Riding happy: A Q&A with Aussie rising star Jack Haig

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It’s been an impressive start to the year for Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott). The young Australian has finished inside the top seven in all three stage races he’s done so far this year, including a terrific fourth on GC in his recent Paris-Nice debut. His great start to the year is far from an anomaly though — the 25-year-old has been on an upward trajectory ever since he joined the pro ranks in 2016.

CyclingTips caught up with Haig to talk about his impressive ride at Paris-Nice, the different approach he’s taken to the 2019 season, his build-up to the Giro d’Italia, and whether we might see him leading a Grand Tour team soon.

CyclingTips: Congrats on your ride at Paris-Nice. Did you go into the race with the goal of finishing top five?

Haig: No. So the goal actually was … it was to be my first peak, in inverted commas, of the season, but to go there with the goal of winning the race with Simon [Yates]. So the team really wanted me to be in good condition there to help Simon, especially on the [Col du] Turini stage. But then through the chaos of the first two or three days in the crosswinds a lot of the GC guys lost time — including Simon — and then that sort of put me into the team leadership role and then my goals changed from there.

Once Simon had dropped out of GC I sat down with the director at the race and I was like “I’ll set a realistic goal — if we finish the week in a top 10 position I’d be really happy and I think it’s quite achievable. But set also an ideal goal, if everything goes right, I have a good ride — let’s try to go for top five’. So they were sort of the two goals that I set once Simon had dropped out of the GC.

And you did even better than your best-case scenario …

Yeah, so I’m very happy. It’s not very often it works out like that.

In fact, you weren’t all that far off the podium either.

Yeah we went into the last day thinking “Maybe, it’s possible if Sky have a really hard time and [Michal] Kwiatkowski’s on a bit of a bad day maybe the podium is possible.” We sort of always knew that [Philippe] Gilbert would probably drop out in any normal scenario after his ride in the breakaway and being fourth.

So we were like “Hopefully we can move up to fourth and then if everything goes right on the last day or if I feel good and we can attack and try to move up to the top three …’ But fourth: I’m still real happy with that.

It was your first time at Paris-Nice. What were you expecting from the race?

I’d heard many horror stories about Paris-Nice. When we sat down and did the rider meetings in November last year, talking about the race calendar, for this year, Whitey [sports director Matt White] said “We’ll send you to Paris-Nice this year.” And I was like “Oh, I don’t really want to go there. Maybe I can do Catalonia, Pays Basque like I’ve done the last two seasons?”

I quite like those races; they’re normally a bit warmer. I quite like the southern programme, being in Spain. And he said “Nah nah, we really want to send you to Paris-Nice.” And I was like “Ah, all right. All right.”

And then after the meeting I spoke with Simon about it and he’s like “Paris-Nice is great!” and he’s showing me videos of the year before, him winning a stage with snow on the side of the road and I’m like “I don’t know about this eh?!”.

Crosswinds wreaked havoc on stage 2 of Paris-Nice this year.

And then the first stages were pretty crazy off the bat weren’t they?

Yeah, and especially the second day. The second day is probably the first proper full crosswind day I’ve ever experienced. It was basically crosswinds and echelons from kilometre zero until the finish line. We did the stage with a ridiculous average — it was like 51 or 50 kilometres per hour or something like this and that was the first time I’ve basically experienced that, in a race.

Was Simon already out of contention by that point? Were you’re already racing for yourself then or were you looking after Simon?

No, that was the day that he dropped out of contention.

So you must have been alright with your positioning in the crosswinds then?

Yeah it’s something that … maybe coming from a MTB background or … I’ve never really found positioning in the peloton too difficult. It is difficult, but I can squeeze my way through little gaps or find positions in the peloton.

It was definitely hard in the crosswind sections to find the right positions and figure out how to swap off properly in the echelons because it was not very normal that I’ve done that in the three years I’ve been pro. I’ve always raced either in Italy or Spain or areas like this that don’t really have that many crosswinds.

All three races you’ve done this year you were racing them for the first time. What was the thinking behind the change of program this year?

