If Tom Dumoulin goes on to win this Giro d’Italia, he will owe much to his Sunweb teammates. On Wednesday’s 11th stage of the race they did important work limiting the gains of a dangerous breakaway, leading the peloton for many kilometres on the peaks and valleys towards Bagno di Romagna.
The squad must do the same in the days ahead, hammering themselves to protect his Maglia Rosa and to keep him in pink. There will be countless attacks on his jersey, and while Dumoulin is clearly in career-best shape, he will need his foot soldiers around him between now and the end of the race.
One of those who will be crucial to his hopes is Chad Haga. The American’s importance was underlined when he accompanied the Dutchman on a full three-week altitude camp in the build-up to the Giro d’Italia. The two spent the time together in Sierra Nevada and Tenerife, putting in the necessary grunt work at altitude.
Dumoulin was working hard there to be at his best in the Giro and, likewise, so too Haga.
“Being at the Giro this year, supporting Tom, is a shift in role for me,” the 28-year-old Texan told CyclingTips in the buildup to the race. “In my first Vuelta we were there supporting [Warren] Barguil and his GC. But since then, the two Giros I’ve done and Vuelta last year were stage-hunting. That’s physically a very different ask than being a support rider for a GC guy.
“Instead of attacking to be in breakways at the beginning, you are saving energy and being more in the finals. And it’s every day. It’s kind of intimidating. But it’s an exciting challenge.”
Dumoulin has had a superb race thus far. He was sixth on the Mount Etna stage, then finished an impressive third on day nine to Blockhaus. That put him in third place overall. The following day he crushed his rivals in the Montefalco time trial, beating race leader Nairo Quintana by two minutes and 53 seconds.
That handed him a two minute 23 second buffer. For now, at least, he is in the driving seat.
“Tom’s Giro so far has been nearly perfect, as hasn’t lost any unnecessary time on the sprint stages and has stayed out of trouble,” Haga told CyclingTips prior to his time trial win. “He’s obviously got excellent form, so we just have to make sure that it gets used the best way possible.
“My form is also very good, it would seem. I am making climbing selections that I haven’t in the past. That means I can support Tom deeper into the hard stages. That support can mean going back to the car for more food or bottles, or positioning him for the decisive moments of the climbs or going into a descent.
“A lot of my time is spent just hanging around him to be available should the need arise. On the climbing stages thus far, my job was to keep Tom out of the wind on the climbs until the short downhill segment – both Etna and Blockhaus had one – then do a downhill pull to get him to the front for the steep part of the climb.”
On stage 11, Haga spent a long time on the front, chasing hard and helping the other Team Sunweb riders to control the break. Dumoulin had looked isolated early on but the others rallied and came to his aid, limiting the danger.
Asked to describe himself as a rider, Haga said there are parallels between their attributes. “I think my style as a rider is very similar to Dumoulin. We have a lot the same strengths. He’s just better in all of them.
“But I’m also good in time trialing and a good climber. I am not a pure climber, but I can also be a part of leadouts and do well on flat terrain.
“So I think that’s part of why they want me to help Tom with the Giro. They have got climbing support and they have got sprint guys, and I’ll fit somewhere in the middle. So it makes me versatile.
“Which is,” he adds with a smile, “a good thing.”
Rebuilding after trauma
In appreciating Haga’s rise to being a valued member of Dumoulin’s support team, it’s important to consider where he’s come from. He spent 2012 and 2013 with the Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies team, and underlined his potential with results such as second overall in the Volta ao Alentejo in Portugal, tenth in the Amgen Tour of California and a stage win in the Tour of Elk Grove.
After two years with the Giant-Alpecin team he started 2016 determined to keep developing.
However Haga was one of six riders struck by a car while training in Calpe, Spain on January 23 of that year. He suffered a fractured eye socket and lacerations to his chest, neck, chin and lip. Veins and arteries were damaged and he needed surgery to repair them and to stem blood loss.
His mobile phone was found 100 feet from the site of the accident, underlining the force of the impact, and he needed a total of 96 stitches.
Astonishingly, he returned to competition two months later. He put in a lot of hard work to rebuild, and also had psychological hurdles to overcome.
“Physically it was extremely difficult and exhausting. For me it was a slow process,” he says. “Well…it was still fast, but it’s never quite fast enough. But the hardest part was mental.
“So much of racing is about taking risk. And you’re not aware of all those risks that you take until you’re coming back [from such an accident]. I’d so much invested in making the physical return to racing that I was so scared of getting injured again.
“I was just terrified all the time. Having to take those risks again was the hardest transition again.”
So what was the key to getting over that? For Haga, it was all about time. Each training ride, each race helped him to forget about the possible dangers, ensuring that the worse case scenario didn’t flash up every time he thought, ‘what if…?’
“I just needed the desensitisation again. Like, not all these risks are that bad,” he explains. “So just with time and practice and encouragement from teammates, you get back into it. That’s what worked for me.”
‘I’m much more stable throughout the Grand Tours’
Given that his season start was far from ideal, his 2016 Giro was very solid. He finished 12th in the opening time trial in Apeldoorn, and was also a solid 18th on the stage nine time trial in Chianti.
Later in the year he competed in the Vuelta a España, netting eighth on stage four and 18th in the time trial to Calpe. The latter took him back to the same area where he had his accident and helped to draw a line under what had happened.
He was [literally] knocked down, got up again and, in doing two Grand Tours in one season, showed that he was continuing to develop as a rider.
With those three week races in the bank, he knows he should have more resilience than he did before.
“Regardless of the accident, that’s a big physical reach and makes progress. So I think I’m going to see that this year,” he says.
“Day to day it doesn’t feel that different. But I think where we see it is at the end of Grand Tours now, in the last week. My form doesn’t fall off as much. I’m much more stable throughout the Grand Tours, but also throughout the year. I can better soak up the racing and not need so much rest time between stuff.”
That resilience will be crucially important in the Giro, particularly if Dumoulin continues to rides as well as he has been. Having teammates able to defend the Maglia Rosa will be vital.
Heading into the race Haga was upbeat about where he was at.
“Everything has gone exactly as we planned and hoped, which is all I can ask for!” he told CyclingTips then. “We had a great training camp in April and we’ve stayed healthy, so the preparation for the Giro was ideal.
“I feel, at the same time, both fit and fresh. I have never performed so well at Romandie, but yet I think there’s still a lot of room left before I hit peak form, which I think is the perfect place to start the Giro with such a hard final week.”
Given Dumoulin’s position atop the leaderboard, Haga knows that being at 100 percent for that last week is even more important than it was before.