Chad Haga’s Giro d’Italia, over-simplified: 3,572km in support of Tom Dumoulin

It’s Tuesday, May 29 — about 48 hours after the completion of the 2018 Giro d’Italia — and Chad Haga is sitting in his most comfortable chair at his home in Girona, Spain. He’s coughing sporadically, but not as much as he was two days earlier. For the second consecutive…

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It’s Tuesday, May 29 — about 48 hours after the completion of the 2018 Giro d’Italia — and Chad Haga is sitting in his most comfortable chair at his home in Girona, Spain. He’s coughing sporadically, but not as much as he was two days earlier.

For the second consecutive year, the 29-year-old American rode the Giro in support of Dutch teammate Tom Dumoulin. In 2017, that led to overall victory for Team Sunweb. This year, it led to a runner-up position for Dumoulin, 46 seconds behind Chris Froome.

Though he came down with a respiratory infection in the final week, Haga finished the Giro, as he has with all seven Grand Tours he’s started since joining the team in 2014. This year’s race brought one of his best career results, seventh in the Stage 16 time trial, 12 seconds behind Froome and ahead of established TT riders like Vasil Kiryienka, Victor Campenaerts, and Ryan Mullen.

Haga’s Giro was also marked by humorous daily tweets that boiled down the storyline of each stage into one sentence. They evolved throughout the race as Haga ultimately chose to label them “over-simplified” stage reports.

CyclingTips caught up with Haga to discuss his Giro performance riding in support of Dumoulin, his view on Froome’s remarkable 80km solo breakaway, the Grande Partenza in Jerusalem, and the genesis of those over-simplified stage reports.

CyclingTips: First and foremost, congratulations on completing your seventh Grand Tour out of seven starts.
Chad Haga: Thank you. It’s a good record I’d like to keep going.

CT: You had mentioned when we were setting up this chat that during the last week of the Giro, you were dealing with a respiratory infection. That speaks to the difficulty of a three-week race as the body starts to fall apart in the final week. I know others, such as Mike Woods (Education First-Drapac), had a similar illness. How did it impact your race?
Chad Haga: Yeah. I am. I’m not sure exactly when it set in, I think it may have been just starting the day of the time trial and then I went so deep it kind of kicked the coughing into gear, because I never really recovered after that. But the last two days in particular, anytime I went over 300 watts, it just sort of induced a coughing fit. That makes it tough. There were a few guys in the peloton just coughing all the time, getting some concerned looks from their colleagues. Now that I’ve had a couple days of rest, it’s starting to go away. Sunday night, after the race, I had a horrible night of sleep, it was like a fever was breaking, just drenched in sweat. I wasn’t sure what was going on and then when I finally got home, I took my temperature and sure enough, I had a fever. Monday night was quite brutal but the fever broke and now I’m feeling much more normal and it looks like the nasty stuff in my chest and sinuses is mostly cleared out. I think I’ll be healthy again soon.

CT: I want to ask you about that time trial in a bit, but first and foremost, I’m interested to hear about your viewpoint riding for Tom Dumoulin for the second time at the Giro d’Italia. Was there a discernible difference between riding for him as a GC contender (and ultimately the overall winner) last year versus riding for him as a defending champion this year?
Chad Haga: Well, as far as the mechanics of how we do it, nothing changed there, but mentally, we knew this year we had the confidence that if we do everything right, it’s possible to win. That motivated us more, knowing that victory was actually achievable or possible.

CT: And is there a flip side of that, in terms of pressure, or media attention, or expectations, coming in with the defending champion?
Chad Haga: You feel the expectation a little bit, knowing that he’s an outright favorite for the race, but I think we all did a good job of not letting that affect us negatively, but positively, to turn it around and show that we can handle the pressure and it’s not misplaced optimism — that we really could do it.

Chad Haga (left) with Sunweb teammate Tom Dumoulin in the maglia rosa on Stage 2 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

CT: Looking back on the Giro, it seemed like Dumoulin had a very steady and almost flawless race — in several of his post-race quotes he said he couldn’t have done any better, and certainly there were no bad days or egregious errors. With Chris Froome’s 80km solo attack, Dumoulin made the decision to wait for Sebastian Reichenbach (Groupama-FDJ) to help chase, and it seems like a decision that most GC riders would make at 80km from the line. But that may have ended up costing him time. Looking back, what are your thoughts on Froome’s ride in general, but also on Tom’s decision. Do you think that may that ended up being a mistake?
Chad Haga: It’s hard to be sure whether it was a mistake or not because … well, first of all, Froome’s ride was spectacular and we’ve seen so many times in cycling that a lone rider really has an advantage over a group sometimes because everybody behind… while you would think strength in numbers, everybody saves a little bit, or some of them do anyways, and we saw the same when Yates attacked, what was it, Sappada? I mean, the same discussion happened after that, whether Tom should have just chased alone and not minded the games from the others. But, the day that Froome attacked, say Tom did chase solo, maybe it would have turned out that Tom was in pink that day but he already had to go quite deep to achieve what he did with any help at all. Maybe if he had done the same solo chase, he would have been even worse on Stage 20. I guess it didn’t matter so much, but it’s difficult to play the what-if game because there’s only so much energy you can use. Maybe he used it in the smartest way possible.