I would normally start my season either at Strade Bianche or [Volta a] Catalunya and this year we brought it almost a month earlier with the idea of the final week of the Giro being super super hard.

More or less every previous Grand Tour I’ve always sort of run out of legs that last couple days or last couple hard stages. Last year at the Giro the whole team basically ran out of legs in the last week, other than [Mikel] Nieve who won a stage, and then at the Vuelta I had a bit of a bad day on the second last stage with the short one in Andorra which was super hilly.

So now the goal was: let’s try do some racing that’s a bit easier. Valencia and Ruta del Sol weren’t WorldTour races, so find your feet, have a bit of confidence, try to do a little result here or there and then do Paris-Nice as sort of the end of the build up.

And now I’m currently taking a bit of an easy week, just to rest mentally, take a bit of a break, and just enjoy being at home. And then I’ll start rebuilding back up to the Giro by heading to Sierra Nevada to do some altitude training for two weeks, come back to Andorra, another week of altitude, and then I’ll do the Ardennes.

So I’ll do the same Ardennes program I’ve done the last three years of being pro which is Brabantse Pijl, Fleche [Wallonne] and Liege[-Bastogne-Liege], and then use those races as basically the only racing between now and the Giro.

Haig was one of the last to be caught at Fleche Wallonne last year.

Will you go to those Ardennes classics with the hope of a result or will it all be focused on building for the Giro?

I won’t do any specific Ardennes preparation or training for them but I always love going to those races and I like racing and I like being there so it’s not like I’m going to go there and hold back. I’ll go there and definitely race as hard as I can and look for a result if it’s possible. But mainly I’ll just look to enjoy having some hard racing.

Last year I really enjoyed the Ardennes classics with attacking in Brabantse and being away quite late and then same at Fleche Wallone, where I was caught 800m from the line, and just being amongst the racing and having that feeling again. Just hard, good racing.

It sounds like the Giro is the first really big goal of the season for you and I guess that’ll be you going there as a key domestique for Simon Yates?

Yeah, so the goal would be to go there and basically do a very similar role to what I did last year. Maybe a bit better hopefully. And then hopefully Simon can do a little bit better and we’ll get very close to being in the pink jersey or almost in the pink jersey at the very end.

Is your hope that you’ll be able to stay close enough on GC that if something does happen to Simon you’ll be able to step up? Or is it a bit harder to do that at the Giro, compared to a race like Paris-Nice?

It’s a bit harder to do it at the Giro. I’m not 100% sure on the team plans there, whether they’re going to keep me as a second option or whether it’s going to be “let’s go all in for Simon and when in it’s an easy day, Jack: sit up, rest, because we’re going to save you for the key days to go with Simon.”

Are there other things that you guys have done differently in terms of prep for the Giro this year, after the rollercoaster of last year?

I think the team’s just slowly changing directions and becoming more of a GC team and focusing on some smaller things and just refining everything down because at the end of the day I think in those Grand Tour races … if you can do the little things right it ends up being quite a big thing over three weeks.

So just trying to refine the process of nutrition … we’re going to have mattress toppers and our own pillows every single night, and just small things like this that I think most big GC teams have done the last couple years. But as the team’s changing, we’re slowly moving our way into being a bit more refined and just helping with the recovery and helping with the on-the-bike stuff and just small little things are changing.

There’s been no big change but we’re slowly working our way to more of a refined GC team.

After leading the 2018 Giro for 13 days, Simon Yates imploded on stage 19, losing more than 38 minutes on his rivals.

In the lead-up to this interview I asked our VeloClub members what they wanted me to ask you and a common question was whether you’ll get your own GC opportunities in the years ahead. Is that something you think about? Or are you happy playing that support role for now?

I think slowly as I continue to progress those opportunities will open up. So in the previous three years, people have also asked like “When are you going to get your own opportunities?” I’ve been happy with the progression that I’ve made. I haven’t had a lot of pressure put on and I’ve had small opportunities here.

