Sometimes, it is difficult to tell who has impressed more during Simon Yates' week atop the general classification of the Giro d'Italia, the maglia rosa himself or Jack Haig, the man who has shepherded him so well every time the road climbs.
When Yates claimed victory atop Gran Sasso d'Italia on Sunday, it was Haig's stint of pace-making that saw off Chris Froome (Team Sky) as the dwindling front group snaked towards the summit on snow-banked roads. When Yates bounded to take the explosive finale in Osimo on Tuesday, it was Haig who brought order to affairs by closing down late escapees Zdenek Stybar and Tim Wellens.
"It is a little bit of a surprise, but I have been working incredibly hard over the last couple of years and it's nice to see it pay off the way it is at the moment," Haig said in Osimo on Thursday morning.
"The best day was either yesterday [stage 11] or the Gran Sasso. Both days were pretty amazing. It's really rewarding to be that last key person to make that last big effort before Simon does his thing. To have Simon finish it off with wins was great."
Still only 23 years of age, Haig is making his Giro debut after two previous outings at the Vuelta a España, and he has performed with assurance ever since the race left Israel two weeks ago. Before the race began, Mikel Nieve or Roman Kreuziger might have been expected to be Mitchelton-Scott's most prominent mountain domestiques. Instead, at each major rendezvous, Haig has been the best supporting actor in the cast, though there is, he says, no fixed order for the roster of climbers setting the tempo on behalf of Yates.
"It's just naturally developed that way during the racing," Haig said. "It's just whoever has the legs on the day. We talk amongst ourselves and there are no real egos on our team to get in the way. Everybody is honest and says if they're on a good one or a bad one, and then we manoeuvre depending on that."
Haig's first sporting loves were rather esoteric, as he divided his time between surfing and skiing as a teenager. Summers were spent on the beach, while in winter, he would venture to New Zealand in search of snow. "It wasn't until I was 17 that I thought I could maybe try something in cycling. Before then I wanted to be a professional skier," Haig explained.
After beginning his cycling life as a mountain biker, Haig switched his emphasis to the road for his second season as an under-23 and quickly began to progress through the ranks, spending a spell with the Australian national team in Gavirate in Italy. The best young rider prize at the 2014 Tour Down Under was an early sign of his potential, while second place at the following year's Tour de l'Avenir – behind Marc Soler – confirmed his readiness for the professional ranks.
Haig's maiden victory at WorldTour level came with a stage win at the Tour de Pologne last year, and he followed that up with a solid 21st place overall on his second Vuelta participation. In the longer term, the Southport native sees his future as a GC rider in the Grand Tours.
"I'd like to perform in weeklong stage races to start with. It's pretty hard to jump from the role I'm doing now straight into a Grand Tour, so I'll just keep going the way I'm going and hopefully, the natural progression is to be the leader of a team one day," said Haig, whose European base is in Andorra.
On this Giro, meanwhile, Yates is now the sole captain after his co-leader Esteban Chaves inexplicably conceded 25 minutes on stage 10, just days after winning atop Mount Etna. Haig, Yates and Nieve had only just descended from the podium after collecting the team prize when Chaves eventually crossed the finish line. Although emotions were mixed in the Michelton-Scott camp that night, the setback, it seems, has not unduly affected morale.
"It was a little bit sad to lose Chaves from GC, but we still have the leader of the race," Haig said. "In some ways, the race has become a little bit simpler because we've got one GC leader, but we also lose the tactic of having two people on GC and playing those cards in the mountains."
It remains to be seen if Chaves can recover sufficiently from his travails to play a supporting role for Yates in the mountain tests still to come, but Haig will certainly expect to be by the maglia rosa's side when the Giro tackles the fearsome Zoncolan on Saturday afternoon. The slipstream effect may be rather negated by the 22% gradients, but a gregario di lusso is a benefit regardless of the terrain.
"I don't know too much about it other than it's incredibly hard and at the percentages the Zoncolan is, it's sort of every man for himself," Haig said. "Ideally my job will be to be there with Simon and cover any attacks, so he can save his legs a little bit until the final where the biggest differences can be made. If I can do some of those bigger efforts at the bottom, then I'll be happy."
On the Zoncolan, Yates will be looking to stretch his advantage over Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), which currently stands at 47 seconds. The defending champion was the only rider able to finish within two seconds of Yates on the stiff finish at Osimo, and Thursday morning's newspapers were already couching this Giro as a two-way tussle between the two riders. In this race, of course, the script is rarely so simple.
"It would be easy if Tom was the only rival but there are many strong riders here, unfortunately," Haig said. "I think [Thibaut] Pinot is going very well. We have to wait and see how George Bennett and [Domenico] Pozzovivo go, all these guys floating around the top 10 are quite dangerous. I think we'll know more after the weekend."