CT: I think it’s also important for people to keep in mind that that’s relatively a split-second decision. That’s not something he thought about at dinner the night before or at breakfast. They’re going over the top of the Finestre and Pinot is saying “I’ve got a teammate coming” and he made the decision on the spot — and 80km from the line, I think almost any GC contender would say “Yeah, I want the numbers.”
Chad Haga: It’s a very rational decision. It’s hard to fault him for that call.

CT: In race situations, Dumoulin seems very calm, cool, and collected. He doesn’t panic, he seems to ride to his threshold. But we’ve also seen he can get a bit emotional. Can you tell us about his character in terms of what he was like, particularly in that last week, and how that set the mood for the team?
Chad Haga: Really, it was quite impressive in that he was able to compartmentalize very well. After the stages, he was still a bit fired up, or before them, but around the dinner table, it was really still quite mellow and happy, not even talking about the race so much. I think that’s a lesson he learned earlier this year when we saw all his races go relatively poorly. He was just trying too hard and too stressed out all the time, and so, he really worked hard at the Giro to stay as chill as possible, not to take anything away from his competitiveness, he was able to really turn that on and off when he needed to, and I think that helped.

CT: Tell us a little bit about your role on the team, riding in support of Dumoulin, and how you enjoy riding for a GC contender at a Grand Tour?
Chad Haga: My role was to ride with him basically as long as I could, every day, to make sure that he was never caught in the wind, in a surprise crosswind bit, or that he never had to chase his own way back through the cars after a pee stop, or really whatever was needed. My job was to be his sidekick and keep him fresh until it was time for him to go. And then, I would save as much energy for the next day. But it’s quite cool just to be sort of attached to him throughout the race, because by the end of it, people kind of expect that when he moves through a gap in the middle of a bunch, I’m coming through also, and you get a little bit more respect that way. It was a good companionship, I think. It was a fun duo.

Chad Haga (Sunweb) on left, riding along with Tom Dumoulin on Stage 9 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia.

CT: You had the chance to ride the time trial for your own result, which is a bit uncommon on a team that’s also looking to win the GC. Can you tell us a little bit about how that’s worked out with team management?
Chad Haga: I was eager to go for it but management was naturally a bit hesitant, because you never know. If you go too deep in the time trial, then maybe I wouldn’t be much help in the final week. But the decision ultimately came, in part at least, due to Tom’s insistence. He saw in the race some GC riders just absolutely collapse in the final week and all the sacrifices their teammates made for them, ultimately, were for naught. And Tom was hopeful that he would be able to go the distance and get the results, but anything can happen and he knew that I was on great form and could do a really good time trial, and he didn’t want me to throw that away with no guarantee that he would be able to finish it off. I’m really thankful to him that he advocates for us that way, he doesn’t want us to sacrifice every opportunity all the time for him. That opened the door for me and I went for it and really made the most of it. I’m very happy.

CT: You first placed ninth — and then you were seventh after Fabio Aru and Diego Ulissi were penalized for drafting. I’m curious to know how it feels to to place in the top 10 in a time trial stage in a Grand Tour, and also to see your position moved up. And the follow-up question would be, in your experience, from what you hear and what you’ve seen, is drafting during time trials something that’s fairly common or was that an exceptional situation?
Chad Haga: I was already very happy with ninth place. I’ve only got one other top-10 time trial in a WorldTour race to my name and not in a Grand Tour, so I was already happy with the top 10, that was my goal. And then, to be upgraded to seventh, ahead of the guys that I didn’t think should have beaten me anyways, was satisfying. It seemed all was right in the world that a ride as good as I had put me there with the best time trialists in the world. I was very happy with that.

And as for motor pacing and time trials, there’s a wide range of experience and ability for those lead motos —  especially, I think, between Italians — and sometimes they might play the game a little bit. You get an Italian leading an Italian, maybe he lets the gap get a little bit smaller than it should be, and it seems like that was the case with Fabio Aru. Whereas, some other motos are really not very good, like mine actually. He cost me some time at the start of the race when I ran up on him in a roundabout and actually had to break so I didn’t run into him. And then I spooked him enough that the rest of the day, he was so far ahead of me that I almost couldn’t see where he went in the corners. There’s really a wide range with the motos, but the ones who know what they’re doing can actually … can really be a benefit if they want to break the rules.

Haga finished seventh on the 34km Stage 16 time trial from Trento to Rovereto.

