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Chad Haga interview: Racing with freedom and joy

Chad Haga talks about his best season ever, how the loss of his father inspired him, and the fateful crash of January 2016.

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Chad Haga sits at the white marble counter of this Colorado coffee shop with two scars and a smile. The first scar is a reminder of Giant – Alpecin’s training crash last January, left by the car that almost killed him on backroads near Calpe, Spain. The other scar — actually it’s a tattoo — is dedicated to his late father, who lost a six-year battle with cancer in June. The smile? He just wrapped up his best-ever cycling season with a marriage, a honeymoon, and, finally, a reset.

Haga, a hobby pianist, college-educated engineer, and man of faith, is especially introspective for a pro cyclist. We met up with him in Fort Collins, Colorado, while he was home for the holidays and discussed why this was both the best and worst season of his life.

VeloNews: You’ve had things happen this season that you wouldn’t wish upon anybody. How do you turn around and face a new year?

Chad Haga: There’s a lot of perspective gained from things like that, from losing a family member to an unfair cancer, to finding yourself in a ditch after getting plowed by a car. But you realize people are paying me to race my bike. It’s the stupidest, best thing I’ve ever heard in my life. There are a lot more important things going on in the world than bike racing, yet this is what I get to do for a living. There is a lot of freedom and joy in that. It makes you realize that this is not forever; this is now, so let’s go all in.

VN: Your dad was a huge part of cycling for you. He was the one who pushed you to go all in.

CH: He was my biggest supporter; my racing was an escape for him as he battled cancer for six years. He would record all the races and watch them and keep up with them at work, so it was encouraging to have him cheering for me from afar. But even more so, his cancer is what got me into racing full time. I was on track to an engineering job, and an opportunity to race on an elite team opened up the same time as I was graduating, which was the same time he was diagnosed. He told me, “I worked 27 years at this job for my retirement, and now there’s no guarantee that I’ll make it there. But you can race your bike now. The desk job will always be there. Go race.” That was the impetus to go for it. And his death reminds me that life is short, there’s no reason that it should be boring.

VN: The tattoo on your forearm suggests perspective, too.

CH: It says, “Eternity gained, only life remains.” I got it this summer. It’s a reminder that ultimately, eternity is settled, so however this life ends, I hope it goes well, but if it ends poorly it’s still going to end well. So don’t let fear of life hold you back. That’s some hard-earned perspective.

VN: Does that help you step into a new season? How do you get your head back in it?

CH: I guarantee we’re going to winter camp and we’re going to do sprint workouts on the same road where the crash happened. [Haga and five teammates were hospitalized after being struck head-on by a British motorist driving on the wrong side of the road.] That’s going to be tough the first couple times. But all the bad that’s happened has sort of grounded me a bit in my faith. I realize I’m completely powerless. It’s a waste of energy to worry about another English driver coming around the corner in my lane. I’m powerless. Completely powerless. There’s freedom in that. I’ll do the best I can and take care of myself, but ultimately it’s not up to me. I let go of that worry.

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VN: This year still had bright spots, though.

CH: Yeah, it was a very up and down year. I got through two grand tours in a year, finished both of them. That’s something I wanted to do. I got some results in there. The team got some results that I contributed to. Even with the setback, it felt like I was able to make a step forward in terms of where I fit in the race. Instead of being the guy who does the early work, the team is shifting me toward more significant roles. I’ll be a super domestique in a grand tour for a GC rider next year. That’s encouraging.

VN: What did you learn about yourself from the crash?

CH: I can get through the hardest circumstances I’ve ever encountered. Not only get back, but past it. It helps that my job is to be the best bike racer possible, so for months it was three hours of training and 21 hours of recovery. It was very focused.

VN: How long did it take to put it behind you?

CH: It was a few months. I was still having neck and shoulder issues at the Giro. Four or five months. And there are small lingering physical things, but they don’t affect me on the bike.

VN: What about psychologically?

CH: I’m a bit more alert, more assertive in traffic. In the peloton, sometimes the fear will click on and you’ll realize that if someone messes up it’s going to be really ugly. But you have to push those thoughts away.

VN: This is still a mostly secular sport, at least outwardly so. You’ve been a bit more public about your faith lately. Why?

CH: It’s a motivating factor for me. I’m gaining confidence and putting it out there a bit more. When you say you’re a Christian in this world you get focused in on a little bit. People wonder, which kind of Christian are we talking about here?

VN: What kind are you?

CH: I’m the kind that tries to love people as we’re called to. To be giving and sincere and honest and trustworthy. With that on display, it keeps me focused when we have a bad moment. Ultimately, what I accomplish is a joint effort. I’ll do my best and however it turns out is whatever was intended. But it requires my side, so I put myself fully into everything.

VN: By “requires my side,” you mean use your gift as a cyclist?

CH: Yeah. There are a lot of guys who work maybe even harder than me who never get to this point. But I’ve been presented this opportunity and given these abilities and so if I squander it then it’s not really fair to myself or to God. What did I do with it? I want to say I made the most of it.