Haig was thrust into the GC limelight towards the end of the opening week when his team leader Mikel Landa, who would eventually abandon on stage 17, began to fade.
Switch in roles was an opportunity for the Australian to shine after he was ousted so early from the Tour de France in a high-speed crash on stage 3. Despite being unsure of how he would cope with the hustle and bustle of GC racing after a long recovery stint, Haig held his own in the battle for podium places and rode into third overall after a dramatic day of racing Saturday.
“It’s incredible. You always dream of arriving on the podium of a grand tour, but I never really knew it was possible. So, to be up there on stage with Enric [Mas] and Primož [Roglič] was incredible. I think it will take a while to sink in,” Haig said.
“Having the really bad crash at the Tour de France like I did and to come here with no expectations and to be third on the podium, I have no words for it. I’m just amazed by it, and I can’t thank everyone enough that has helped me get here because this doesn’t just happen overnight. It definitely doesn’t happen in one year, this is years and years of work and there are so many people to thank along the way.”
The Tour de France was supposed to be Haig’s big shot at playing team leader, but it ended with a broken collarbone. The injury also forced him to forfeit his place on the Australian Olympic road race team for Tokyo. The Vuelta would mark his comeback to racing.
After initially playing the support role for Landa at the Vuelta, Haig quickly grabbed the chance he was robbed of at the Tour as it became clear the Basque climber wasn’t up for the fight.
Haig has shown promise as a stage racer with two top-10 finishes at Paris-Nice and fifth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné earlier this year. However, his ride to the podium at the Vuelta far surpasses anything he’s done before, and eyes will be watching in 2022 to see if he can back it up.
“I will keep approaching it the way I do. It’s pretty simple for me, as long as I am happy, and I have the right people around me I just enjoy it. That’s the easiest thing when you enjoy what you do, and you have the right people around you then the results come,” Haig said.
It is the second time this year that a Bahrain-Victorious support rider has stepped up to the plate to take a grand tour podium after an early exit from Landa. Damiano Caruso did it at the Giro d’Italia after Landa suffered a horrific accident in the opening week.
Landa’s Giro crash and subsequent time off may have played a part in his underwhelming performance at the Vuelta, but his difficult year has opened the door for his teammates to lead more races in 2022. Haig’s ride has surely secured him a place at the head of a team at his chosen grand tour next year.
Breakthrough for Gino Mäder
Haig wasn’t the only star to shine for Bahrain-Victorious in the absence of Landa with Gino Mäder enjoying a breakthrough performance at the Spanish grand tour.
The young Swiss was memorably denied his first professional win by Primož Roglič at Paris-Nice in the spring but quickly made up for it with a stage win at the Giro d’Italia. The Vuelta was Mäder’s third grand tour, after debuting at last year’s race, and saw him put in a hugely consistent ride, never dropping out of the top 20 after stage 2.
After clinging on during the chaotic penultimate stage, Mäder jumped from eighth up to fifth overall and took the young rider’s jersey from Egan Bernal.
“It’s unbelievable for me. The whole thing kind of fell into my hands yesterday actually. I was already happy before with my provisional eighth place in GC,” Mäder said. “I was already happy when I was among the best climbers in this race. [Saturday], suddenly everything fell into our hands. It was so unexpected. Now, I’m sitting here in the white jersey and fifth in the GC, having helped Jack get on the podium. I’m a little bit lost for words right now.”
It remains to be seen how the 24-year-old Mäder copes when he has to shoulder the burden of leadership himself, but the performance puts him well on the path towards grand tour contender. Despite the major result, he is looking to maintain modest expectations of how he’ll go in the future.
“In the end, it’s a fifth place, which is really high to rank but let’s not forget that a lot of really strong guys had to abandon the race. It was unexpected,” he said. “Maybe it’s a little bit too high of a rank but I’ll take it and I hope that I figure in the top five of a GC.
“For now, I’m just really empty. The last three weeks took their toll and now I’m trying to realize what happened the last three or four days. I’ll go home, recover a little bit, and then maybe I’ll realize it in a week. It’s a nice feeling right now and I want to have that feeling again.”
Mäder’s fifth place behind Haig’s third helped Bahrain-Victorious to ride away with the overall team prize by over seven minutes ahead of Jumbo-Visma.