PEZ Talk: Katusha’s Marco Haller
Rider Interview: Marco Haller is starting his fourth professional season and is only 23. He has the experience and is still young enough to have a long career and is already on one of the best WorldTour teams. We caught up with him in Spain to find out more about the Katusha pro from Austria.
At 23 Marco has a nice palmarés: In 2012 he won stage 4 of the Tour of Beijing, then in 2013 the Mountains classification in the Three Days of De Panne, 7th Overall in the Tour des Fjords with a win in the stage 3 team time trial and 7th Overall in the Arctic Race of Norway and then in 2014 he got his home win in stage 8 of the Tour of Austria. After a hard days training in the Spanish Mountains we sat down for a good chat on just about everything.
PEZ: How did an Austrian rider come to a Russian team?
Coincidence maybe, just at the right moment the team needed a rider like me. Maybe it was a risk for them to take a young Austrian to a Russian team, a very young Austrian because I signed the contract when I was only 19. But then I think I proved that I am up to WorldTour level with the win in China I had in the tour of Beijing. Every year I have ridden well and then last year I won on home soil, in the Tour of Austria, so I think I’ve proven that I am ready for it. It’s an interesting thing here, working with the Russians, they are really motivated, and it’s one of the best teams to be in.
PEZ: Does everyone in the team speak English?
Yes, absolutely. English is probably the language you have to have in the peloton. There is still a lot of Italian and a little French, but I think Globalization is going on everywhere, not only in cycling. It makes everyone’s job easier, the mechanics and the Masseurs, if you speak English you can talk to everyone and solve your problems much faster and then you can progress much quicker and that makes the team much stronger. Communication is a very important part. In particular, if you look at the Classics squad, who I am usually with, with Kristoff and now with Guarnieri, they speak perfect English. We also have Smukulis, Kusnetzov and Kochetkov, so everyone speaks proper English.
PEZ: It must have been a big step to come from a Continental team (Adria Mobil) at 19 to a WorldTour Team?
Absolutely, but I was honest and I was thinking ‘should I make this step or should I not?’ I think you have to gamble really high if you say ‘lets stay down one more year at Continental level and then go up’. I think personally it’s easier to make the step directly from Continental to WorldTour than to go ProContinental and then WorldTour because at ProContinental you have to really crush everybody to get attention. Anyway I think I’m the kind of guy who grows with each task, if I am in bigger races I perform better. I think I showed last year in the Tour de Suisse that I’m ready for the big stage already. These days cycling is a sport were you can compete at any age; there are a lot of youngsters up there, so there is no space for excuses anyway.
PEZ: Before when you turned pro you were at the bottom, that has all changed.
Yeah, look at Sagan, look at De Maar, look at those guys, it’s incredible. Probably, hopefully it’s a sign of cycling getting cleaner.
PEZ: What has your training been like this winter?
The first training camp was a little earlier than usual, but still everybody enjoys being on the bike in the good weather. I am absolutely on the plan; I know it’s still some time to first races. I don’t really know my calendar yet but we will discuss this in the coming days and I hope I can start as usual with Qatar and Oman, at least Qatar. It’s a very nice race for me to get things going, then we will see. I have to prove that I am in shape and then it should be the Classics.
PEZ: Do you class yourself as a Classicsman? You do have a good sprint.
A Classics rider has to be fast, a fast rider is usually good in the Classics. But I love the Classics, they are the races I’m really into, Roubaix is the race for me, even though I can’t say I’m one of the contenders. Two times I have started and one time I didn’t even finish so I don’t have a good statistic there, but it is my favorite race.
PEZ: Maybe Roubaix is an older man’s race?
Definitely, I think all the Belgian races and Roubaix and the Cobbled Classics are very much about experience since you really need to know the roads. It was really special to work with Oscar Freire, we had a recon of Flanders, I was with the team, everyone took notes and was trying to recognize which parts you had to focus and we figured out we had 200K to focus on, but Oscar looked at the parts were you can relax. There are only a few parts were you can pee or grab a bottle or put away your rain jacket. That was a completely unorthodox way to look at the race and that was quite interesting. If you stay smart and keep your ears and eyes open you can learn a lot, but you need experience for these races.
PEZ: Do you class yourself as a sprinter?
I’m not the guy with the super fastest kick, but I can hold my power quite long, so that also makes me a good lead-out guy. In the results I took, I usually did a long sprint, like in China where I passed Petacchi and in Austria it was a 350-meter sprint. Of course I’m a sprinter, but for a top class sprinter; I have to be honest I didn’t win enough. I’m fast, I know that.
PEZ: Do you prefer Roubaix to Flanders?
I definitely prefer Roubaix, but for me it’s more likely that I would win in a Classic sprint than a Classic race, at the moment anyway. But maybe with more experience things will be different.
PEZ: You are still only 23.
I’m not the youngest any more; we have our young World champion (Sven Erik Bystrøm). I’m in my fourth professional year, he is 22 but in his first year.
PEZ: You mentioned that you can hold the power for a long time and that makes you a good lead-out rider, would you be happy in that role?
Absolutely. If you compare it to football, you can’t have eleven strikers, so you have to find a proper team, everybody has to have their role. I am a team player and cycling is a team sport, maybe that’s not visible to everyone. I am as happy as (Alexander) Kristoff if he wins a stage or a race. I can really deal with this role.
PEZ: But to pass Petacchi, that’s quite something.
