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Vuelta a Espana

American neo-pro Haga enjoying ride in Vuelta debut

The American has raced at several events in his debut season at the WorldTour level, including the Spanish grand tour

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Chad Haga (Giant-Shimano) has been getting plenty of TV time in his grand tour debut through the first half of the Vuelta a España.

Usually neo-pros getting thrown to the sharks in their first grand tours try to stay hidden away in the safety of the pack, but 26-year-old Texan has been sticking his nose to the wind, quite literally.

With German ace John Degenkolb in the hunt for stages, Haga has been “sled-dogging” at the front of the peloton to control breakaways, and then did a key pull to set up Degenkolb’s first of two stage wins in stage 4. Haga savored the win, riding slowly across the line, high-fiving the fans and raising his arms in celebration.

“Things have been going pretty good so far through the Vuelta,” Haga told VeloNews. “It’s certainly bigger and faster than any race I’ve been in. It’s been exciting.”

Haga’s arrival at the Vuelta this season caps his interesting trajectory into the pro ranks. Unlike many of his younger compatriots, most of whom have come through the successful under-23 racing program backed by USA Cycling, Haga raced collegiately, and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Texas A&M in 2010.

After balancing racing and university studies, he turned pro with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies in 2011. Three solid seasons there, including second overall at the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal last year, in a peloton packed with Portuguese and Spanish riders, opened the door to Giant.

“At the beginning of the season, Chad was quiet, and you could see he was looking to find his place,” said Giant sport director Lionel Marie. “Now you can see he is more comfortable, and he’s much more a part of the team. Everyone is very happy with how he’s performing. He has a big future.”

So far, Haga has been seeing plenty of race days, mixing it up with a series of one-day races and shorter stage races in the first half of the season, with the team giving him a chance to taste Europe’s different types of races.

“The team has really supported us, giving us a chance to race a lot, but without overdoing it,” he said. “The team really works well together. Everyone is excited to perform.”

After racing both the Amgen Tour of California in May and the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, Haga took a well-deserved break.

He returned to racing in Europe with a bang last month, riding to fourth in the individual time trial at the Vuelta a Burgos, stopping the clock just three seconds short of victory in a short, fast 12.5-kilometer course.

Along with fellow Texan Lawson Craddock, Haga got the call-up to the Vuelta. He’s been chronicling his Vuelta experience daily in his personal blog, “My Mind is Racing,” and have reveled his teammates with his piano skills more than a few nights.

“The good ride at Burgos gave me a lot of motivation and helped me make the Vuelta selection,” Haga said. “It’s great to be in my first grand tour. That was one of my goals in my first season in Europe.”

Tuesday’s longer, more challenging time trial course at Borja presents a different kind of challenge for Haga. At a distance of nearly 40km, it will be longest time trial he’s done as a pro. And it will be against an elite field, including three-time defending world champion Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Haga won’t get a chance to test his mettle on Tuesday, as the team wants to save him for the mountains to help Barguil, who is battling to try to ride into the top-10 overall. Haga, who celebrated his 26th birthday during the Vuelta, is certainly growing into the role.

Haga admits he’s just discovering his potential at the elite level of the peloton, but the team signed him because it saw potential as a stage racer. Whether that’s in one-week races with a time trial, or the longer, more demanding grand tours remains to be seen.

So far, Haga is enjoying the ride.