The memories dangle like strings, most just out of reach: car headlights on the wrong side of the road, panic and indecision; strange hands cradling his neck as he lay on a small patch of grass; a teammate holding his hand; the sensation of a helicopter’s liftoff; a white hospital bed.
The woman who drove into Chad Haga, 27, and his Giant – Alpecin team in January was on the wrong side of the road, a British tourist driving a rental car in Spain.
The scar runs from just under Haga’s nose all the way down to his sternum, a slice 97 stitches long caused by some piece of bike shrapnel or the car windshield. He’s still not sure. Five of his teammates, including John Degenkolb, ended up in the hospital.
More than three months later, the Giro will mark Haga’s true return from that frightening crash. He has made starts in a few races prior to the Grande Partenza in the Netherlands, but they’ll be tuneups. It will be at the Giro where he wants to perform at his old level once again and finally put the crash behind him.
If he’s successful, it will be an incredible comeback. In February, Haga struggled just to hold his head up while riding. In May, he’ll be expected to play a vital role for his team’s GC leader, Tom Dumoulin, and to ride for his own results in the Giro’s two time trials.
It took 18 days before Haga could ride outside, and even then he had to keep rides short, as whiplash made it difficult for him to hold his head up. “Those early three-hour rides, 100 percent of my daily energy was focused on the ride,” he says. “I couldn’t even read. It was just TV, because my neck was too painful, and I couldn’t sit up.” He would ride intervals until he couldn’t do any more, squishing a day’s training into the narrow span of time before his neck gave out.
The fissure down his face and chest took a month to fully close. “I was surprised how much energy your body requires to recover from an injury like that,” he says. “I was hardly doing anything, just walking and sleeping. I was eating like I was in a training camp, and I wasn’t gaining any weight.”
As his physical wounds heal, Haga continues to work on the internal scars any crash inevitably generates. Hesitation isn’t an option for the pro bike racer. The team brought in a sports psychologist to help riders work through the crash, but Haga says the real help came from his brother and new fiancé.
“I’ve had injuries before that have set me back quite a ways, so I’m familiar with the process, but this is the first time that the outside world came into play,” Haga says. “Now I realize that we’re trying to do our job in the real world, and cars exist in that space. You know on the surface that cars are going to mess you up if you get hit, but until it happens you don’t really grasp how dangerous they are.”
With the Giro fast approaching, Haga is leaner than ever and confident the form is returning. His power before the crash was at an all-time high. “If I can get back to even the level that I was at before the crash, I’m going to have a really good race,” he says.