It happened in the blink of an eye. A head-on collision with a vehicle in the wrong lane. Every road cyclist’s worst nightmare.
In an instant, everything had changed for American Chad Haga.
The 27-year-old from Texas had shown up to Giant-Alpecin’s training camp in Calpe, Spain, in the best condition of his career, eager to improve upon two seasons in the WorldTour that included finishes in his first two grand tours, the 2014 Vuelta a España and the extremely tough 2015 Giro d’Italia.
Haga’s thoughts leaned towards his 2016 race schedule: He was due to start at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, building towards Catalunya, and the Giro.
Instead, he was bleeding profusely from his neck, the result of crashing face-first into the oncoming black SUV driven by a 73-year-old British woman.
Instead of heading back to the team hotel, he was in a helicopter, being evacuated to an emergency room.
Instead, Haga had a fractured cheekbone and lacerations to his face, nose, chin, throat, collarbone, and knees, and was losing blood quickly. His mobile phone was found 100 feet from the crash site.
I was kinda expecting helicopter rides to be more fun than that. They must have a great marketer.
— Chad Haga (@ChadHaga) January 25, 2016
Ten days later, however, Haga was with his fiancee, Kate Williams, back in his apartment in Girona, Spain, having just had 45 stitches removed from his face and neck, and another six removed from his knee. (In all, he had 96 stitches across his body.) Having the stitches removed closed a loop that had no start point — he’d been sedated when ER surgeons stitched him up.
“I don’t have much memory of any of it,” Haga said. “I was told I was talking most of the time, but I was in shock, and I’ve blocked out most of the memories. Over a 24-hour period, I have memory of about 30 seconds.”
When Haga came to, his thoughts immediately flowed toward his teammates. How had they fared? Had they all survived?
“I went through a lot of emotions” Haga said. “I was grateful to be alive. I was shocked at what happened. And I was really frightened about whether or not my friends were dead. I knew nothing until our team doctor and [teammate] Caleb Fairly came to visit me, after what felt like a really long time. I was in and out of consciousness, everything was fuzzy, but I could remember who was in our group. I had no recollection of what happened, or what was going on. Those questions weren’t answered until the team doctor and Caleb showed up.”
Miraculously, however, none of the six riders struck by the vehicle were left with life-changing injuries. A few broken bones, plenty of road rash, sutures, and in John Degenkolb’s case, a nearly severed finger. But all six riders escaped serious injury. No paralysis. No brain injuries. All six will likely pin on a number and race this season.
There's got to be an easier way to gain Twitter followers. I should look into that.
— Chad Haga (@ChadHaga) January 25, 2016
Once Haga was aware of the extent of his teammates’ injuries, his thoughts turned inward. After three seasons with Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, where he was one of the top riders in North America, he’d joined Giant-Alpecin in 2014. A fourth-place finish at the Vuelta a Burgos time trial, three seconds off the win and two seconds behind Nairo Quintana, was the first indication that Haga could compete against the best in the sport. He would finish the Vuelta that year, and finish the Giro d’Italia last year. For 2016, he’d hoped to have a chance to ride as a supported rider.
“My first reaction was that my career was over, and that I never wanted to ride a road bike ever again,” Haga said. “But that didn’t last too long. I remembered how well training had been going, and how much I had been looking forward to the season. I felt like there was still this untapped potential, and that I wouldn’t be satisfied until I fill it. My goal is to accomplish all that I can, so I’m going to focus on that. For this season, it’s obviously a huge setback, but in the long term, I’ll be fine. I just need to heal.”
Haga added that his Giant-Alpecin team has put no timeline on when he is expected to return.
“The team has been very accommodating,” Haga said. “They want to see me make a full return, but the only pressure is to do it properly. The focus is not on setting a date around it, but to get a little bit better each day. We’ll have to see when that day comes.”
And while some riders might’ve become withdrawn after such an incident, Haga instantly took to social media, to connect with his fans and supporters. His mobile phone survived the crash, overflowed with messages on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as emails and text messages. He’s made light of the accident, joking about his scars as well the daily inconveniences of his injuries.
“It was overwhelming, the support for me from all around the world,” Haga said. “People were praying, telling me they were cheering for me. It was really motivating to me. I realized I was not alone, I had this ton of support and encouragement to lean on.”
My biggest challenges at the moment: stairs and stares.
— Chad Haga (@ChadHaga) January 29, 2016
Friends and family had rallied to fly Williams over to Spain, quickly, from her home in Fort Collins, Colorado. Haga also found support from the community of American pros living in Girona. Jordan Reijnen, Kiel Reijnen’s wife, baked him cookies. Ally Fairly, Caleb Fairly’s wife, picked him up from the train station.
“There’s a real community here,” Haga said of the Girona cycling community. “And they all reached out to me. I’ve had overwhelming support, from so many directions.”
Haga said his most immediate concern surrounds his neck. Though the wounds were not life-threatening, his neck muscles were weakened, and he’s lacking in both strength and mobility.
“If I were to get on a TT bike, I wouldn’t be able to see up the road,” Haga said. “There’s a lot of tension, in the muscles, from scar tissue. It’s nothing permanent, but it’s going to take a while. I wouldn’t even be able to ride in an aerodynamic position on my road bike right now.”
He’s also having pain walking, as both knees were hyperextended in the crash.
Haga’s fiancee headed back to the States over the weekend, however his younger brother, Shane, is in Girona helping him with errands, like grocery shopping, and household chores like cooking and laundry.
All that said, Haga has kept his spirits high. “I wasn’t even fully lucid when I realized how fortunate I’d been,” he said. “I have a few memories, seeing the car before impact. I remember how I hit the car with my face. And I came out of it not too bad, really, other than my face hurting like crazy. It’s really shocking how comparatively light we all came off in the big picture. As far as bike racing goes, it will be rough for a while, but none of us were concussed, or dead.
“I am just trying to put things in perspective,” he continued. “It’s a sucky situation, but I’m here. I can be miserable, for however how long it takes, or I can just try to keep things in a good light and make the best of it.”