May 23 2010, the morning after the night of the Champions League Final. Trust the son of a football coach to remember that. Heinrich Haussler was drowning his sorrows in a Freiburg nightclub and it had nothing to do with Bayern Munich’s defeat to Inter Milan.
An inconclusive CAT scan of his knee was the latest dodgeball in the guts from a season that had bullied him from the outset.
There are seven hours he doesn’t recall because the beer and vodka wiped his brain. Heinrich’s memory returns in the police station, doing the tests. Standing on one foot, walking the line, having blood taken. Then he went home with a lot more than a hangover on his conscience.
“I was just wishing, please wake up. Please wake up now, this is a bad dream, this is a bad dream,” he recalls.
The police statement pieces it together. At five o’clock, Heinrich left the club and got into his car; he hadn’t even intended to drive that night. He somehow manoeuvred out of a tight parking spot, then ran a red light and T-boned a car going in the opposite direction. Both vehicles were write-offs.
At some point during the early hours, Heinrich called a Cervélo TestTeam manager, his squad at the time. Somewhere, deep in his intoxicated consciousness, he was terrified of the repercussions; that this could trigger his sacking and the irretrievable squandering of his talent.
His employers were understanding, issuing a statement the next day rather than delaying or sweeping the story under the carpet. Maybe they realised it would just worsen Haussler’s spiral of negativity.
Heinrich was just relieved there wasn’t a scratch on anyone travelling in the other car. “If something had happened to anybody, I don’t think that’s something I would have been able to live with,” he says, face downcast.
This was a lurch straight back into the Heinrich Haussler of old. He thought he’d left that person behind in 2009. It was his annus mirabilis, a success-laden early spring clearing the way for second place at Milan-Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders. Cleaning up his act that winter had unlocked his dazzling potential.
Quite an act it was though. He had been Heinrich Haussler, professional cyclist and party freak, a talent who didn’t realise how good he was until it was almost too late.
Eight months after turning professional with Gerolsteiner – although the younger, materialistic Heinrich wanted to join T-Mobile because he had heard they got free phone credit and monthly part-payment for cars – Haussler went on to win a stage of the 2005 Vuelta.
It was impressive for a freshman professional, let alone considering he had been drinking wine in his hotel room with team-mate Thomas Ziegler until four o’clock that morning.
“I didn’t feel fine, but when you’re younger, you can do stuff like that. Now, firstly, I don’t want to do it, it’s bad for your body. Secondly, it’s just not possible. It’s stupid,” he says.
He was lucky to still be there. The Gerolsteiner management had threatened to send Ziegler and Haussler home after they wound up in a Lloret de Mar nightclub at the end of the race’s first week. His face crinkles into a thousand-volt smile at the memory of their mischievous truancy.
Haussler signed a new contract halfway through his first year at Gerolsteiner. He was a big deal, the guy from Cottbus who made pro. Pseudo-friends and hangers-on convinced him they were real mates. It took years to realise the deception. It all went straight to his head and he let things go.
Through his Gerolsteiner days, he was into the party scene. Cottbus was okay for a night out, but an hour north, Berlin gave more choice, different music in every district, different people to buy drinks for. And he would too, one of the happiest drunks around (“I’ve never been in a fight my whole life”).
Sometimes he’d roll in from a club at six in the morning and go training, still drunk. Heinrich had the stud earrings, ultra-gelled blonde hair and the career built on the quicksand of his own bacchanalia.
In summer 2007, he contracted glandular fever twice, “just because I was treating my body like shit, going out at night, having fun, and the next day trying to train, putting myself under that much stress,” he recalls.
Money was nothing to him. He’d blow his wages on nice clothes – cars and watches weren’t really his thing – then wait for the next cheque to arrive.
“I’d just ring up my parents and say ‘hey guys, I need some for this or that’. They’d done everything for me, they would have spent their last cent on me and I took everything for granted back then. When you’re young, you don’t think about stuff like that… you get to a certain point, look back and think ‘shit, I was such a dickhead back then’.”
The 2010 drink-driving incident in Freiburg was sparked by an umpteenth CAT scan that day when the doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with him.
That frustration, piled on top of the rest in his wall-to-wall bad year, was the catalyst for what happened next. While driving back home, his friends asked him to come over for a barbecue and a few beers. The catch was, they’d need some beers and meat.
“Back in Gerolsteiner, Stefan Schumacher was caught drink driving in 2008… I said to myself then ‘I will never do that’. We were like that, we always ordered taxis… Straight away I was like ‘fuck, now I need to drive my car,’” he recalls.
When he crashed the next morning, he was over the legal limit. “Shit yeah, over the roof,” he says. Heinrich had to pay 10 per cent of his wage as a fine.
The next day, he went to the police station and sought the identity of the driver of the other car to apologise.
“I’d be a pretty bad person if I wasn’t sorry. I was totally in the wrong… If something had happened to someone, how do you explain that to their parents? Fuck. You probably end up in jail for 20 years or something. I don’t want to think about it.”
Cervélo put out a press release. His face falls and he leans his temple on his right hand as he talks about it. “All the major newspapers got it and explaining it to my parents was hard… I felt very ashamed. Like a piece of shit.”
He went to a psychiatrist. “In the beginning, I didn’t open up whatsoever. I was like ‘I don’t have an alcohol problem.’ But then you go more often, you open up and then they tell you how the body works. When you’re at a younger age and drink that much, you’ve got this thing in your brain where you switch out, that stays like that forever. That’s why you get these blackouts. You numb your brain. That’s why you don’t spew, why you can reach those levels. Because the brain doesn’t function, it can’t say ‘enough’.”
He lives for cycling now, eats healthily and goes to altitude several times a year. The professional cycling world he entered has changed too. Back in 2005, the Vuelta was a more relaxed affair. You could get away with a night on the razz.
Heinrich, naturally warm and likeable, would still be good fun at a party. This is an older, more self-aware version, flicking through a photo album in his mind, smiling but probably wondering how he survived, how he jolted himself out of that destructive cycle. He was young and carefree, feckless and reckless.
Why was he going out through those years?
“Ah, I don’t know. Because I was stupid. It was fun at the time. Or maybe I thought it was fun.”
He laughs. “Now when I look back at it, it was just stupid. Also what you put your body through…”
I’m still not sure if he can decide.
This is an edited extract from the Heinrich Haussler feature which appeared in issue 43 of Rouleur. It was published in December 2013.