Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Chad Haga's Recipe for Greatness

The three biggest bike races in the world are the Giro de Italia, the Tour de France and Vuelta de España. Chad Haga, a dude I know from A&M cycling team days, is riding for the Giant-Shimano team in the Vuelta this month and is making a name for himself in the pro ranks.

The idea that he was just graduating and finishing his collegiate cycling career in 2010 and now he’s racing on cycling’s biggest stage is mind-boggling to me, even though I know he's slogged his way up through the domestic team ranks for the past four years.  

And even at this stage, the dues-paying for Chad continues. In pro cycling team terms, Chad is an all-rounder, too skinny to be a sprinter, too big to be a climber, but a strong time trialist, smart, tough and experienced. His role in his first grand tour is to help other guys on his team, keeping them out of the wind and protecting them for the critical moments for sprints and climbs. You might think a pro cyclist would bristle at the idea of working for others, but Chad knows his role (for now) and loves nothing more than setting up a teammate for success.

Check out this finish from Stage 4 of the Vuelta. Forward to about 5:15 into the video.

You´ll see Chad in white pulling his teammate John Degenkolb, for over a kilometer before Degenkolb wins the sprint finish. Normally, about four riders from one team would be lined up in front of their sprinter, expending themselves one by one and getting out of the way after short segments, but at that point in the race only Chad was left. You can see him absolutely blowing himself up to protect his sprinter for over 1,000 meters until the critical moment. It was a prodigious, unheard of effort, and it was all done to put someone else in a position to win. Chad finished in 66th place on that stage, but he called it his best day ever on a bike and if you know cycling team tactics at all you understand why.

I saw Chad’s unselfishness in person, far from the TV cameras, on a chilly MLK day in 2012 a long time before he was racing in Europe. The traditional start of road cycling season at A&M was always the Martin Luther King Day Monday holiday. We’d do a 100 mile ride at a fairly easy pace, trying to keep as many people with the big group as possible. An eclectic group of riders would show up: team members and prospective team members as well as old team guys and experienced riders from around town.  One of those old team guys with us was Chad, who was riding professionally with a team in Colorado but was in town visiting his brother Shane. So we’d have some of the fastest guys in the state riding in a group with some capable riders and some people who had never ridden over thirty miles before. 

The ride went fine until about the 70 mile point as we were leaving Somerville and heading back towards College Station. Someone in the group lost control in stretch of slight downhill with a fast tailwind and the peloton went down in a heap that resulted in a lot of lost skin and two guys with broken collarbones. Michael Kamps always drove a truck behind us to take care of stragglers and now he had to leave us to take two guys to the hospital. We got ourselves sorted out and got going again and within five miles one of the riders couldn’t turn the pedals. He had some kind of sharp hip pain and couldn’t make the bike go at any speed at all. There we were, 25 miles from home with no Sag vehicle. Chad could have very easily said, “Hey guys, I think I’m just going to get on home” and left us to sort out our disaster. He was a pro cyclist out there riding with a mish-mash of riders now crippling along at 16 mph. But he didn’t do that. He had the injured cyclist take his foot off the pedals. Chad got on one side of the guy and Andrés González, a friend of the team from Houston, got on the other side of the guy and they rode along with him and pushed him the rest of the way home. Chad got no training benefit out of that day and risked injury riding with us, but he stayed with us and helped us because he cared about the team more than himself.

The Vuelta, Chad´s biggest stage race up to now, has scripted that Chad be a supporting guy for his team, but at some point, before he's done racing, Chad is going to get his chance. It´ll be an individual time trial or a breakaway where the peloton foolishly lets him go. At some point he´ll win a stage and get to stand on that top step. And when you see it you´ll know how that success was built. He will have gotten great through helping others.