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BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. (VN) — Before the start of the Redlands Bicycle Classic this week, Chad Haga of Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies topped everyone’s list of favorites for the opening time trial. His strong ride in Thursday’s race against the clock lived up to expectations, and Haga now sits in the catbird seat in the race for overall victory.
“It’s a big win, but it is not unexpected,” Haga said. “I was expecting that I was going to do it.”
He beat out teammate Tom Zirbel — no slouch in the time trial — by six seconds. Haga rode hard from the start despite the headwind. There was not much in the way of tactics to his effort, which earned him the second National Racing Calendar (NRC) leader’s jersey of his career.
“I knew that I didn’t want to save much for the return leg because of the headwind out,” Haga said. “So I just suffered all the way out and emptied the tanks on the way back.”
The 24-year-old Texas native grew up goofing around on BMX bikes. He eventually turned to mountain biking and then road racing. Along the way, he earned an engineering degree from Texas A&M University, where he raced the collegiate road and mountain bike seasons. As he applied his talents to road racing, he rocketed up the categories and signed with Optum in 2011.
This season, Haga comes to Redlands fresh off a trip to Europe, where he raced in the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal. “I had a couple near-misses,” Haga said of his European adventure. Indeed, it was a race of seconds for him: Haga finished second in two stages and second overall. Belgian Jasper Stuyven (Bontrager) won the general classification by just 10 seconds.
Haga quickly returned from Portugal in order to acclimate for the altitude at Big Bear. Though he grew up in the flatlands of Texas, he is now based in Colorado Springs. “I’m used to it now,” he said of the altitude. “I was right at home out there.”
Thursday’s success follows a rough 2012 season for Haga, as sickness and injury meant the results came few and far between. During the early season races in Central America, Haga picked up a bacterial infection. Then a crash at 40 mph in Quebec put his season on hold for a month while he recovered from the resulting knee injury.
“I can go with the condensed version: multiple sicknesses, busted my knee open which took me out for a month, [and] ended my season in the yellow jersey at Cascade with two broken hands,” Haga said.
The yellow jersey, his first at an NRC race, came after Haga won the time trial by two seconds over Francisco Mancebo at last summer’s Cascade Cycling Classic. But then he spent the rest of the summer on the couch recovering from his injuries. He watched as his teammates rode the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, a race he had looked forward to contesting.
“He had a rough season last year,” Zirbel said. “It is awesome to see him win. He works really hard.”
Haga spent the fall getting in some long rides on the roads around Colorado Springs and taking his mountain bike out to play. He also lost about five pounds by focusing on improving his eating habits. The setbacks of last season left him determined to return to form and hit it hard in the early part of 2013.
“I have a lot of motivation coming into this year,” he said. “[Portugal] was my second or third race of the year. So I’m just coming into form quickly now that we’re racing.”
Starting Friday, Haga will face the steep task of defending the race lead over the coming stages. After his time in Portugal, he is no stranger to the top of the general classification. “It won’t be easy,” he said. “But I’m looking forward to it.”
The high expectations that surround him don’t seem to phase the mellow Texan.
“I do well in the underdog and the pressure situation,” he said. “If people don’t think I can do it, I want to do it. If people do think I can do it, [then] yeah, I’ll show you how I can do it.”