That was great, he was very hungry for the win. It was a great thing to take it and you know I mustn’t forget the taste of winning, that’s crucial as I’m still young. I can, theoretically, go the way of a good winner and I know I still have a lot of potential. I don’t want to get pressed into this role (lead-out) only.
PEZ: Guy’s like Petacchi, Hushovd and the other sprinters seem to last a long time, where as the climbers don’t seem to, apart from Chris Horner.
Sprinters need a lot of experience, climbers it’s more with the legs, when you are on the climb you have to give it what you’ve got. In the sprint you can do a lot with your eyes, you need the experience to know where to be when.
PEZ: Would you say the day you passed Petacchi was your best race?
That is always a hard question. I cannot deny that passing Petacchi and having guys like Boasson Hagen behind you when you are only 20 years old in your first year as a pro, in a WorldTour race, that was special.
PEZ: And the parcours of that day suited you too?
Yes, when I’m in good shape I don’t climb that badly and it wasn’t an easy stage at all and maybe I was still fresher that my opponents. Pan flat stages are not for me; there are guys who are faster than me there, like Kittel and Cavendish. Those guys are like bullets.
PEZ: Beijing or Fjords?
Fjords was great. In the Fjords you really got to feel that cycling is growing so fast in Norway, it’s incredible. It makes it so much fun and I would say that more people know me in Norway than in Austria, I’m 100% sure because cycling in Austria is pretty small. In China it’s much smaller. It was a completely different story when we were in Tokyo for the criterium in Saitama, that was great, they really love cycling, but China… I don’t know.
PEZ: What about the Arctic Race, there are not many people up there.
The Arctic Race was way better the year before, it was nice to go up there and say you have raced on the most northern point, but for spectators, there is nobody there. You get nice pictures and nice television, the filming was awesome.
PEZ: There are a lot of people in Beijing?
Yes, but when we raced in the Tour of the Fjords and we were in Stavanger, Kristoff’s hometown, you felt like the whole city was watching and it probably was. It’s a small city but everyone was out watching the race and that was a great feeling.
PEZ: What made you go into cycling?
I was playing ice-hockey, football, Alpine skiing, I did everything until I was 14 years old, then I changed to go to the sports school and then I had to say which to focus on. I played football and went cycling with some ice hockey in the winter.
PEZ: What made you decide to go with cycling?
I was most successful there (with cycling). In cycling I could measure myself against international riders, like at the youth Olympics, in Belgrade I took a silver medal. In football you only play locally. Then the junior World championships proved me right with a bronze medal in Moscow, that’s the only time I’ve ever been in Moscow.
PEZ: You are in a Russian team and never been to Moscow?
No, never since the World championships, I’ve never been in Russia. One time they had the team presentation there, but I didn’t go. It’s an international team and this is a global sport.
PEZ: Did the sports school aim you towards cycling?
It was my personal decision. It was the right decision and I am happy where I am now. It’s great to be one of the top level cyclists and be part of the World Tour, it makes me proud and makes my family proud because my parents spent a lot of money and time on my passion and it’s good when you see it paying off.
PEZ: As cycling is quite small in Austria, do people think it strange that you are a cyclist?
I usually tell a nice story if people ask me about this. If you get talking to someone in Austria and they ask you what you do and you tell them you are a cyclist, they will say ‘yeah, but where do you get your money from?’ Then I have to explain some things; a professional cyclist can make money. What was most difficult was the early years, as a youngster you hardy get any help from the government or education money from anywhere, so it’s really up to your parents and unfortunately cycling is not the cheapest sport, so this is definitely a problem to bring more good cyclists out of Austria. It’s a shame because we have some really good talent.
PEZ. In Germany, because of all the problems they have not had any TV coverage of cycling for a few years now, is it the same in Austria?
Germany had Jan Ullrich and Telekom and we had our Bernard Kohl, it was quite the same shit. It’s really a shame, he broke a big hole in Austrian cycling, but I think we recovered in Austria. There is still not 100% trust, I don’t think, it will take some time for big companies and big sponsors to come back, but we are on the right way. If you look at the Pro teams, there is me at 23, we have Preidler at just a year older and we have Brändle who set the hour record, he is only two years older than me, Denifl is not too old. We have Schorn and two new guys in BORA. So we have a lot of Pros and it’s on us now not to make any mistakes and continue to work and keep it going. I’m sure and confident that a big sponsor will come back and set up a team and I think this would be the most important thing for Austrian cycling. A ProContinental team that can take the talent and put them on the bigger stage.
PEZ: What about beards in the peloton. I don’t mean a bit of stubble, I’m talking about the Dan Craven big beard.
It’s maybe too much, but we don’t have much possibility to be unique or to show your own style, we wear the same team shoes and kit and everything. It’s a trend, a fashion. You see it everywhere now, people wearing a suit and a big beard.
PEZ: But what about in the Vuelta when it’s 42ºC?
If it’s a disadvantage then it’s his own fault.
PEZ: What about the full arm tattoo?
I don’t have any tattoos, but I’m open to others having one. OK, I know what you mean, the years before you had to have white socks and you had to do this and there were unwritten rules. But you have to be open in everything, not only in cycling. If they want to be pierced everywhere and have tattoos, that’s up to them and if they want to wear a beard in 42 degrees… let them do it.
PEZ: What about black socks?
My training partner is Bernie Eisel, so what can I say? Team colors are OK and I am a fan of white socks.
A race winner who prefers white socks, he gets my vote. Good luck Marco.
All Team Katusha photos by Tim De Waele.