat package.
However, he still believes in the advantages of a true team culture and tactical nous, which served him memorably and, in a peloton consistently noting a lack of respect amongst riders, may be desperately needed.
“Because everything is so far advanced, in my eyes, a lot of the younger guys they’ve forgotten how to race, they’ve forgotten how to even use their brains because they have a GPS on their Garmin, everything is done for them, everything is delivered to them on a silver plate,” Haussler says.
“The thing is, if you have the legs and you have the knowledge then you’re pretty much Superman. You’re almost unstoppable. But if you only have strong legs, especially in the Classics, you’re not going to get necessarily super far with it.”
Haussler already has had people question his choice to pursue sports directing, noting the long hours in the car and other challenges of the job but he is ready to roll up his sleeves and if his success as a cyclist is anything to go by, the culture he wishes to instill as a director will be a reality sooner rather than later. Haussler starts in his new position on May 1.
“I really want to get into the Classics, also lead-outs, sprints, smaller races, week stage races where you can really do something tactically,” Haussler continues.
“It’s still possible, you know, with having an amazing team spirit and an amazing group of guys that just sacrifice themselves for each other to build something special and get really good results. That’s something I’ve always been following or chasing since back then with Cervélo, and something that I also experienced a few times with Bahrain the last few years.
“Moments like in Paris-Roubaix when Sonny won, they’re the ones you do all the hard work [for], they’re the things you take to your grave. It sounds weird and maybe some people might [say] it’s just sport, it’s just a win, but it’s something I would like to try and create in the group.”
Cover image by Zac Williams/SWPix