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Chad Haga Journal: Burritos, pianos, and a team time trial

Haga shows his European teammates the ropes ahead of Richmond worlds and turns in a top-five performance in the TTT.

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I’ve known for most of the year that my only race in the United States would be the world championships team time trial, so you can take it to heart that I was excited to get to Richmond. First I had to endure two weeks of almost-but-not-quite-home in Canada, but my mental batteries had just enough juice to get me to American soil, at which point I immediately cut all “g”s from word endin’s and began shoutin’ “America!” anytime my European teammates quizzed me about something they saw. I’d spent the year racing all over the world, but now cycling’s biggest stage was at home, and it was sure to be an interesting ride.

The first morning, I saw the hotel’s breakfast buffet of fried potatoes, sausage patties, and muffins, and found a seat with a good view for some entertainment as the Europeans straggled in and stared in blurry-eyed confusion at the wonder that is the Southern breakfast. After some recalibration, the breakfasts returned to a more familiar spread suitable for racing.

Late in the season, guys are drained from all the travel and being on the road for so long — complaints that elicit an amused chuckle from me when I think of the two weeks I’ve spent at home in 2015 — so we had to find ways to entertain ourselves as our bikes completed their southward migration from Montreal.

As the sole American on our squad, I found myself playing the roles of tour guide and chaperone for a group of Europeans experiencing a whole new side of America for the first time: They visited a shopping mall and Wal-Mart with the enthusiasm of teenagers; They purchased a football and wanted to know how the game was played, but I convinced them that learning to throw the ball was a more achievable goal; We learned that renting a car was cheaper than a taxi, so we were free to visit the go-kart track, an activity we judged to be of the “better to ask forgiveness than permission” variety; The calorie count of their first visit to Chipotle was exceeded only by the entertainment value — had I not intervened, one of them would have attempted to eat his burrito like corn on the cob; I spent an afternoon at the piano store next to the hotel, during which time they test-drove a Mustang GT at a nearby dealership. (For more on the Chipotle adventure, see below for Haga’s tweets from the meal.)

Then, our bikes arrived, and it was time to get to work. Recharged mentally from our extracurricular activities, we had hopes of continuing our annual march up the results ladder after finishing eighth last year. Team time trials are always dangerous, but we were thankful to complete our practice efforts safely after seeing that some teams did not; the manhole covers that littered the urban course were frightening, as the lead rider was the only one with a chance of spotting them at 40mph. Anytime one would sneak through the defenses, we could only hold our breath and listen for the sound of carnage.

A key to the race is having the best order of riders. I was judged to be strong enough (and aero enough) to ride behind Tom Dumoulin, whose alarmingly lean frame saw him climbing so well in the Vuelta but now offered scant relief for his teammates as he did long turns on the front. I had to accept that my job was more to provide a buffer for the others to recover than it was to spend much time on the front, as I was already half-spent by the time Tom’s pulls ended.

It was overwhelming to see the enthusiasm of a big-time European race in my home country, with the fans speaking my own language. My motivation tank was full at the start line, and the cheering of my compatriots sent my tolerance for suffering into unhealthy territory. The noise on the finish climb pushed me so far into the pain cave that my face was frozen in agony for minutes after finishing. We executed a perfect race, achieving our goal of a top-five, finishing right on the heels of teams with all-star lineups.

I left for Europe the next day, full of pride that my country can deliver when it comes to bike racing. We’ve long known that Americans are second to none when it comes to enthusiasm for sports, and now the world can see it applies to skinny guys in spandex, too.

My season concludes on Sunday with the Giro di Lombardia. Como, Italy is a long way from Richmond, but the motivation I found there hasn’t worn off yet and I hope to end on a high note … although the hot-seat at the world championships will be tough to beat!