“There's a cliche of road riders retiring and then just doing gravel. I don’t want to be like, hey, I'm just gonna waltz in here and be on top and you should all just immediately give me respect.”
Last weekend, Chad Haga got on his bike and rolled out of his home in Girona to set out on a monumental challenge. Ahead of him lay 360 kilometres of Catalonia’s toughest gravel terrain, a distance he was going to try and complete in under 12 hours, 55 minutes and 42 seconds. Why? This was the time that it took race winner Mattia de Marchi to complete the very same route in the 2023 edition of The Traka, Spain’s premier gravel race.
Haga wanted to break De Marchi’s record to, in his own words, “prove I belong in the gravel space and deserve support”. His reasoning, to some, might be somewhat curious. Haga has been a professional cyclist for over a decade, and has a Giro d’Italia stage win to his name – something that many would regard as more than enough to prove he could be a real contender for some of the biggest gravel races in the world.
It is a testament to the American rider’s character, though, that he felt the need to offer potential sponsors a reason to invest their resources in him, rather than just expecting support based on his time as in the WorldTour peloton.
“It was to show to the world – and myself – I'm not just coming here, because I’ve got nowhere else to go, I want to do this, I can do this very well,” Haga explains, speaking a few days after finishing his record attempt in 12:51:58, four minutes faster than De Marchi did earlier in the year. “Also I want to say to potential sponsors that I know there's a lot of people asking for sponsorship, but I believe that I deserve it and here's what I can do.”
As Haga acknowledges, the path from road racing to gravel racing is gradually becoming more and more well trodden by current and retired road professionals (think Alejandro Valverde, Nico Roche, Niki Terpstra or Laurens Ten Dam, to name just a few). Gravel races are far from a relaxing retirement plan, though, as Haga himself has experienced over the last few months. The end to his road racing career was relatively unplanned after his road team, Human Powered Health, announced it would close at the end of the 2023 season.
“I was happy to keep racing on the road in the environment I was in and I didn't want to go to another team that would have a bigger race program because I'm happy with a moderate amount of race days at this point. I really enjoyed the team environment at Human Powered Health, so I had no aspirations of going anywhere else,” Haga says. “I knew that the team would want to keep me as well so I had made exactly zero plans looking anywhere else for next year.”
“The team closing caught everyone by surprise, myself included. I had gotten a taste of gravel racing earlier in the year so I'd been toying with the idea of doing some after I was done with my career. When my road career ended earlier than expected I took that as the push to just dive in and go for it. Keep racing, but do it on gravel full-time.”
Haga says that he understands the attraction of gravel racing for road professionals; the smaller calendar and more relaxed approach offers a way to scale back from the intensities of the WorldTour, but also scratches the itch for competition.
“It's not wanting to be done just yet but needing to move on. There's a big draw in the freedom of getting to pick your own races and search for your own sponsors,” he explains. “After a decade in the WorldTour, the motor is there so if you also have some off-road skills there's a high chance that you'll at least be at the front of these races.”
Haga’s record-breaking Traka time certainly has done the trick of proving that he has the potential to be a big name in the gravel scene. To have not only the physical but also the mental fortitude to complete such a long-distance challenge shows Haga’s intrinsic motivation to make a success of his new career off-road. He talks me through the long and arduous training process he went through in the months leading up to his attempt –the American is certainly still motivated to perform.
“I broke my wrist mid-August which put an end to my road career and season but I had fitness and it was too early to go into off-season mode. I needed to train because I had nothing else to do and I didn't know what to train for. I didn't want to just sit on the trainer and pedal easily, so I rode hard for four hours a day to pass the time and keep some fitness,” Haga explains. “I realised this attempt was something I could train for inside. It's just holding that high endurance pace and a high burn rate of kilojoules. That set me up well so that when I was able to ride outside again I could keep going and prepare for a really long effort.”
During the attempt itself, Haga chronicles various moments where he thought that it might not be possible to break the record. There was the two-and-a-half hour long stretch of riding along the coast where he thought he would have a tailwind that turned into a howling headwind, then there was the puncture as he rolled over some glass which took longer than he hoped to fix.
“There were points where I was very demoralised, hurting badly. It was like man, if I fail at this, I'm going to look so stupid,” he laughs.
With the aim of helping his ride run smoothly, Haga called in the help of family and friends to meet him in feed zones along the route – all situated in the same locations as those used in the Traka race in order to mimic the conditions as best as possible. His Instagram shows photos of his wife and children helping him switch water bottles and refill his Camelbak.
“The feeding was absolutely crucial so the fact that they could be out there was awesome,” Haga says. “My wife fully understood the depths of my pain when I finished but my girls were like climbing on me and not understanding why I was in such a state. It was very emotional because I was so worried that I would fail so it was such a huge relief to pull it off.”
The record attempt has been important for Haga to get the attention of brands from who he’s hoping for sponsorship in 2024. He notes that the biggest challenge of his switch to gravel racing hasn’t necessarily been building his physical strength, but making the transition to finding his own sources of income for the first time in his cycling career.
“I think people underestimate the challenge of putting together your own program. If you've been, for a decade, just having your sponsor list arrive in your inbox and you just have to train, that’s all you do, it’s a hard transition to suddenly be in charge and responsible for everything,” Haga says. “It's exciting to get to choose which companies I want to pursue and build my own thing, but it is hard. The industry as a whole is contracting right now after the Covid boom, so largely sponsorships are being held in place and brands are certainly not expanding how much they're willing to market, so getting those sponsorship dollars is increasingly difficult.”
Haga is quick to point out that breaking the record for the Traka isn’t a way for him to say that he would have won the race earlier this year if he’d done it and he acknowledges that the conditions were not the same as those Mattia de Marchi faced when he won. However, the record attempt was more symbolic of him showing the world that he still has the hunger to race and the physical ability to undertake huge feats of endurance. He hopes to race the Gravel Earth Series, Unbound Gravel and more in 2024, and it’s fair to say that his performance has put him on the map as one to watch in the gravel scene next year.
“It was to show I've got the motor to win this race. It's not to say that I would have, there's so many dynamics being in a peloton, but I wanted to show that the potential is there to win,” Haga says. “It's not a direct comparison to say, that day I would have been defeated De Marchi or next time we do it I definitely will. It was a monster effort to show what I'm capable of.”