The WorldTour may be taking a break before the July’s Tour de France, but the VeloHuman Up-and-comer Q&A Series is here to hold you over until the racing picks back up again. In this third installment, VH talks to Giant-Shimano’s Chad Haga, on a brief summer break from competition. Chad joined the Dutch squad after a breakout 2013 in which he took 10th in the Tour of California, 2nd in the Volta ao Alentejo, and a stage at the Tour of Elk Grove. The 25-year-old American is something of a rarity in the peloton: he holds a bachelor’s degree (in mechanical engineering), having graduating from Texas A&M before kicking off his pro career. We talked about adapting to racing on the WorldTour and Giant-Shimano’s world-beating sprint train, among many other things.
VH: Where are you spending summer break?
CH: I’m staying in Lucca, Italy [Chad’s home base in Europe].
VH: How are you settling in? You live with [Garmin-Sharp’s] Ben King, is that right?
CH: Yep. Settling into Lucca specifically has gone pretty easily. It’s a laid back little town and the apartment is really well located inside the wall. Neither of us has a car and we get along just fine. The Italian lifestyle is great and the roads are terrific. That’s part of why I’m spending my break here. I haven’t spent a lot of time to experiencing the city or exploring, so I’m looking forward to doing that over the next few weeks.
VH: How do you plan on spending your time off from racing?
CH: Specifically, I’m not sure yet. I would like to make a trip over to Siena to see their famous horse races in July, Il Palio. I visited Siena last fall and learned about these races and thought that it would be really awesome to go, and now I’ve got the opportunity to do that. But besides that I don’t have any really detailed plans for how I’ll spend my break. So far I’ve just been doing a lot of relaxing and reading and playing the piano.
VH: You were 10th overall in the 2013 Tour of California so obviously you’ve done big races in the past, and you’ve done well in them. But in March you started in your first WorldTour event, the Volta a Catalunya. You said in your blog that it was much harder than the prior year’s Tour of California. Can you describe what it is that makes racing at the WorldTour level so much more difficult?
CH: At the WorldTour level, generally every race is longer. I added up all the race kilometers that I had last year compared to this year and divided by the number of race days and on average, every race is 30 kilometers longer, so you’re talking about close to an hour longer every single race, and on top of that it’s a higher level of racing. At the WorldTour races, there’s no Continental teams. Every single WorldTour team is there. It’s just a very high level of racing, it’s very demanding and that takes adjustment.
VH: At Catalunya you were part of a squad that launched Luka Mezgec to three wins, and then in the Dauphiné you and the rest of Giant-Shimano drilled it on the front in the closing kilometers of the third stage to set up Nikias Arndt for victory. Have you been working a lot on the leadout in your training with the team?
CH: That’s been a big area of development for me, learning how to do it and the skills and the technique and the mental training required to pull off something like that for a rider like me, who’s not so comfortable with it in the first place.
VH: Obviously Giant-Shimano is doing something right with the leadouts because you’ve become this sprint powerhouse of the WorldTour. You’re winning stages in Catalunya and the Dauphiné with Mezgec and Arndt, and of course you have huge names like Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. Are you able to identify anything that Giant-Shimano is doing differently that is setting up all these guys for so many wins?
CH: It seems to me that we do a very good job, when things go right and when things go wrong, either way, we always break down the stage in detail and analyze everything we did: what we did right and what we need to change. We just do a very good job of analyzing everything so that we can be even better in the future, and it seems to carry over from race to race and so we continue to get better at it.
VH: What is the skillset that you feel you’ve improved the most since joining the team?
CH: I guess it would have to be positioning. I still have a lot of work to do with that but I feel that I’ve gotten much better at staying with my teammates when it’s important, and the fight for position in leadouts and into the base of climbs.
VH: You’re into music; do you listen to anything in particular when you’re on the trainer?
CH: If I’m warming up for a time trial, it’s very specific music. For the past two years, the only thing I really listen to when I’m warming up for a time trial is a band called Periphery.
VH: That’s a rock band right?
CH: Yeah. They’re like . . . tech metal.