CT: You mentioned earlier the implosions of some of the GC riders, and I thought that was an interesting story to this Giro. Esteban Chaves, Fabio Aru, Simon Yates, Rohan Dennis, Thibaut Pinot — all guys who at one point were floating around the top 10 in GC or, even in Yates’ case, wearing the maglia rosa —  had really bad days and plummeted down the classification. Was that surprising to you? What do you attribute that to?
Chad Haga: It’s not surprising that one or maybe two have a collapse like that. What was surprising was that there were so many who collapsed. And I think that’s due to the fact that the race was just that hard. No breakaway survived until I don’t remember how late in the race, and I think that’s what ultimately took the toll on the GC riders, there were no easy days where they got a chance to just chill out, really. They had to really race full gas every day and we saw that it caught up with a few of them in the last few days.

CT: Let’s talk about your Twitter summaries, which is one of the things that I really enjoyed about this Giro. I really appreciate it when we can all just take a step back and look at things very simply. Tell me about how those came about, and about how they were received.
Chad Haga: They came about on the day of Chaves’ collapse, Stage 10. We were expecting a really relaxed day behind the breakaway, because it just such an exceptionally long stage, but because Chaves was dropped on that first climb, we went as fast as we could the entire day. And I was completely shattered, I lost 15 minutes to the lead group in the last 15km on slightly downhill terrain. So I was going slow. And I thought, “You know, this whole day is because one single guy in the whole peloton had bad legs today.” So that was the start, I shared that little observation. I did it again the next day just because. And it got a huge reception, people loved it. So I was like “Okay, well, let’s keep it going then.” I think the appeal is that, nothing against cycling journalists, but a lot of cycling reporting can be very dry and repetitive and dull. And I think just the oversimplified way is kind of a fun, new way to look at a bike race. I love the sport, but it’s kind of silly, and there’s also kind of a silly way to state how things went in the day, and people seemed to like it.

CT: They are concise and it’s insightful. For all of the work of the cycling media, there’s so much going on in the peloton, there’s so many viewpoints and I think unless you’re in the peloton, you don’t fully understand exactly what happened and why and oftentimes, it is for one very simple reason. And it can be very concisely explained.
Chad Haga: Every day I just tried to think of what the headline on an Onion article for this stage would read like, just how might they phrase it. And that was my tweet.

CT: I saw you mention something about you got quite a few additional Twitter followers throughout the Giro.
Chad Haga: Yeah, I think the count’s up to almost 3,000 new followers. People seem to like simple.

CT: I know that you are a man of faith, and I’m curious to know your feeling about the Grande Partenza in Jerusalem.
Chad Haga: I think it went off really well and it was a really special place to be for me, so close to so many holy sites for Christianity. It did plant a seed. I know the idea was to increase tourism in Israel and Jerusalem, and it certainly planted that seed in me because I only got to see the Western Wall, which was powerful, but there’s so many other sites close by that I didn’t have the chance to visit. Now, I’ve got the urge to go back someday and I think that’s what they were going for. It was an interesting choice, it was definitely a bold choice for the race to go there, but they pulled it off well and I was happy to finally see Jerusalem and Israel.

CT: I saw that U.S. Nationals is next for you, and I’m curious to hear about your experiences at nationals as a WorldTour rider, because it is an unusual race for Americans, where the WorldTour riders don’t generally have much team support.
Chad Haga: Well, actually, I can’t answer that question yet, because in the years that I’ve been in the WorldTour I’ve never raced nationals. I’m very excited to finally get there this year. I’ve got some time to rest and build up again and hopefully take some Giro legs into that time trial and get the jersey. That is my only personal results goal this year, is that time trial. But as for how a solo WorldTour rider fares in the road race, that I’ll have to answer later. I have raced nationals when I was on Optum, so I do know that there’s a target on the WorldTour riders and a lot of the Continental teams base their tactics on what the WorldTour guys and teams are doing. It’s definitely more of a lottery. I actually don’t know much about the course but hopefully it’s hard enough that it’s not too tactical.

CT: You’ve done the Giro now four times, the Vuelta three times, and completed all seven that you’ve started. I would have to think that for a rider such as yourself, having the opportunity to race the Tour de France is important. How important is it, and what’s left for you to prove to be selected to race the Tour?
Chad Haga: Well, it is quite important to finally check that box. I’d love to race it some day, so that I can, in the eyes of the general public, be a “real bike racer” and be able to finally say that yes, I’ve raced the Tour. I’d love to do it, it looks like a beautiful, amazing race, and I’ve heard a lot about it. As for what it would take to finally do it, I mean, the team is so much about planning and I think I’ve shown this year that I’m as consistent as they want, and able to support the leaders in a way that they like and enjoy at the biggest races. So hopefully, my chance will come soon.

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