When Jack Haig started the Tour Down Under on Tuesday, a top 10 overall finish was flagged as a “realistic” goal by his UniSA-Australia sports director Dave Sanders. However, by the time the six stage race had reached half-way with the first uphill finish on Thursday – on stage 3 from Norwood to Paracombe – he was fifth overall.
Haig is one of the new wave of Australian hopes. Like UniSA-Australia teammates Rob Power and Alex Edmondson, Haig will join Orica-GreenEDGE next year. On Thursday, Haig placed seventh, in a group of six at 5s to the stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC) who took the overall lead from Haig’s teammate Jack Bobridge.
It was a strong finish by Haig. While a noted climber, he said the final ascent was not suited to him – unlike the stage 5 finish up Willunga Hill on Saturday. “The hill [to Paracombe] is a bit short, a bit too much of a power climb,” Haig told Cyclingnews.
What really counts … the race into the hill, rather than up it
Before Tuesday’s stage, much discussion was about the run-in to the final 1.6km climb – akin to a Belgian ‘Mur’ - and positioning for the sharp right-hander at its foot.
“I knew that coming into the bottom of the climb there that I had to fight as hard as possible to get into position because if I was on the back foot at the start [of the hill] I might as well have just unclipped and gone to the pub or something,” Haig said. “You are never going to make it up there if you are towards the back on that corner.
“I fought ultra hard into there and ended up maybe top 10, top 15 into the climb. Then I knew I had to pace myself on the bottom real steep section – if you go too hard there you will blow up and not be there at the top.”
Haig then raced with his head, as four of the big favourites – Richie Porte, Cadel Evans, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Trek), and Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r).“I just waited and then Richie (Porte) and Cadel (Evans) went,” said Haig.
“If I went with them I probably wouldn’t stay away. So I stayed with the group and followed Mick Rogers’ wheel on the climb and got stuck there in the end, in the sprint. I had too much of a bigger gear I was trying to push. The head wind and the hill made the last 70 metres seem much longer.”
Asked to describe – to a layman – what the push and shove to the foot of the final climb was like, he said: “It’s ridiculous. You go from 70 to 90 km/h – I have hit max speeds of a hundred the last couple of days. You are literally rubbing shoulders with people going around a corner at 80km/h where if you come off you might as well jump out of a car in your underwear - you’ve got nothing on, you are just going to hit the ground pretty hard. It is pretty nerve wracking. You have to bite the bullet and ask how much you want it. To put yourself in that position and take the risks, it helps.”
A year on … what's learned and worked
Haig believes he has been able to put into practice the lessons learned from his debut in last year’s Tour Down Under when he rode for UniSA-Australia and finished 17th.
“I am much more relaxed this year. Last year I was much more nervous around it,” said Haig who attributes much of that confidence to having trained with the Orica-GreenEDGE team in December after his signing with the team was announced.
“I guess getting that contract and knowing some of the guys there … I am like, ‘I’m going to be here next year hopefully with the World Tour team. I have every right to be bashing bars with any of the other pro-guys here and fight for my spot in the ‘GC’.
Haig believes the UniSA-Australia has earned its spot in the Tour Down Under peloton, even though some riders among the World Tour teams think otherwise.
“The team has done exceptionally well to have Jack [Bobridge] in the leader’s jersey and then defend it [until Thursday] like a well drilled team,” Haig said. “Just to have all these guys come together … it’s something pretty special. We probably could have been entered here as an actual team and done alright.”
Haig believes that a top 10 finish is within his grasp, although his teammates have not yet had their last say with a view to any stage winning breakaway opportunities.
“People have been asking what I want to get out of here,” he said. “I want to finish the tour having done the best I can. If I can go top 10 on ‘GC’ it would be excellent.”
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer on The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)