VH: Was there a reason that that became your routine before the time trial?
CH: I just love their music in the first place, it always gets me pumped up. I think the first time trial I listened to them, I won. It hasn’t always worked out that way since then but it’s my go-to warm up music.
VH: You’re living in Italy and you’re riding for a Dutch team; are you picking up any languages? What’s the predominant language spoken on the team?
CH: Well everybody speaks English, which is very good, I can communicate and bond with my teammates. But aside from that, there’s half a dozen other languages spoken on the team around the dinner table, so it’s a lot of different dialects and languages bouncing around.
VH: Speaking of communicating and bonding, are there any veteran riders on the team that you’ve been able to form a relationship with and learn from so far?
CH: Roy Curvers and [John] Degenkolb. I’ve done a lot of races with them and we get along well, and both of them have a lot of experience and can do a lot of teaching. I really enjoy racing with them and learning from them.
VH: Where do you see yourself fitting in as a rider over the next few years? Obviously you have the all-rounder skillset, and you’re excellent in the time trial. What sort of races do you see yourself targeting?
CH: I . . . (Chad laughs) have not thought that far ahead. I hope to be able to really compete for the GC in weeklong stage races, at the Tour of California level, 2.HC, and hopefully at the WorldTour level. In the meantime I really enjoy the opportunity to go on the attack and get into breakaways.
VH: After your summer break is over, what is next on the program for 2014?
CH: Race-wise, I don’t know yet, that’s still up in the air being decided. I go to a three-week altitude training camp in France during mid-July so that’s the most immediate thing on my calendar.
VH: Do you have any particular goals for the rest of 2014?
CH: I would really love to win something before the year ends, but I don’t have a target race in mind. I take every race as it comes and look for opportunities. I would love to get selected to race the Vuelta. I know that’s a possibility, so I have high hopes for that, and I’d love to return to the World Championships and race the team time trial.
VH: Has Giant-Shimano given you an indication of what their expectations or goals are for you in your first year?
CH: They don’t expect me to get a result in a specific race; there is no real target race in that sense. They just want me to work as hard as I can and learn as much as I can, and use this as a building year in the hope of having a breakout year next year. It helps a lot. There is pressure, of course, to do my job and work as hard as I can, but to not really have any weight on my shoulders makes for a really smooth transition to this level.
VH: You have a mechanical engineering degree, so obviously you’re comfortable with math. Do you tend to pay a lot of attention to your power data while you’re riding, or do you try to ride according to how you feel and leave the analysis for after the race?
CH: I have to cover up my data during the race because I will obsess over it to the detriment of my racing. I definitely analyze it very in-depth after the race, and then our team also has our own data guru for further analysis, but I save that for after the race, because otherwise I would never look up from my power meter!
VH: I’m sure it was a big decision at first, but do you feel you’ve made the right call foregoing an engineering career for now?
CH: Yeah, at least for now, I’m really glad I did. I’ve got the degree to fall back on, so I’m glad that I finished it, but I think this was the perfect opportunity to really go for it, so I have no regrets.
VH: Was there a particular race, maybe during your very successful 2013, at which you felt “Hey, I have a future in this”?
CH: I think that when I first realized that I might be on the cusp of a breakout year was in Portugal last year, at the start of the season. One of our first races, we did the Volta ao Alentejo. I never won anything which was really frustrating, but I was on the podium for multiple stages and on the GC, and was having a great ride. It was after that race where I was first contacted by a Pro Tour team, and I realized that this could actually happen.
VH: What has been the biggest surprise in your first year?
CH: Hm. Just that the racing is so much harder! I knew it was going to be harder, everybody told me it would be harder but you still don’t realize it until you get into the races and then you realize, “Hey wait a minute, this is freakin’ hard!”
While some of his teammates are hunting stages in July’s Tour, Chad will be doing plenty of riding of his own, also in France. After that, there are a number of possibilities for his next race. Chad showed in this year’s Tour of California the toughness required to spend a long day out front in a very high level race, a good sign that the victory he is hunting may not be far off.