When Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies director Jonas Carney signed recent Texas A&M University graduate Chad Haga in 2011, he signed the then top amateur at that year’s Joe Martin Stage Race and Nature Valley Grand Prix.
Now, 18 months later, the 6-foot-3 Haga leaves the team’s Oxnard, California, training camp as one of the strongest, if not the strongest, rider on the roster of the team that captured second overall in the 2012 USA Cycling National Racing Calendar rankings.
“He was certainly one of the fittest guys at camp this time around,” Carney wrote in an e-mail. “I can’t think of any areas where he needs improving.”
Tom Zirbel, the team’s top time trialist — and arguably the top time trialist on the domestic circuit, with three second-place finishes (2008, 2009, 2011) at the national time trial championship — agrees, and he does so from the unique perspective of a rider whose thunder Haga will attempt to steal this season.
“He’s one person who I’m so excited about,” Zirbel said of Haga. “He’s very level-headed and extremely talented, extremely hard-working, extremely intelligent on the bike during races.”
Haga, a native of McKinney, Texas, experienced a breakout year in 2012 — his second as a professional. He won the opening-day time trial at the Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend, Oregon, beating Competitive Cyclist’s two-time NRC winner Francisco Mancebo by two seconds on his way to taking the leader’s jersey.
He revealed his time trial prowess — and his ambition to overtake Zirbel as the top domestic time trialist — even earlier, however, at that year’s Oxnard training camp in February.
Upon learning that he had usurped Zirbel in the team’s mock time trial, Haga said, “I opened the van door, grabbed my helmet, and said, ‘Hey, Zirbel, apparently I beat you,’ shut the door, and walked off.”
However, the season which began so well ended after just one night in the Cascade Classic leader’s jersey, with Haga breaking his left wrist and right thumb on the first road stage of the six-day race — injuries from which the 162-pound Haga is already coming back.
“[I’m] fully recovered now, and the comeback has been great,” he said. “This year, I fully intend to win an NRC stage race, and a UCI road race. Last year, we saw that it’s possible. So I intend to execute that.”
To that end, Haga has focused his offseason not on gaining strength, but on losing weight.
“I spent the fall working on my diet and working on eating habits, so now I’m significantly lighter than this time last year,” he said. “I think that’s what we’re seeing now, is the same power with less weight, and that’s paying off.”
Carney, who decided to sign Haga after his performance at Nature Valley in 2011 — he was the highest-finishing non-professional rider — said the offseason weight loss has already paid dividends.
“This year he time trialed very well again,” Carney wrote. “Where he stood out this year was on the climbs. He came to camp lighter than last year, and his climbing was improved as a result.”
Having spent the final day of training camp honing his time trial position in San Diego’s Low Speed Wind Tunnel, Haga has his sights set high.
In addition to his goals of winning an NRC general classification and a UCI road race, “I would really like to make the [Amgen]Tour of California squad, and definitely want to make one of the European squads that goes over and races,” he said. “I’ve never had the chance to race in Europe, so I’d really like to give that a shot and see how I fare.”
Those objectives give a clue as to the style of racing Haga prefers: “I like any race that is hard. So if it’s going to be lots of attacking and a grueling race of attrition, I’m there. If there’s suffering involved I want to be there. [I’m motivated by] knowing that I might never have this chance again. You can’t take it for granted … now’s the time to go for it; don’t hold anything back.”
Zirbel, who topped the team’s February time trial training in what he hopes is a return to his 2011 form, expects that appetite for hard racing to pay off.
“If he sticks with it, he’s going to be a [UCI WorldTour] rider,” he said.
In the short term, however, Haga said that there is one feather he wants in his cap above all.
“[A] USPRO time trial championship. At least one,” he said. “I want that jersey.”
With his weight loss paying dividends and his wind tunnel work expected to do the same, Haga might just nick that feather as early as 2013.