Breakaway pays off with top 10 for Haga at Giro d'Italia

'I started the stage feeling bad, just really tired,' says American

Thursday at the office worked out pretty well for Giant-Alpecin's Chad Haga, who experienced one of those rare days in professional cycling when everything just seems to come together at the right time.

Haga started the day hoping to conserve some energy in his bid to survive his first Giro d'Italia. Instead, the 26-year-old Texan made it into a successful breakaway that launched him into his best result since signing with the Dutch team in 2014.

"Well, I started the stage feeling bad, just really tired," he told Cyclingnews after the stage 18 finish in Verbania.

"My legs kind of woke up after half an hour, so I decided that I'd give it a shot, but only at these points that the directors had pointed out beforehand, and the second one worked," he said. "So I was just kind of like, 'OK, here I am.'"

The 170km stage from Melide to Verbania had a profile made for a breakaway, but it took 44km for the 12-rider group to finally form.

Haga joined eventual stage winner Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Amael Moinard (BMC), Davide Villella (Cannondale-Garmin), Matteo Busato (SouthEast), Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEdge), Sylvain Chavanel (IAM), David De La Cruz (Etixx-QuickStep), Francesco Manuel Bongiorno (Bardiani-CSF), Rinaldo Nocentini (AG2r La Mondiale), Maxim Belkov (Katusha) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Team Sky) in the escape.

"We settled into a rhythm that was really steady and easy in the break," Haga said. "Tinkoff let us keep getting time, so it was looking like we had a really good chance of making it to the finish. I just had to focus on my race and what I needed to do from that point."

The gap extended to more than 13 minutes for the breakaway, and as other riders crashed out or dropped away, Haga continued to help power the group until the day's major obstacle, the 10km climb up Monte Olongo about 25km from the finish.

"From the very bottom of that final climb I let go immediately to climb at my own pace," he said. "I just needed to do that climb two minutes faster it turns out, but I went as fast as I could."

Haga hung on for ninth on the day, 2:42 behind winner Gilbert, and less than two minutes behind Bongiorno in second and Chavanel in third. Weening finished more than a minute behind Haga, while overall race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) came in next with Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin), more than six minutes behind the winner.

"I just wish I had better legs," Haga said, "but I'll take what I can get right now. I'’m happy with a top 10, for sure.

"I would definitely consider this my best result so far in the WorldTour. Top 10 in a Giro stage? That's nothing to laugh at."

Now in his second year with Giant-Alpecin, the rider with a degree in mechanical engineering said he was hopeful for a result at the start of this Giro, his second Grand Tour after completing the Vuelta a Espana last year.

"I knew I just had to conserve and be smart about the energy I had to use and when I used it," he said. "I certainly knew it was possible if I did it right, and today showed that."

For the final three stages, Haga is focused on conserving energy so he can be in the best condition possible on the last day, when the team hopes to set up sprinter Luka Mezgec for final stage glory in Milan.

"There are just a couple of small climbs to get there, but one day at a time," Haga said with a deadpan that dripped with sarcasm.

Asked if there actually are any small climbs in the Giro, Haga didn't hesitate.

"No," he said flatly.

After the Giro, Haga will head straight for the Criterium du Dauphine, where he hopes his current form and continued progression will lift him into another good result. He came out of last year's Vuelta with good form, and he's hoping the same happens following the Giro.

"That's been my biggest progression this year, is that these races don't take as quite as much of a toll on me," he said. "I bounce back better after each race."

After Thursday's race, Haga got the usual massage and post-race meal, but the day's successes were not yet over. Upon checking into the night's hotel, he noticed a baby grand piano in the lobby. As a well-schooled player, Haga likes to unwind behind the keyboard. It was another bit of luck on what had turned out to be a pretty good day.

"I'm going to make use of that this evening," he said of the piano. "It's just one night, so I'll have to make the most of it."

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