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Haga, Craddock will get first first taste of Belgium this week

American duo will start Three Days of West Flanders Friday and the team is giving them opportunities, but no pressure

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WorldTour rookies Lawson Craddock and Chad Haga will get their first tastes of cobbles this week when they line up for the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen (Three Days of West Flanders) in Belgium.

The race is part of the school of hard knocks the American Giant-Shimano riders have enrolled in during their debut season in the elite pro ranks. Each already has a month of racing under his belt. Craddock debuted at the Dubai Tour in early February and Haga has been racing in France. They will link up in Belgium for West Flanders March 7-9.

“It’s a whole new world out here. It’s not Tour of the Gila anymore,” Craddock told VeloNews at Dubai. “I’ve worked really hard for this. To pin a number on my back is pretty exciting. It’s going to be an exciting year for me.”

Giant-Shimano is giving the pair solid racing programs to give them a taste of top-level racing without putting too much pressure on them. For this weekend’s race, the team is keen to see how they will perform in Friday’s opening prologue.

“We have a few of our new riders lining up in Belgium and we will firstly see what Chad Haga and Lawson Craddock can come up with in the opening TT,” said sport director Addy Engels in a team release. “For the two road stages we will be looking to ride for a sprint as we have Luka Mezgec, Tom Veelers, and Jonas Ahlstrand, all of whom are capable of a result here. But of course the weather could play its part so we will be reactive to that.”

Craddock and Haga captured the attention of Giant-Shimano brass, which are always on the alert for young promising talent.

“In cycling, you depend on true talent, and we believe those kids have true talent,” Giant-Shimano manager Iwan Spekenbrink told VeloNews. “Lawson is one of the biggest talents of his age. It doesn’t matter if he’s American or from any country. He’s a big talent, period. While Chad hasn’t followed the traditional path to cycling, we see big room for improvement for him.”

To the surprise of many, both bypassed teams with stronger U.S. links, and opted to sign with Netherlands-based Giant-Shimano (formerly Argos-Shimano).

“These guys represent our philosophy. We find the best young talent, then we get them involved, and we try to support them the best possible way,” Spekenbrink said. “We are seeing these young riders taking interest in our team. They have heard how we work with young riders. We believe they have great talent and we are looking forward to working with them.”

Craddock comes to Europe following a successful, high-profile junior and espoirs career, and in many ways, he’s the most highly touted U.S. rookie since Taylor Phinney. Haga, meanwhile, came through the collegiate ranks, graduating from Texas A&M University with a mechanical engineering degree.

Both Haga and Craddock said they were interested in joining Giant-Shimano after what they were hearing about how they develop young talent.

“I was very interested in their experience developing young riders,” Haga told VeloNews. “When you look at all the teams, this is one of the best ones for a young rider. They’re not just looking at this year, but three or four years down the road. I think I can improve a lot with this team.”

Both are slated to continue racing in Europe, with the idea of starting the Amgen Tour of California in May. Both are strong climbers with excellent time trialing credentials, and will be focusing on developing their overall skills to focus on the GC in the coming years.

While it’s too early to say if either will race a grand tour in 2014, Spekenbrink said the priority would be giving them chances to stretch their legs without too much pressure.

“It’s important that young pros have the chance to experience many things. Then they can slowly begin to specialize,” Spekenbrink said. “There are many new things for a first-year pro. It’s important to give them space to learn about what it also means to be a pro on the bike and off.”