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Chirpy, animated and happily giving interviews, Jack Haig looks like he has just ridden to the shops. Around him are shattered riders, professionals who have dragged themselves to the top of the Mur de Huy and show all the signs of a tough Flèche Wallonne with its exhausting final climb. But, other than some dirt on his face, some dust on his jersey, Haig appears unaffected.
He exudes enthusiasm as he speaks. He’s been one of the most aggressive riders in the race and went close to taking a very big result.
“Ah … 300 metres,” he says, referring to the point where the main favourites finally overhauled him. “But 300 metres on this climb is a long way, eh?”
Haig smiles as he says this. He could have taken a glass-half-empty outlook and regretted being reeled in so close to the finish. Instead, he sees the bigger picture, and knows it is a good one.
“I feel good about how it went, actually,” he tells CyclingTips. “I am really happy to have a good race today, to get into that break and really test the legs before Liège. I also think it worked out perfectly for the team. We had a plan of always racing these circuits aggressively, as we knew Roman [Kreuziger] had good legs.
“As soon as we hit the Mur the first time, it was Rob [Power] and myself always attacking. I just ended up in the right one, and tried my luck on the second to last climb and down the descent. I knew I could use my descending to a bit of an advantage and try to make a gap. It worked out.”
Haig got clear with 54 kilometres remaining and was later joined by several others, including multiple Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), the Milan-San Remo champion. Haig then attacked on the Côte de Cherave, dragging Nibali, Max Schachmann (QuickStep Floors) and Tanel Kangert (Astana) clear.
The quartet raced towards the final climb, the Mur de Huy. Haig and Schachmann gapped the other two before the start of the steep ascent, then Schachmann made his bid for victory. Haig was caught with about 500m to go (a little further out than he realised), while the German was passed closer to the line and held on for eighth.
Netting 34th gives a misleading picture of how well Haig rode. He described himself as ‘absolutely’ psyched after the event, something which was clear from his demeanour.
“I think so far this season every single race I have managed to do a little bit better and a little bit better,” he said. “It started with Catalunya, which wasn’t too comfortable for me, but every single time it is has improved. Now we are building up for Liège this weekend, so hopefully it keeps getting better.”
Mitchelton-Scott directeur sportif Matt White gave a thumbs up to Haig’s performance, saying that the team wanted to make the race hard to suit ‘diesel’ Roman Kreuziger, and that Haig did exactly that. “The plan for Jack was to be one of the those guys to ride really aggressively in the final 60 kilometres,” he told CyclingTips on Thursday.
The Australian certainly did that in spades.
Year on year progression
Haig has long shown major potential. For those who have tracked his career, his prominence in Flèche Wallonne won’t be a huge surprise.
In 2013 he won the national under 23 mountainbike championships and was a bronze medallist in the road equivalent. The following year he won the young rider classification in both the Santos Tour Down Under and the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, as well as placing third overall in the latter.
The progression continued in 2015, when he took a superb second overall in the Tour de l’Avenir. Orica-GreenEdge had noticed his ability and awarded him a stagiaire slot which would eventually become a pro contract.
He rewarded that trust the following season with second overall and a points classification victory in the Tour of Slovenia.
Last season brought more strong results: he returned to net third overall in Slovenia and, more impressively, given the event’s WorldTour ranking, won a stage and placed eighth overall in the Tour de Pologne.
“I absolutely feel I am making progress,” Haig says. “I think every single year I have managed to step up a little bit more. I have been super lucky that it has worked out this way. Many riders don’t have that. So I want to keep going, to take the confidence and progression into the next races for the rest of the year.”
Next up is Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Given the superb form Haig showed in Flèche Wallonne, and given his aggression in Brabantse Pijl – where he was clear with Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal) until 12 kilometres to go – it can be presumed he will also play a part.
“For Liège, I think he will be one of the guys [to ride aggressively],” says White. “Again, we will have a pretty similar tactic. We will be making it harder again in the final and he will be one of the guys that we use for that role.”
Haig echoes this. “I think we can see in the last two races that Roman has been super strong. I think we could go in with a proper contender to win Liège, so it is quite exciting. I will go in there in a similar role as I did today, I guess, where I can be that aggressive attacker person and leave Roman in the group to wait for the final.”
Now 24 years of age, he was on White’s radar for quite some time before joining the team. Since then, he’s watched him consolidate and develop.
The former pro names Haig’s Tour of Poland stage win as his most important result thus far, and believes more is in store.
“I think he has been tracking quite well this year. He had a bad day the last day of Basque, but he was going to go into the top ten otherwise,” he said. And then there are his showings in Brabantse Pijl and Flèche Wallonne.
So, after Liège, what comes next? Talking moments after the end of Flèche Wallonne on Wednesday, Haig just laughed to himself when asked what his schedule would be like after Liège.
“To be confirmed. But hopefully something nice…” is the sum total of what he would say. On Thursday White let the cat out of the bag, talking in passing about what Haig will be doing.
“His first period of the year is all building up for what is coming in two weeks’ time, which is the Giro,” he said. “In the last two Vueltas, he has shown that he has been very valuable for the team.
“At the moment, his role for the next months will be a working one. There may be some opportunities at the Giro, but we are obviously going with Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves. We have got some work to do over the next three weeks. Then he will get more opportunities for himself in the summer.”
Haig’s youth means he will likely continue to improve in the years ahead. He’s a good climber, appears to have a big engine and isn’t afraid to take on the more experienced professionals in races.
White believes this should all pay off over time.
“Look … he is definitely a rider who has the ability to ride general classification at the WorldTour level,” he predicted. “It is pretty early to say how that will go. They always have got potential until they actually do it.
“I think in the short term, he is going to be able to ride top 10, maybe even podium, pretty soon at WorldTour level. That’s in one-week races. And then I really think within one or two years he will be riding GC in a Grand Tour himself.”
Time is needed to see just how good Haig will be. But given his results, his second in the Tour de l’Avenir, his young rider awards in the Santos Tour Down Under and Jayco Herald Sun Tour, and his first WorldTour victory on a stage of the 2017 Tour of Poland, everything points towards a big future.
So too that energetic, enthusiastic reaction amid drained riders at the end of Flèche Wallonne. Riding so long and racing so hard over some of the toughest one-day terrain isn’t easy at all, even if Haig made it look like a ride to the shops.