A handful of factors have contributed to Chad Haga's current spot on the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies professional cycling team: natural talent and hard work combined with an unfortunate family circumstance that changed his parents' attitude about his desire to forgo a well-paying job after college and pursue his cycling dream.
The 24-year-old, second-year pro started racing for the Texas A&M collegiate team in 2006 when he was still a 17-year-old junior. He rode for the Aggies' team through his senior year in 2010 and then picked up with the Austin-based Super Squadra amateur club that year as well. He joined the Rio Grande domestic elite squad out of Colorado in 2011 and signed with Jonas Carney's UCI Continental Kelly Benefit Strategies team in August of that same year.
But a career in professional cycling was never part of the plan while Haga was attending college in Texas, where he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree in the summer of 2010. His parents had supported his cycling hobby while he was in school, but they were less certain about pursuing the sport professionally.
"There's not a whole lot of money in it," Haga said of racing domestically at the Continental level. "And with my engineering degree, I could have made $60,000 straight out of school. It's a much more comfortable lifestyle, but I wouldn't have been as happy."
About that same time, Haga's father was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. The 50-year-old non-smoker - with zero risk factors for the disease - and his family were stunned by the news. Haga said his father is currently doing well and is being treated with a promising new drug, but the original diagnosis shifted his family's outlook about a lot of things, including Haga's own cycling aspirations.
"My dad spent 25 years working at his desk job in the hopes that when he retired he cold do what he wanted, and now he's not guaranteed that," Haga said. "So pursue your passions, and don't pass up any opportunities."
With his family's blessing, Haga pursued his cycling opportunities with the the Rio Grande team in 2011. He finished seventh at the his first-ever National Race Calendar time trial at the SRAM Tour of the Gila behind established pros like Jeremy Vennel, Francisco Mancebo, Luis Amaran, Ben Day and Tom Zirbel.
He followed that result by winning the prologue time trial at the Mt. Hood Cycling Classic and holding the race lead through the final road race. He rode to a strong sixth-place finish at the Joe Martin Stage Race and finished 13th overall at the Nature Valley Grand Prix. He competed with Rio Grande for the final time at the Cascade Cycling Classic in July and signed with Kelly Benefit Strategies after the race.
"We saw that he had a lot of talent and a lot of upside," said Jonas Carney, performance director of Kelly Benefit Strategies in 2011, now Optum Pro Cycling.
Haga immediately rewarded Carney's contract with a third-place finish at the Tour of Elk Grove and rode another handful of races with the team to close out the season. Then Haga put in a lot of hard work over the off season in order to start his first full professional campaign well-prepared. A tangle during a VIP ride in training camp in California scuffed him up a bit, but he rode to a fourth-place finish at the Merco Cycling Classic time trial in early March and finished the race ninth overall.
He headed to Uruguay next with a small squad to contest the 10-day South American UCI race. Although most of the team contracted some level of stomach bug - Haga included - Optum's Ken Hanson won three stages and Zirbel finished second overall. Haga hit the podium with a third-place finish during stage six of the UCI Tour of Guatemala in May while another Optum squad competed in the Amgen Tour of California.
After a slow start, Haga's potential form had just started revealing itself when disaster struck during stage 2 of the Tour de Beauce in early June.
"I had a big downhill crash when someone went down in front of me," Haga said.
The crash tore up Haga's knee, and he required more than a month to heal and prepare for his comeback at the Cascade Cycling Classic in mid-July. Haga made the absolute most of his first race back in the saddle, taking out the win at the prologue time trial in front of 2011 Cascade overall winner Francisco Mancebo.
"It's been a rough year so far between sickness, injury and fatigue," Haga told Cyclingnews at the time. "But I'm coming back."
That comeback was short-lived, however. While wearing his first yellow jersey in an NRC event, Haga hit the deck hard in a big pileup during the fast downhill start of the stage 1 McKenzie Pass Road Race.
"I think it was the third year in a row that there was a giant pileup at the start of that stage," Haga said. "So the whole field was expecting it and was kind of nervous. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy; we caused it because we were nervous."
Haga remounted and rejoined the bunch, but he immediately knew there was a problem.
"I knew something was wrong with my hands," he said. "I was hoping it was just a sprain and a jammed thumb, so I toughed out the stage just so I could maybe try and race the time trial the next day."
Although the pain in both hands prevented him from eating or drinking throughout the rest of the three-hour stage that climbed over McKenzie Pass and finished with another climb to the Three Creeks Snow Park, Haga toughed it out after getting some free medical advice from a teammate.
"Mike Creed asked me how I was feeling," Haga remembered. "I said, 'Well, my thumb and my wrist hurt but maybe it's not too bad.' So Creed asks me if I can move it, and I say, 'Well, yeah kind of.' So he tells me that if I can move it it's fine. And I'm like, 'I don't know, man, it hurts pretty bad.'"
It turned out Haga had broken a bone in his left wrist and another in the thumb on his right hand.
"I needed surgery on both," he said. "Estimated recovery was 12 weeks, so the season was over, and everything I had looked forward to up to that point was scratched off the list. So it was pretty heartbreaking to go from season and career high the day before to season over."
Haga missed out on a chance to race in the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado and a possible trip with the team to the UCI team time trial world championships. It was a hard pill to swallow. But the missed racing opportunities weren't even his biggest worry: Haga is also a classically trained pianist with an impressive pedigree of concerts.
"I was definitely thinking that my mom was going to kill me if I just screwed up my hands and my ability to play," he said, adding that he's since made a full recovery. "Titanium-enhanced even. I've got a screw in my wrist now."
One thing Haga didn't have to worry about was his spot on the Optum roster for 2013. Despite the team's having cut two spots from the 2012 roster from 19 to 17 riders, Carney said, Haga knew early on he would return this season.
"There was no hesitation with Chad," Carney said. "I think I talked with him the day he broke his hands at Cascade and said, 'You have nothing to worry about, we're bringing you back next year. We'll take care of you.' He's just a super, super good kid with a lot of ability, and he really belongs in our program. We're proud to have him. He had my guarantee that he'd be with the team well before we were even signing contracts with guys."
Carney said that if Haga can stay healthy and stay off the ground he can achieve consistently top results and compete for overall wins with the best in the country this season - and possibly on the international stage in the near future.
"He's a huge talent that a lot of people aren't familiar with," Carney said. "From what I've seen it's just a matter of him staying healthy and injury free. I see him as being a major GC threat for us, especially in anything with a time trial. He's right there with [Scott] Zwizanski and Zirbel in the time trial when we do them. He's a huge threat and he climbs really well, too."
Haga had a rough introduction to pro cycling last year, and the ascent to where he'd like to be in the domestic peloton has been delayed. But he's aware of that fact - it drives him - and he's preparing once again to put every ounce of talent, skill and training into making the most of this opportunity to pursue his passion.
"All of that has served as motivation this year," he said. "I can't take anything for granted, I know that now. I had a rough enough year last year, so I took my time off and used it for much-needed rest and worked on my diet. I'm a little lighter this year, and it's paying off with my climbing already. I focused on training when I could so I can come into this year stronger, and I'm ready for that to pay off."