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BRESSANONE, Italy (VN) — Pain is written all over Heinrich Haussler as he sits on the back of his team car after Sunday’s stage 15 mountain time trial in the Giro d’Italia from Castelrotto to Alpe di Siusi, the stiffness in his lower back and legs confining him to remain seated.
Add the pain of a two-day-old saddle sore, and you understand why Monday’s third rest day is so welcome t0 Haussler whose suffering was probably like what many riders felt after three days in the mountains for two road stages and a time trial — the last two being in the hauntingly beautiful Dolomites of northeast Italy.
“Up until two days ago I have been okay, but now I am really badly in the box,” says Haussler. “I have got this really bad saddle sore. After the first mountain stage — stage 13 [from Palmanova to Cividale del Friuli] I could not sit. I was doing all the climbs standing up, and I stuffed my legs, stuffed my muscles and yesterday [stage 14 from Alpago to Corvara in which five of the six categorized climbs were over 2,000m in altitude] I was out the back pretty much by myself for the first 80km. You are in the box, going at altitude, going hunger flat and have all these thoughts in your head. It’s so easy to just stop, give up and go home …”
Somehow, IAM’s Haussler fended off the temptation to quit, to take the easy path. In his struggle, he thought of all the positives in his life, such as his recently born twins.
“It would be so easy to go home but yeah … somehow you get through it,” Haussler says. “You just push yourself to the limit, and it is same as today — for a time trial uphill — and you are just smashing yourself. Now I am just sitting there just thinking, ‘Why …’ [laughing].”
As for Monday’s rest day where the Giro entourage was based in the Sud Tirol of Italy? “That’s what I have been thinking about,” Haussler says, with a shake of his head. “I am just going to take that risk and take the whole day off because my butt needs it to recover a bit.”
A little earlier, fellow Australian Rory Sutherland (Movistar) was also smiling, but not out of disbelief like Haussler.
Sutherland, who has ridden so strongly for his Spanish team leader and overall contender Alejandro Valverde, is relishing every punishing demand that is being placed upon him.
Saturday’s queen stage was Sutherland’s finest day yet. He led the main group of overall favorites that was trailing behind a breakaway of 36 riders over the first major climbs. Sutherland, with his teammates in tow, set a tempo that quickly discarded sprinters (like Haussler), flatlander domestiques, and the lame or ill.
“I have never felt so good coming into the third week of a grand tour,” says Sutherland.
So good in fact, as Sutherland pained those behind him with every pedal stroke on Saturday, he took in the sheer beauty of the Dolomites, showcased by a beaming sun. “You look up every now and again and see the beauty,” says Sutherland. “But this is why the fans come too. That’s how you get the fans in and luckily we had really good weather.”
Informed of Sutherland’s buoyant spirits two thirds into the Giro — and that the Movistar rider actually saw beauty in what was simply a day of hell for him — Haussler lightheartedly remarks: “Of course I am not a hill climber, but stages like that should just be forbidden.
“That was probably the hardest stage I have ever done in my life. Just the altitude … being at that high the whole time. It might not look that hard but the altitude just takes it out of you.”
Haussler then reveals he actually suspected it was Sutherland’s tempo that caused his demise.
“That’s the reason I got dropped,” Haussler says. “On the first climbs, on the switchbacks, I was looking up and thinking, ‘Rory … just slow down, man … Slow down. C’mon.’
“I knew he was on the front. But the guys [the breakaway group] out in front was pretty big and they had already had four or five minutes’ lead. He has to do his work for the team.”
Haussler, still seated and in no apparent rush to leave his team car, then concedes the natural beauty of the region in which he has suffered so much: “It is pretty amazing ’round here … From seeing while riding towards the start [of the stage 15 time trial], I think for spectators all around the world watching it on TV … It would have been an amazing race to watch.”
Amazing enough to consider that for all the punishment he had experienced that he might take satisfaction from having played a role in such a memorable day of racing that stage 14 was?
“Yes and no,” says Haussler, tilting his head left and right. “It is too soon to think about that, but towards the end of the day I went up to Adam Hansen and said, ‘You are crazy mate … You do this three times a year.’ And he was like, ‘No … no. It’s good fun.
“’It’s better than sitting in the office.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, right ….’ But when you think about it, it is true. You only start to realize once you stop, how good the sport is … racing all around the world and pretty much having your hobby as a job. It is the best job in the world.”
But without rest days like Monday’s, many riders might feel otherwise. Most, probably, would not survive to enjoy the satisfaction of finishing a grand tour; especially after three brutal mountain stages like these. As Sutherland acknowledges: “A time trial before the rest day gives the guys who have been sick, or are sick — or the guys who are completely screwed — a chance to recover. You want to get as many people to the finish as possible to keep the race going. It also keeps the GC riders going. Grand tours are a big mental smack so the chance you get to have a day and half or two days in the same hotels, chill out — and in this area — is not too bad.”