Q&A: Jack Haig on finishing third at the Vuelta, time trial tech, and more

We caught up with the 28-year-old Aussie for a detailed chat about his road to the Vuelta podium (and much more).

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The past few months have been a rollercoaster for Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious). The 28-year-old Aussie came into the Tour de France with career-best form and looked the goods in the early days before crashing out on stage 3. His broken collarbone turned out to be worse than first thought and he missed the Olympics as a result.

Haig managed to get himself ready in time for the Vuelta a España where he went in as a support rider for Mikel Landa. But as Landa faltered, Haig became Bahrain’s sole leader and started to move up the GC. By stage 17 he was up to fourth, and then, on a remarkable penultimate stage in which third-placed Miguel Ángel López withdrew from the race, Haig moved onto the overall podium. He’d finish the Vuelta in that spot.

CyclingTips caught up with Haig on the phone from his European base in Andorra, to chat about the key moments at the Vuelta, how he managed to finish on the podium, and what might be next for him.

Matt de Neef: Well, congratulations on a wonderful result at the Vuelta. You must be stoked with how it all turned out?

Jack Haig: Yeah, mate, it’s pretty unbelievable and it hasn’t really sunk in I don’t think. I don’t really maybe appreciate what actually happened. Maybe if it had happened at the Tour and I’d kind of planned my season around going to the Tour and trying to ride GC there and put so much pressure on the build-up and everything to it, it would feel a little bit more real.

But after breaking the collarbone and then the collarbone surgery and the fracture that I had being so bad … At one point basically they were telling me that my season could be finished; maybe I might not even be able to come back and race Lombardy [Il Lombardia] with how bad the fracture was.

Then going through all the rehab process and then not even knowing whether I’d race Vuelta until basically 10 days before it, because I needed to have a check-up X-ray to make sure everything was healing properly … And then going to the race, helping Mikel [Landa] the first week, kind of sacrificing myself a little bit that first week …

I forget what stage it was but it was the stage that we finished near Valencia and it had that 2 km really steep climb and we had some crosswinds sections before it [stage 6 – ed.] I did quite a lot of work there trying to protect Mikel and we arrived at the bottom of the final climb, 2 km to go, and Mikel was not really too close to the front of the group as we entered the climb.

I was a little bit further up and I heard on the radio “Jack wait!” So I turned around and watched and I saw Ineos riding away up the climb, waited for Mikel, rode with him until, like, 1 km to go and I was so close to just sitting up and just riding as easy as possible to the line.

In the back of my brain I was like “oh, it’s only 1 km – I’ll just go.” And I went, and I’m so happy I made that split-second decision to keep going to the line. So many things could have happened throughout the race for the result to have not worked out the way it did.

And then being in fourth on stage 20 and we had this plan of: maybe we can attack here and try and take some time back on López so that then in the TT the gap isn’t so big. But that was never really a reality because I kind of accepted that fourth … it’s not a bad result, considering everything. Really good. And I was like “This plan is about a 2% chance to work out but look, I want to give it a go because I don’t want to finish fourth and be like, what happens if we did this? What happens if we tried that? So, look, I want to try.”

Same as stage 18 on the really steep, long climb that López won. I was like “I want to make it a super hard day and just see if someone cracks just so we can try, because I don’t want to finish the race not having tried anything.” And then, yeah, for stage 20 for all that to have worked out and López pulling out, me getting in the right break, Gino [Mäder] being there, and then coming into the TT with a minute on Yatesy [Adam Yates] – I was relatively confident going in. But obviously there’s always a little bit of stress there.

For it all to finish with third, it hasn’t really sunk in that that’s the result that I got. I came home last night and we just had takeaway Indian and I had a beer at home and we went to bed and it was completely normal and it hasn’t really sunk in that I was on the podium 12 hours ago.

What was it like on the road on stage 20 when López was dropped, and you were moving up to fourth and then he pulled out of the race?

Well, we didn’t really know too much on the radio about him actually pulling out of the race. I knew that Ineos were going to try something because [Egan] Bernal was seven seconds behind me. For sure they were maybe not 100% sure how I was going to TT – they probably thought Bernal would TT quite well – but obviously if you can be seven seconds in front it’s better than being seven seconds behind.

Bernal’s a big champion and for him to finish sixth or fifth – it doesn’t really make any difference to him; he’s already won the Giro and the Tour. So I was like, for sure, they’re going to try something to try and shake the race up [on stage 20] and get any time possible on me. And then they kind of made the race super hard in the final 100 kilometres when we started hitting all the climbs and after the super long climb, about 9 km long [the Alto de Mougás – ed.], there was that plateau section at the top and that was kind of where all the attacks started happening.

