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Chad Haga Journal: The confidence game

Training for a January race is a balancing act: Bring fitness (but not too much); don't get sick (adios, fitness); and try to stay confident

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I finished the 2014 race season confident in my ability to race at the highest level and told my team directors as much. They called my bluff and sent me to Australia for the Santos Tour Down Under. I suppose there’s no better way to know for sure than to take on a WorldTour race in January.

Training for a race in January is a tricky balancing act — arrive fit, but not too fit. Everything was going according to plan after a productive training block in December, at which point things got interesting when I came down with the flu just days before flying out. I kicked the flu just in time to board a plane and fly around the world in six days, with a stop in Berlin for the Giant-Alpecin team presentation. Apparently feeling that my body had not been through enough, I got sick from a hotel buffet in Malaysia.

And just like that, all the confidence that had been building was flushed away. My first bike ride of the new year was not until the 10th; I was pedaling squares in Australia on the left side of the road, jet-lagged, with a gurgling stomach and a chest full of phlegm from my bout with the flu. Yeah, 2015 was off to a wobbly start!

So much of racing (in my experience at least) is about confidence. Confidence in one’s form, skills, tactics, teammates, and equipment all factor into success for a rider and team. Once that confidence starts to break down, things can fall apart quickly. It is in the weeks before the first race of the season that this confidence is most delicate, which is dangerous for someone who can easily overthink things.

When confidence is in short supply, I avoid panicking by simply training as normal with the trust that my legs will be there when I need them. Off the bike, I look for other ways to stay occupied and out of my head.

We had a few days to adjust before the real training began and spent them taking in this new country. An afternoon at the beach taught us that Lawson is no good at self-application of sunscreen, and I discovered that El Caminos are all the rage here (they have a new name, but c’mon, who are you kidding?). The local drivers even did their best to make us feel at home on our coffee rides through town, but I must admit that being buzzed on my right side is a fresh terror. Thanks to the Tour Down Under staff, I was able to get some time on the hotel piano and give my arms a bit of exercise.

The idea behind arriving a week prior to the race was to get a few days of training in the Australian summer, but our arrival Down Under was met with a “cold front.” The weather these last few days has been far too pleasant to be considered heat acclimation, but we masked our disappointment well. Once training resumed, I distracted myself from the mounting tiredness of my legs with a game of spot-the-wildlife. Kangaroos were easy enough, hanging out in the open for all to see, but koalas proved a real challenge for someone whose eyes have an annoying tendency to confuse brown and green.

Day by day, my confidence slowly returned as my legs remembered what they’re paid to do. In only a couple of hours, it will be time to throw my cards on the table. In this game, however, I don’t know what hand I’m holding until they’re down. Even though I’m still lacking a bit of confidence in my own form, I have no doubt in my ability to suffer or the capability of my teammates, and that’s a good place to start. Now then, let’s race our bikes!

• Late addendum: And just that quickly, the first race of the year — and the team’s first win! — is under our belt. All the fears and doubts were shoved aside when the pistol fired. At that point, I had a job to do and it’s tough to over-think things with my heart pounding in my ears and my stomach in my throat.

I wish my legs had been a bit better, but that’s always the case for a professional athlete; we’re constantly pushing ourselves, demanding more. The People’s Choice Classic criterium was a very different event from the racing we’ll face in the coming week, but it gave me a good boost of confidence nonetheless. I’ll take it!

Now it’s time to join my teammates for dinner. I’m not sure what’s on the menu, but I’m confident there will be a toast.

Editor’s note: Chad Haga races for Giant-Alpecin and will be contributing rider journals to VeloNews throughout the upcoming season. The 26-year-old American has been racing professionally since 2011. In 2014, he finished his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España.