FONTENAY-DE-COMTE, France (VN) — Of the five Americans on the Tour de France start list, two were making their long-awaited debuts in the race on Saturday.
Chad Haga (Team Sunweb) and Ian Boswell (Katusha-Alpecin) rolled out of the stage 1 start in Nourmoutier to make their first-ever appearances in cycling’s main event. The accomplishment represents a validation of sorts for both riders. Plenty of top-tier cyclists build their careers around racing in Belgium, Spain, or Italy, but particularly outside of Europe, casual sports fans only recognize one pro bike race: Le Tour.
“They’re always going to ask the question. Now I can say, ‘Yes, I’ve raced the Tour.’ So I’ll be more legitimate in the average American eyes,” Haga joked.
Haga has ridden in seven grand tours across his career, but a Tour de France appearance was the missing line on his resume.
The same is true for Boswell, who has finished two Vueltas a España and one Giro d’Italia. Nonetheless, friends who don’t follow the sport quite as closely simply ask if he has raced the Tour — and up until now, he has not quite been able to answer in the affirmative.
“I’m like, ‘No, I did the Giro, it’s like the Tour but it’s in Italy.'” Boswell said. “They’re just like, ‘Huh?'”
Boswell spent five years with Team Sky, which was both a blessing and curse in terms of his aspirations to ever make the start in the Tour de France. Sky’s laser focus on the stage race makes it a desired landing spot for top GC riders during transfer season, but it also means that competition for the Tour roster is incredibly fierce. After changing over to Katusha kit this winter, Boswell got the call up to race the Tour in his first season with the team as a key mountain lieutenant for Ilnur Zakarin.
Haga, meanwhile, has been with the Sunweb organization since 2014. He has built up a rapport with Tom Dumoulin in that team, proving a valuable domestique at the 2017 Giro and again this May, when Dumoulin finished second in the Italian grand tour.
Now, Haga is part of Dumoulin’s support team at the Tour de France.
Boswell and Haga both spoke to the difference of scale easily notable at the start of the Tour’s opening stage compared to other big races they’ve done.
Fans packed into the small town of Noirmoutier-en-l’Île on a clear but hot Saturday morning to see the riders off, with others thickly lining the road for several kilometers after the start.
“The drive in, certainly, you can see that the Tour de France is sustaining the folding chair industry pretty well,” Haga said.
Each rider will have his own job to do supporting his respective squad’s GC leader. That will mean playing bodyguard in a testy opening stretch of stages that could see stress and crosswinds throughout and cobblestones in the ninth stage. Even just knocking out the first stage, however, will have calmed some nerves — stage 1 saw numerous crashes and mechanicals in the finale, with several notables losing time. Chris Froome (Sky), Richie Porte (BMC), and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) rolled home 51 seconds down. Movistar’s Nairo Quintana lost 1:15. Fellow American Lawson Craddock (EF Education First-Drapac) crashed hard in the feed zone and come home in last place at nearly eight minutes behind the winner.
Dumoulin and Zakarin, on the other hand, both made it through the chaos to finish on the same time as stage winner Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors). Job well done for Haga and Boswell, with one stage down. Now, as Boswell put it, comes a welcome chance to head to the hotel, “unwind,” and start feeling more comfortable with the race well underway.
20 stages remain until the race concludes in Paris. The GC action will really heat up from stage 10 onward as the Tour first hits the Alps and then the Pyrenees. Haga and Boswell will be called on to lay down the watts for the respective leaders when the road goes up.
For both riders, helping teammates will take priority over staying in the race. Nevertheless, making it to the finish will mean something extra special — particularly for Boswell.
“I’ve flown into the airport but I’ve never actually been to Paris,” he said. “I had a chance a couple of years ago to go with my fiancé, but I was like, ‘You know what? I want to save that for the Tour.'”