I knew there that something unpredictable could happen because it’s always in those kind of scenarios where bigger time gaps are made than say just someone attacking purely on the climb. Because the gap will open super quick, people will look at each other while you’re riding a 40 km/h at the front, and if people look at each other at 30 km/h … Whereas on the climb, everyone’s going full and you’ve got a 5 km/h difference.

So I knew that I had to follow Bernal at the top, but if I got into the right group with ideally Enric [Mas] and one of the Ineos guys, the guys in the group that was maybe eight or 10 people [behind]; they probably wouldn’t chase. So I was watching, trying to figure out which moves to follow, because you also have to gamble a little bit there.

It all kind of worked out perfectly that, Gino attacked, I came across, and then I saw Enric was there, Primož [Roglič] was there, and Adam [Yates] was there and I just screamed on the radio to Gino “go go go go!” because I knew there was about 2 km to the top. We went over the top, started going super fast on the downhill. We had Wout Poels in the group behind and I was like “Wout, is anybody chasing” and he’s like “it’s just López alone”. “Perfect, we’ll take so much time on him downhill.”

And then we went down the downhill super fast and the time gap just started growing and growing and growing. And we didn’t really hear too much from the team car on the radio about what was actually happening in the group behind, other than they were going quite slow and we were taking a bunch of time on them. I can’t even remember whether they told us López pulled out or not. I think they maybe had kept that information, maybe not to confuse us or disturb us while we were doing all that work at the front, trying to put as much time as possible and trying to be quite focussed there.

But obviously then I learnt about everything that happened with López after the stage and it makes me a little bit sad. I think there’s so much more that must have gone on in the background that the media and 99% of the people in the peloton probably didn’t really know about. There must be some kind of internal pressure or disagreement in Movistar maybe throughout the Vuelta or throughout the last two weeks of the Vuelta that kind of all culminated in the situation that happened, that he ended up pulling out of the race.

I’ve seen it brought up a couple of times about mental health inside professional sports – I think it got quite highlighted in the Olympics this year – and I think it can even be more highlighted in a Grand Tour because you have three weeks of fatigue and quite intense racing and you have so many people around you asking questions and it’s quite this high-pressure situation. It doesn’t take much for someone to make a split-second decision like what López made that, in the moment, for him … he probably wasn’t thinking straight at all, and he just made that decision and now he’s being ridiculed and judged upon that.

It’s difficult and I probably don’t want to comment too much on it, because there’s probably so much information we don’t know.

You mentioned some of your teammates – it looked like they did an amazing job for you throughout the race.

Yeah, to be honest, even in Paris-Nice, going all the way back to there … I obviously changed teams and Bahrain was a new team for me and it’s quite a bit harder than maybe I initially expected to change teams and build those relationships with people. Because essentially you’re quite often asking someone to sacrifice their chances of getting a result to help you get a result.

Cycling’s quite a strange sport in that aspect and I think it’s also highlighted at the Olympics where you race the Olympic road race as a team, but only the individual that wins gets the gold medal, not the team. And I can’t think of any other team sport where that’s the case. You don’t do the 4 x 100-metre relay then only the person that does the last 100 metres gets the gold medal. That would seem super weird, but for some reason in cycling that’s how it works.

It’s a little bit different in the professional cycling world where, yeah OK, you’re all contracted under the same team, but also at the end of the day it’s only me that’s standing on the podium and you’re asking your teammates to sacrifice for you to stand on the podium and miss their opportunities. Maybe Wout could have won a stage here and he doesn’t have a contract for next year and if he got into the right break and he won a stage and didn’t help me, that would help him find a contract.

You need to build those relationships when you change teams so that people are willing to give everything for you. And I started to notice that the people we had in the team here in Bahrain were super nice people and super willing to help. And that all kind of started in Paris-Nice and as I was building up to the Tour de France, I knew that I had to make a big conscious effort to involve my new teammates with me and try to build really good relationships with them. That happened throughout the year, and it kind of culminated now in Vuelta where I actually had a great time.

Mäder riding in support of Haig at the Vuelta.

The group of guys that we had there were super super nice in the race, but also we had good times at breakfast and dinner, joking, laughing on the bus. They were incredible the whole three weeks, even when we were riding for Landa in that first week, everyone pulled together and was doing their best for Landa there. And they managed to change their mindset and really helped me in the final two weeks without an issue. They changed their mindset straight away and boom, they were all-in for me.

