Chad Haga's off-season got off to a rough start. The 29-year-old American, who just renewed for years five and six with Team Sunweb, underwent septoplasty and turbunate reduction surgery that he had been putting off since recovering from injuries suffered in training before the 2016 season.
After last season, Haga got married and went on his honeymoon. This year, he's laid up at home fighting cabin fever and limiting his exercise to "searching for my phone amongst the blankets." It doesn't sound fun, but it's part of a year Haga said he'd repeat again in a heartbeat.
"If I could ever repeat this year again, I would sign up for that immediately," Haga told Cyclingnews by phone from Fort Collins, Colorado, where he is recovering by binge-watching movies and TV series that he’s missed while on the road.
"It was a perfect year," Haga added, emphasizing his point.
Haga's fourth year with Team Sunweb included his best-ever result on the WorldTour and a spot on the Giro d'Italia roster that helped Tom Dumoulin take the overall win. The celebration in Milan must have seemed surreal to Haga, who admitted that three years previously, when he was suffering in his first Giro and second Grand Tour, he never would have imagined sharing the final podium with a teammate in the maglia rosa.
"The 2015 Giro was the hardest bike race I've ever done, and to think just a couple years on I'd be helping Tom win that race is pretty crazy," he said.
Indeed, Haga has ridden into a key role in Team Sunweb's stage race plans, spending his early season racing with Dumoulin and attending a pre-Giro training camp with the 26-year-old Dutchman.
"It showed me how much they value me and really believe in what I can do," Haga said, adding that his new two-year deal is more validation of the spot he's earned in the WorldTour peloton.
"Especially when a lot of teams are downsizing and it seems like contracts are getting harder and harder to come by, but they value my role in the team and the way that I fit the culture of the team, so it's confirmation for me as well."
Haga, who took up bike racing in college while earning a degree in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M, earned his spot in the WorldTour by winning races on the US domestic circuit and riding for GC in a handful of opportunities against cycling's best. With Team Sunweb, he's embraced the domestique role to the point that when asked about races he'd like to win, he defers to talking about how much he enjoys working for his teammates.
"“Dream of winning myself? Hmmm," Haga pondered when asked. "I really enjoy racing with Tom. I think we work really well together, and he has the habit of rewarding the effort, so that makes it a lot of fun."
Haga also said he enjoyed racing with Wilco Kelderman, who came to the team this year from LottoNL-Jumbo. Kelderman was also on the Giro roster but abandoned during stage 9. Haga said the pair really clicked at the Vuelta a España, where the Dutchman finished fourth.
Coming close in France
Although he's developed into the consummate helper with a Grand Tour resume, Haga came close to his first WorldTour win this year at the Critérium du Dauphiné a week after the Giro.
The 23.5km stage 4 individual time trial course from La Tour-du-Pin to Bourgoin-Jallieu was technical and far from flat, with a gradual climb after the start and then another in the second half. Haga's all-around skillset was ideally suited for the course, and he took advantage of the convergence of form and opportunity to set the fastest time two hours into the day before eventually dropping to fifth.
Haga took the hot seat from Daryl Impey (Orica-Scott), going 23 seconds faster than the South African. He led the stage for nearly 20 minutes before then-world champion Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin), who had gone 27 seconds faster than Haga at the intermediate check point, crossed the line 20 seconds better than the American.
"I was mostly just excited to be there," he said of leading the race. "I was expecting that somebody would knock me off but hoping it wouldn't happen. I wasn't too nervous. I was just excited about how well I'd done."
By the end of the stage, Haga had slipped behind stage winner Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Martin, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Stef Clement (LottoNL-Jumbo). But he finished three seconds ahead of Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and five seconds ahead of Chris Froome (Team Sky).
"The funny thing about competitiveness, though, is if you told me before that stage I was going finish fifth, I would have been so psyched," he said. "But to have been in the hot seat for close to half an hour, I was starting to think maybe I could actually win this stage, then getting bumped down the list actually bummed me out. But it was like, 'Wait a minute. No, no. Perspective, perspective.'"
More Grand Tours in the future
With current calls for Dumoulin to forgo a Giro defence and take on Froome in the Tour de France – and Wilco Kelderman recently saying he'd like to focus on the Giro's general classification – Haga's program for next year is also up in the air.
His six Grand Tours so far are split evenly with three Giros and three Vueltas. He doubled up in both 2016 and 2017. He'd obviously like to compete at the Tour de France so he could have a complete set.
"I certainly hope so at some point," he said when asked about the French race. "If for no other reason that when I explain my job to non-cycling fans I can answer 'yes,' because that's the only race that matters. Then we can go on to talk about more important things."
Haga will head back to Europe in December for a training camp in Spain. He'll get answers to some of the questions about next season then. For now he's focused on recovering from surgery and getting out of the house.
"The splints come out Tuesday, so it seems two weeks is a pretty quick but possible recovery time," he said. "That would put me Tuesday after next. That's what I'm really hoping for. It's been three days and I'm really restless."