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Chad Haga Journal: Sponge legs (are actually a good thing)

Chad Haga is making up for lost time, gutting out tough races, finishing well behind the winners to build fitness and his mental resolve.

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Sponges — that’s how I imagine my legs at the start of a race season. They quickly soak up the intensity of races like they’ve been parched for too long, and they can’t seem to get enough in the early days, rebounding almost immediately after every race. Early-season legs have a boundless enthusiasm and a staggering tolerance for pain, which partly makes up for their lack of strength. As the season wears on, power numbers grow, but the sponge becomes saturated and eventually can’t handle any more.

Due to some crazy circumstances, I’ve made it to April with January’s sponge-like legs, and it feels strange, especially considering how 2015 began for me: I started Critérium International last year with three weeks of racing in the bag, and this time around, exactly zero. Most of the peloton has their sharp, race-tuned classics legs, then I show up to the start line three months late like Smalls in “The Sandlot,” standing in the outfield feeling woefully unprepared and just hoping nothing comes my way.

I was dropped halfway up Critérium International’s final climb, but raced all the way to the line, buzzing on the verge of bonking — not because 22nd place was especially valuable to me, but because I had a point to prove and desperately needed the fitness that comes from such an effort. Unlike you, I knew my race schedule, and the clock was ticking for some serious fitness. For the same reason, I rode right past the team bus to complete the rainy final lap of Scheldeprijs and finish eight minutes behind Kittel.

Just as significant as the fitness these first races imparted to my legs — perhaps even more so — was the mental desensitization of being in the bunch again, hurtling around blind corners at frightening speeds. Whereas I was able to push my legs with innumerable intervals over the past months, my mind and elbows can only be trained by racing. Those first races managed to take the edge off, which proved vital for my first crack at the Ardennes classics, known for being six-hour positioning fights.

Focused on my role for the day in the Amstel Gold Race (sheltering Simon Geschke as long as possible), I was able to get the job done without alarm bells constantly going off in my head. The most intense fear I experienced was when a moto and car got trapped in the bunch during a hectic moment. I’m fine — although a bit more careful — when moving through the caravan after a nature break, because that’s their space and everything moves predictably. When they venture into our space, however, it takes every bit of focus I can muster just to ride my bike in a straight line until the danger has passed, never mind that I’ve somehow ended up at the back of the bunch in the span of a minute.

For all the pain associated with the punchy Ardennes undulations, I forgot about the mounting ache in my legs entirely when, about four hours into the race, I hurriedly stuffed a bar into my mouth between corners on a descent and chomped on the lump of scar tissue in my lip with the overzealous force of a racer on the verge of being dropped for want of sugar. The blinding pain kept me occupied for at least the next few climbs. … It’s a tactic that is undeniably effective, but leaves something to be desired.

Aside from accomplishing my team’s goal within the race, I was determined to finish, even if it meant the broom wagon was lurking behind me for a long way. I had no desire to quit my first race back in the WorldTour. I had plenty of excuses at my disposal, but I’m tired of them and felt that the best way to put the crash in the past was to show myself that I can finish one of the hardest classics on the calendar in addition to getting my job done. So when I was dropped for the final time with over 40 kilometers remaining, I settled into my pace and started ticking them off.

Then it started raining and hailing and I began to question my resolve.

Thankfully, the blue skies returned and I threaded my way through the press and spectators milling around the finish line, bypassing the team bus as well, so that I could complete my final lap of stubborn masochism. I kindly accepted a gel from my personal police escort as I flirted with the looming bonk. Still I kept pedaling as the finish of the hardest single day of racing I’d ever done drew closer, 6.5 hours after it began. Out there by myself for so long, my mind wandered to a time less than three months ago, when an unsteady walk to the hospital cafeteria was my exercise for the day, and here I was about to finish Amstel Gold Race. The goosebumps I got may also have been related to the bonk, but nonetheless it was an encouraging thought.

It may have been some 11 minutes behind the leaders, but I got to ride up the Cauberg alone, cheered on by spectators four-deep on both sides, and it wasn’t just my spongey legs soaking up the moment.