And everyone did an amazing job. All the way from Jan [Tratnik] and Yuki [Arashiro] who were really critical in the first two weeks in the positioning, getting bidons when it was super hot, and then obviously once we get to the more mountainous terrain the team was maybe more heavily weighted towards mountain support. And yeah, everyone did an amazing job.

Bahrain Victorious won the teams classification.

You mentioned change of mindset there. What about for yourself? How hard was it making the switch from riding for Landa to riding for yourself?

Yeah, like I said, that first week when I was there to help Mikel, I was 100% committed to him and I was quite close to just throwing away my GC there on that final stage into Valencia. I changed my mindset a little bit after I got into the breakaway on stage 5 [this was stage 7 – ed.] and then I moved back into the top 10 GC; I think I moved into seventh. And after that stage, I was kinda like “Ah, let’s give this a go until the day before the first rest day, stage 9”, because we had that [Alto de] Velofique, that really quite long climb on stage 9.

So I was like “I’ll try to conserve a little bit of energy, but still definitely help Mikel if the situation is needed up until stage 9 and then when we get to the bottom of the stage 9 climb, we’ll just see who has the legs and maybe I can run a top 10 and if Mikel’s really good, he can then fight for the top five or the podium.”

And then obviously after stage 9, the mindset completely switched and Mikel lost some time and I became the sole leader. But the mindset change wasn’t too difficult because I had gone into the Tour de France with that as my goal as well. And I just kind of moved that across – I was the leader now and I was kind of happy I had that internal pressure that I put on myself at the Tour de France as my first experience of being a leader. Even though it was only for two and a half days, I think it made it much easier to transition during the Vuelta.

I guess it gave you a second chance, didn’t it? After the frustration of the Tour you then got to take the preparation you’d done for so many months and use it at the Vuelta …

Yeah, 100%. And I always had very, very far back in the back of my mind in the preparation process after I broke my collarbone that … I was like, “man, I worked so hard to arrive at the Tour de France in possibly the best condition that I’ve ever had, and I wanted nothing more than to show my new team how much I was committed towards them, and then to have it all fall apart after two and a half days?”

Haig after crashing out of the Tour.

With the whole preparation process after the collarbone I knew I wanted to work so hard to prove the team … it could have been so easy for me just to tell the team “Ah I’m done for the season – I want to go on holiday, the collarbone’s too bad”. But literally from the day after I had surgery I wanted to race Vuelta and I had no idea whether I would be able to, whether my body would cooperate enough to heal the bone fast enough for it to be one: just safe for me to ride the Vuelta; and two: whether I would have enough condition to ride the Vuelta.

I was like “I want to make the most of all this work I’ve done from the very beginning of the season up until the Tour de France”. It doesn’t just go away having two and a half weeks off the bike. I need to stay active and really focus on trying to make the team. And I had no idea whether it would be for GC or anything like this.

Are you the sort of person that stands on the podium at the Vuelta and then goes “Right, what’s next?” Do you think “I’ve got unfinished business at the Tour” or “I want to go for the Giro next year”? Or are you very good at going “I’m just going to enjoy this now and worry about all that stuff later”?

I think if you asked my wife, she’d probably say that she would want me to appreciate the moment a little bit more than maybe I do. I’m maybe not the person that then wants to refocus on the next goal but I think I’m the kind of person that just focuses on the next day.

With all the good results I’ve had, I say, “Yep, that’s really cool but I need to get back to working hard again and get back to focussing”. And I’m not necessarily focussing on the Tour de France next year but I’m just like “How can I be better tomorrow? What can I do?” I just go “That was done. That was really cool. But now it’s Tuesday. I’m back to either refocussing for the rest of the season or trying to figure out how to do some wind tunnel testing and optimising the equipment next year.”

I’m always just looking forward. And I think my wife would tell me that I probably just need to stop and appreciate what I actually did.

Definitely. What would you like to improve on? I think last time we talked, you mentioned that TTs were something you were keen to work on?

Yeah and it’s been something that I’ve been trying to put quite a bit of pressure on the team [about] all the way from the January training camp and the first couple of time trials that we did in UAE and then Paris-Nice. I didn’t have such good results in those two TTs and after knowing that I was down for the Tour de France and that there were so many kilometres of time trials in the Tour, if I wanted to try and achieve a top 10 at the Tour I knew I had to improve the TT.