Like in my first two years pro I did Tour of Slovenia and got a chance to ride GC there [ed. Haig was second on GC in 2016 and third in 2017] and learn a little bit about the responsibility and pressure that comes with being a leader. Just all the small little things that I think people overlook. They’re like “Oh, you’re a leader, go lead the race.” But there’s also a lot of other things behind that mentally, as well as just physically, that need to happen over time.

So being a leader in the smaller races and then now having an opportunity in Paris-Nice, I felt quite comfortable in that role, whereas I think if I’d had that leadership role last year or the year before it would have been quite nervewracking or quite overwhelming. Now, I think if one of the GC guys like the Yates’ or [Esteban] Chaves, if they’re leading a race and they have a bit of a mishap — like what happened in Paris-Nice — I can quite comfortably fill that second role now.

And why do you think that is? What’s changed since last year that makes you feel comfortable to do that now?

I think I just feel very comfortable in the team now. I now have quite a nice two-year contract, I feel like the team is investing in me and have confidence in me. And in the same way now I have confidence in the team that they’re willing to back me when I get to those points and I feel just happy and in a very good environment.

I feel like I’ve found my place now in the team whereas always before it was “Oh, maybe Jack could fill this role” or “Jack’s showing potential here to fill that role but oh, he had a bit of a bad day there.” And now I sort of feel like I’ve got a bit of a defined role in the team.

Maybe it’s a dumb question but what do you think that role is? How do you think your directors see your role in the team?

I hope they see it as a reliable guy that can be there in the crucial points in very hard stages for the GC leaders but I quite enjoy helping in some of the harder sprint stages for Matteo [Trentin] or someone like that, like I did in Vuelta Valencia. And then also being able to fill that back-up [GC] role.

So exactly what I did at Paris-Nice — that we go into Paris-Nice and go “Alright, we’re going for Simon. Jack, you stay around Simon, save yourself, and then if Simon is in that GC top three or top five going for the win, you’ll be there in the Turini stage to help set him up. But if Simon falters or something happens then you can step up.”

Haig had a bit of fun on stage 17 of the Vuelta last year.

When you sit down with team management and they talk about what they want from you in the future, do they say stuff like “In a few years we want you to be leading at this race or that race?” Or is it more just focused on little goals along the way?

It’s more just focused on little goals along the way. I can’t remember 100% off the top of my head but I was set out some goals for the year, basically. One of them was to finish top five in a WorldTour race and that initial goal was for Tour de Suisse. So I’ve ticked one box there. I think one of them was maybe win a WorldTour stage and then be in good condition in the Giro and be able to help all the way through a three-week Grand Tour.

I guess once I’ve achieved that goal of being consistent through a three-week Grand Tour then they can maybe start moving those goals into “Alright, you’ve shown that you can be consistent helping Simon in a three-week Grand Tour. Let’s see how you go with saving yourself a little bit more and being more of that back-up or that leader role.” Whereas at the moment it’s still a bit of an unknown.

I think I’ve shown that I can do it in a week-long race, and I’d like to continue getting more experience in those week-long races, but hopefully the end goal would be to lead a team at a three-week tour.

You sound like you’re in a really good place at the moment. You seem happy and grounded and like you say, you’re confident in the team and the team has confidence in you. It seems like everything is really going in the right direction?

Yeah it’s a change that I’ve sort of seen happen over the end of last year and during the winter of this year. I’m just happy and I think that makes a massive difference. I am really happy with where I live in Andorra, the home that we have, just general home life, as well as happy within the team, and yeah — I’m just in a good space.

You live with your girlfriend right?

Yep, me and my girlfriend and our dog, yeah.

That’s all got to help, having that stability at home.

It does help a lot. I think it’s something that a lot of Australian or American riders overlook is the going back “home”, either to Australia or America. As soon as I turned pro I said “Alright, I’m just going to commit: my home’s going to be Europe.” Because if I want to be a professional cyclist it’s probably going to be 10 to 15 years in Europe for at least eight or nine months of the year. So let’s make it 12 months a year and it’s home. Instead of always having Australia is half home or Europe is half home.

I think it’s just a bit difficult doing it that way. I’m happy that I managed to find a balance to call Andorra home.

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