Haga thankful, recovering after brush with death

The Giant – Alpecin rider and five of his teammates were hit by a car head-on during a recent training ride.

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Chad Haga takes pleasure in the small things now. Not that he didn’t before, but after what he’s been through, the mundane, everyday tasks that are otherwise taken for granted — like walking around the park or cutting mushrooms for an omelet — take on a deeper meaning.

The 27-year-old is grateful, relieved, and almost in disbelief. Two weeks ago, a car plowed straight into a group of Giant – Alpecin riders returning from a pre-season training ride. Now, back at his apartment in Spain, not only can he walk, cook, and move around, despite some lingering aches and pain he can soon aspire to return to training and racing. He knows it could have been so much worse.

“Multiple bullets,” Haga said when asked if he dodged a bullet in the horrendous crash. “My legs are going to be OK. My head is OK. Incredibly, I just have flesh wounds. I’m very relieved. It very easily could have been much, much worse.”

Much, much worse is an understatement. Haga was among the worst off among the group of six riders involved in the horrendous crash, and he was taken by helicopter to a Spanish hospital. Barely two weeks later on Friday, Haga had the last of the nearly 100 stitches taken out of his face, neck, and limbs. Despite some heavy blows, including bruising and contusions all over and a fracture to the orbital bone above his right eye, the 27-year-old was otherwise not seriously injured. Head-on impacts with moving vehicles while on a bicycle quickly put things into perspective. To escape with the injuries he sustained is incredibly lucky, and nothing short of miraculous.

“Nothing major is broken,” Haga told VeloNews in a telephone interview. “I only broke my orbital around my right eye, nothing else. No concussion, either. I don’t know how you crash into a car with that speed and don’t get a concussion.”

‘I only have brief memories’

Haga cannot remember much. Just snapshots of a disaster that the mind would otherwise like to forget: a brisk return after a training ride, the vision of a car, the panic, the crunch of impact, the whir of helicopter blades, and the blur of the operating table.

The afternoon of January 23 unfolded like any other along Spain’s Costa Blanca for the major teams that ply the roads during winter training camps. Haga and his teammates, including classics star John Degenkolb, were riding two abreast as they were spinning back to the team hotel. It was along a road that Haga and the others had ridden dozens of times in the popular training area along Spain’s Mediterranean Coast. As the group eased around a corner, they couldn’t believe what they saw — a car in their lane driving directly at them — and no one had time to react.

“I only have brief memories,” Haga said. “I remember seeing the car coming at us in the wrong lane, and just that brief moment of panic. Is this real? What do we do? Just that feeling of panic and surreal feeling is all that I can remember.”

A 73-year-old British woman, driving a UK-style car with right-hand steering, was later charged for reckless driving. A photograph of the crumpled bikes in the aftermath of the crash revealed just how lucky Haga and the others were. No one was killed, and no one was so injured that their racing careers are in jeopardy. Degenkolb confirmed he will miss the spring classics this year, and others involved, including Warren Barguil, Max Walshcheid, and Ramon Sinkeldam, all suffered fractures and broken bones.

After a brief stay in a Spanish hospital, no major surgery was required and Haga returned to his European base in Girona, Spain. His fiancé and brother are helping him with his recovery. Simple tasks like eating, sleeping, and walking require monumental determination, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Doctors say he will be able to resume a normal life and begin training again in a matter a weeks or months, with the goal of returning to the peloton this season.

“The injuries are healing pretty well. My neck is getting stronger. For awhile, it was exhausting just to look down and cut my food into small bites,” Haga said. “My knees took a really big hit. Both got hyper-extended in the crash. I can walk, and I’ve been taking long walks of two or three miles a day. The more I move around, the more I loosen things up. I’ve been going to the gym, spinning on the bike a little bit. Thankfully, the team is putting no pressure on me at all. The most important thing is to get fully healed, and then we’ll see where we are.”

‘I’m not ready to let it go’

Haga is determined to return to professional racing. The accident came just as the Texan was entering his third year in the big leagues, and he was poised to step up. A college graduate and a trained classical pianist, he could easily walk away from professional cycling. Yet he’s found new resolve to come back and see how far he can go. He doesn’t want one horrific, freakish accident to take all that away from him.

“I was in such a good place mentally and physically, and I was really excited to race. I was ready to be a factor in the races, not just do the work early and set up other riders. I wanted to affect the race,” Haga said. “I’m not ready to let it go. It’s a setback, for sure. I want to get healthy and make the most of the rest of the season.”

Haga’s return will not be too fast, because he also admits there will be a mental hurdle to overcome before he can return to the open roads. Cycling is a dangerous sport and he doesn’t expect there to be a problem, especially because he’s never had any sort of training accidents before, but he doesn’t want to force anything, either. He’s at home now, safe and healthy, surrounded by loved ones, and will let his body tell him when it’s time to push a little harder. A brush with death puts everything into a new perspective.

“I hug everyone a bit tighter now,” Haga said. “It can all end very quickly. I try not to think about it too much, or think that I shouldn’t ride again. I want to live my life the best way I know how, and God will decide.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.