Just with the way this year worked out and COVID and everything I was pushing super hard to get some wind tunnel testing done to try and test the skinsuit to see if we can build a faster skinsuit, test some different wheel options, to test basically everything, to try and get some form of optimisation with the equipment. And we’d finally organised to do some wind tunnel testing in the UK.

I was going to fly directly after Dauphiné, go straight to the UK and to some wind-tunnel testing and have everything semi-ready for the Tour de France. It was a bit tight. but then COVID rules changed and then France got put on the red list and I couldn’t fly to the UK and that ended up not happening.

So I’m actually trying to talk to the team now to figure out how to make a bit of a project around the TT optimisation, because I think not just myself, but the team’s time trial results this year and last year maybe haven’t quite represented the skills and ability of some of the riders we have on the team.

Like Matej Mohorič or Jan Tratnik and Fred Wright and all these guys, even Jonathan Milan – he won the Olympic gold medal in the team pursuit for Italy – he’s never really managed to get a half decent result on the road. And I think we’re getting left behind a little bit in the technology and research for the time trials, because we’re seeing now the teams that are investing in that are now getting two or three or even sometimes four riders inside the top 10 or top 15. And I would think a lot of those results come from the investment of money and time and energy into research and development.

Even now you see EF [Education-Nippo] – they’re starting to get some really good results in time trials. Even Magnus Cort’s TT on stage 21 of the Vuelta was pretty impressive. And then Stefan Bissegger has been doing some really good TT results. And I think that one: comes from those guys being class bike riders; but also EF investing in the aerodynamics, in the skinsuit, in the new bike and everything, putting it all together.

I think it was maybe the Giro time trial, I think Jumbo[-Visma] had like four inside the top 15 and Ineos also had four inside the top 15 or something like this. And you see those teams have invested in the technology side of it. OK, they’re great bike riders, but they probably shouldn’t have got that amount of people inside the top 10 statistically.

I want to try and change the time trial from me being a little bit nervous going into the stage 21 TT with Adam being a minute behind me, and then being able to use the TT as a bit of an advantage, or at least not have it as a tiny bit of a disadvantage. Because if you look at my body type and you look at … I can obviously produce the power on the long climbs to stay up there with some of the best climbers in the world. I should be able to be finishing much, much closer to Primož.

I’m probably never going to beat him because he’s an absolute weapon on a bike, especially a time trial bike, but I should at least be quite a bit closer than I was in the final TT.

Assuming that you guys can get the tech improved, you’ve got to feel like a top 10 at the Tour is possible for you right?

I think if I can get a top 10 or a top five in the Tour next year, if that’s on my race calendar, that would be a really big goal for myself.

One of the more important things for me is to be part of the race. I kind of feel as though at the Vuelta, even if I had finished fourth or fifth, I hope from a spectator’s point of view or maybe from a media point of view Team Bahrain and myself were in the race and you saw us trying to be a part of the race.

I think if you just finish seventh or eighth in GC and no one really saw you in the race, then that’s not really what professional cycling is about. I think at the end of the day we’re an entertainment sport and an advertisement for our sponsors. And if you can be part of the race and showing yourself, that’s also quite important.

What about for the rest of the season? What does the last few months of the year look like for you?

I actually don’t know to tell you the truth. I’m waiting on a WhatsApp message this morning, but in an ideal world, I would really love to finish my season now. I think it would help me appreciate what I achieved and to take some time to spend with my family – my five-month-old baby and my wife – and then also really create a bit of a project around this time trial and really focus on trying to use these four or five weeks now to work on that so we can go into the winter and the preseason next year having everything done. Because otherwise it starts to get a bit complicated.

If we start to do that in January, February, March, then we just get the equipment in Dauphiné, then it’s just ready for the Tour. So we’ll see. But I could also be down to Lombardy and [Gran] Piemonte at the end of the season.

Is there anything else on your mind? Anything you wanted to add?

I tried to say it so many times in the interviews that I did after the race that the achievement that I did in Vuelta and all the achievements that I’ve done in cycling, it doesn’t just happen day to day or month to month. It’s kind of five, 10, 15 years of people helping me along the way and there’s way too many people to thank that have been part of the journey from when I was a 16-, 17-year old, 18-year-old kid to where I am now.

I just want to say thank you to everyone for the support that all these generous people have given me along the way. Because a lot of the time, it is generosity from someone to support another person like myself that helps me achieve what I did.

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