“It’s better to strike out swinging than to walk back to the dugout knowing you watched the third strike go by.” Among the innumerable lessons my dad taught me in the years I played baseball, this is a rare one that can be stretched to bicycle racing.
The last race I won was the Tour of Elk Grove time trial in 2013; phrased a bit more negatively, I have lost every single race I entered for three years running. To be fair, I had no chance (or even the goal) of winning the vast majority of them, and that’s why I’m not really bothered by that statement. Stage 6 of Eneco Tour, though, eats me up inside. I had a WorldTour stage win in sight and I struck out looking.
I try not to beat myself up too much — the fact that I was even in contention is a bit surprising. Following the Giro with Critérium du Dauphiné had not gone well for me, so I was cautious about hoping for too much in Eneco on the heels of the Vuelta. I’d finished the Vuelta ragged, suffering from allergies that had gotten into my chest for the final week. It had finally cleared out, but I was uncertain which legs I was taking to the Netherlands. One objective of the race was to tune up our team time trial squad before the world championships, which meant I had to at least make it to stage 5. I was happy to find that I could do more than survive.
And so, on stage 6, I found myself — it really was almost an accident that I ended up there at all — in a breakaway doomed to fail on a guaranteed sprint stage. Except that they never caught us, thanks to a decent tailwind and exceedingly technical final kilometers. I’ve replayed those last few minutes countless times, picking apart my tactics with the perfect clarity of hindsight and an overhead video, free of the blurred decisions that are made with an aching back and heavy legs. I know that my sprint is unimpressive, and yet I was so busy looking for the perfect moment to attack that I did nothing at all. I had barely slowed down after finishing fifth before I was hit by the realization that I had not taken a swing.
But life goes on, and a week later I was in Doha, Qatar, preparing for the team time trial world championships. We have been steadily improving every year and were eager to continue our streak in my favorite single-day event on the calendar. After a few days of practice, we were ready to put on a show for all the spectator. [The omission of the ’s’ is intentional, according to Haga -Ed.]
Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. A bizarre mechanical in the first kilometer of the TTT left me riding a single-speed (sidebar: if you have a mechanical with Di2, should it be called an electrical?). I kept my 58×13 turning for nearly 15 kilometers before I finally failed to make the acceleration onto the back after finishing a pull. After being dropped, I worked out my frustration on the way to the finish because soft-pedaling a gear that big is not an option. Suffice it to say that we did not get the result we had hoped for, but there was nothing to be done but learn from it and move on. There was still another race to come, and we would refocus by changing hotels and joining forces with our respective national teams.
Equally daunting as a six-hour race in the desert is a week spent there without much to do; in a place where the passage of time is marked by the accumulation of empty plastic water bottles, I’ve been here for a while. The training here at least reminds me of all the miles I’ve done in Texas: impressive heat, surrounded by unpredictable drivers in huge vehicles, glued to their phones. I feel fully acclimated to the heat and my legs feel better each day, so I’m hopeful for a great race on Sunday. Mentally, I’m eager to pin those numbers on my red, white, and blue pockets and do this thing!
The race, in which the only elevation gain comes from overpasses, hardly favors me, but I’ve waited a long time for the opportunity to represent the USA on the world stage. My season ends in just a couple of days and even though the odds of ending my streak are far from my favor, I will return to the bench having taken a swing.