Cycling is a group sport: for more than half the time, you ride all together, side by side, allowing plenty of opportunity to build relationships. The “group” is even a social set, a community that keeps all the professional riders together. During a Grand Tour, though, there are days when the group does not exist: in the time trials. Stages to be faced alone, with no one to talk to except the race radio, which is useless anyway: in a time trial you ride all out and have no breath left for talking. Alone, listening only to your own legs, or at most to a few time splits. Alone, thinking, because even when you’re at maximum effort your mind doesn’t stop. You concentrate, yes, but somehow it continues to wander, or rather it pursues precisely those thoughts that help you concentrate more, that converge on the same goal. Great time trialists are not only those who know how to push hard gears for a long time but, above all, those who know how to better focus their thoughts.
Adam Hansen, an Australian rouleur and Grand Tour expert, says that during time trials you never stop thinking: in his case, about the projects he’s working on at home, or new ideas for the shoes he makes. Victor Campenaerts, who is the reigning European champion in the time trial (and holder of the hour record), thinks more specifically about the number of his pedal strokes and the possible trajectories for the turns. Chad Haga, winner of the concluding time trial of the 2019 Giro d’Italia, while pedaling through the streets of Verona — realizing immediately that he was going very fast — was thinking above all of his father.
If it weren’t for Chris Haga, Chad wouldn’t be a racer today. He would probably be a mechanical engineer. In late 2010, the current Sunweb rider had graduated and was ready to pursue a professional career when the call came from a Colorado cycling team. Uncertain about what to do, Chad asked his father, then already battling cancer, for advice. He recommended that Chad follow his dream: “The desk job will always be there.” Chris Haga died in 2016, and since then Chad has hoped to be able to dedicate a victory to him: “I knew whenever the success came, the tears would also come immediately.” In Verona, having achieved the first important success in his career, he tried to hold them back for a long time — an eternity, like his wait on the hot seat: after 22 minutes and 7 seconds of racing, more than two hours sitting and thinking. For the tears, he waited until Primož Roglič, the last specialist in the race, had finished. For the dedications, he then waited for the award-ceremony stage, which he climbed onto while pointing his two index fingers to the sky, and descended from with his face looking like a labyrinth, with the arched lines of the podium girls’ lipstick crossing the scars marking his face. Three years ago he was training with his teammates in Spain when a car driving against traffic slammed into them. Chad’s condition was the worst. Those same teammates had to step in and apply pressure to his neck to stanch the bleeding. He will always carry the mark of that afternoon on his face and in his desire to start racing again: “I didn’t want to let a ridiculous crash decide when my career would end.”
The career of Chad Haga, 31, has become that of a good domestique — and of an excellent time trialist. He came to the Giro to help Tom Dumoulin, but the Dutchman’s withdrawal forced the Sunweb riders to rethink the race. Chad staked everything on the last card, on the Verona time trial. For a week he “rested” in the group, allowing the other time trialists to get more tired than him. On the morning of the Verona stage, he reconnoitered the route, filmed it and watched it 20 times.
Legs and thoughts are not enough to make you go fast in a time trial; you need planning down to the millimeter, worthy of an engineer. “I did a perfect imitation of Dumoulin,” Chad said at the finish, drawing on his innate ability to sum things up. Because he is not only a cyclist and an engineer; he is also a pianist and above all an astute narrator of his own races, which he recaps in discerning tweet-length summaries. He was even able to summarize the end of this upended Giro and his long quest in one word: redemption.
Words: Bidon – Ciclismo allo stato liquido