Chad Haga blog: Ending the season with a new experience in China

As I sat down to type, I looked down at the traffic bedlam nine floors below me in Nanning. Just the thought of trying to make a left-turn amid the sea of pedestrians, scooters, buses, and cars is enough to make my palms sweat. It’s only the latest sight to remind me that China is a new experience.

I’ll readily admit that I have wanted to race in China for years now. I’d only ever flown through Malaysia, the closest I’d come to experiencing Asian culture, and I wanted to check that box. Counterbalancing the desire to race here, however, was the calendar. For a season that began down under in January and saw my summer break snatched away by a jaunt around France, I’ve been mentally fried for some time now.

Nonetheless, I find myself in Guangxi, racing my bike deep into October. Offseason is three stages away, and the peloton can feel it.

Before the Tour of Guangxi, most of the riders here also raced the Hammer Hong Kong. I only raced the Chase, albeit briefly, as I did a poor job of gauging my effort and blew up early. The rest of the guys finished strong to win the Chase, and everyone was moving a bit slower that night—the Hammer races are short, but very intense.

We were up quite early the next day for the flight to Guangxi Province, which immediately felt less Westernized than Hong Kong. When a couple of riders were delayed on arrival at the airport with visa troubles, the peloton lost an hour before we could start our 3-hour trip to the hotel, which actually took 4.5. Our bikes were also delayed at customs, so we had no chance for a ride, which left us a bit sluggish in stage 1.

The racing has been interesting. Typically, in these more relaxed races, the script is that the breakaway goes without a fight, comprised by riders of the lower-level teams. Those teams, aren’t here, though, so we have to rewrite the script. Now it’s more about size than composition, so we chase each other around until a handful of fortunate riders are eventually allowed to ride away.

While it’s a race and everyone is here to win, there is a palpable softening of the usual aggression in the bunch. As if there’s an unspoken commandment that, “Above all, thou shalt not crash thy self or thine colleagues in the last race of the year.” It’s also a sprint-dominated race, so there’s a point that a switch is flipped, but it’s closer to the finish than usual.

The organization of the race has been good, but not perfect. The only gaping hole in the logistics was the finish of stage 2: after three hours of drenching rain that turned all our clothing brown with sand, the peloton found itself huddling behind the teams’ passenger vans to shower with bottled water, repeatedly shouting at the curious spectators trying to snag photos of the odd scene. Once finished, everything was back on track as the police shut down the entire highway for the convoy to make the 2-hour transfer to Nanning.

One thing that is not lacking, to be sure, is course security. The entire race route is lined with officers or other personnel whose job is to face away from the race to protect us from threats unseen. At regular intervals, sometimes those people find themselves in front of a wall or a bus stop, which is an odd sight indeed. Personally, I like the rebels who can’t resist watching the race as we come by.

On the city circuits, the course protection is increased further still. We estimated that the 30km circuit today was guarded by some 6,000 officers, possibly outnumbering the spectators, who are so far from the course that we’re challenged to reach them with our empty water bottles.

The peloton’s mood has been dampened by the weather, to say the least. We just want a nice race in good weather to finish out the season, but the rain has a mind of its own, defying all forecasting. Today looked to be our last dry day of the race, and those hopes were rinsed away only halfway into the stage.

Team Sunweb has been performing well, but hasn’t quite nailed it yet. Max Walscheid is on great form following the Vuelta, but it hasn’t come together so far. He’s close, and we have a couple more chances to go. Tomorrow is our only hilltop finish, which is likely to decide the GC race—we’ve got Soren Kragh Andersen, who recently showed that he’s on fine form as well.

As the race carries on, I’ll accumulate more experiences in a new culture. After today’s finish, a woman asked for a picture after gawking at my hairy arms, which was a good reminder that we are offering Guangxi a new experience, too, as we speed through the country on well-protected (and hopefully dry) roads.

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American Chad Haga has raced for Team Sunweb since 2014 after two years with the former Optum US Continental team. He was part of the Team Sunweb roster that lifted Tom Dumoulin to the top step of the Giro d'Italia podium in 2017 and raced his first Tour de France in support of Dumoulin in 2018. Haga is a talented all-rounder with a special emphasis on time trials. The 29-year-old Texan got a late start in cycling, joining the race team at Texas A&M University, where he graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering before starting his pro cycling career.