Monday, March 9, 2015

Training Day - Discovering Girona with Chad Haga

For this year’s “Training Day” segment we head to Girona, Spain to meet up with Professional cyclist Chad Haga. Chad is a multifaceted, talented individual. He is first of all, a smart guy – he graduated summa cum laude with an engineering degree from Texas A&M University.  This academic distinction was achieved while simultaneously racing his bike and becoming the number one amateur in the country.  So, it goes without saying that the guy is driven and has some incredible athletic talent.  Chad is a talented musician as well – he has played the piano for sixteen years and can keep an audience mesmerized by his skilled mastery of the ivory.  The six foot three, twenty-six year old from Texas also has had the courage to pursue his athletic dreams, and take a chance on making it to the highest levels of professional cycling.  Instead of taking a secure well-paying job after college, he decided to delay that decision, and pursue his passion even if it meant that he would have to worry about paying the rent for awhile as he got going.

We first met Chad last year in Lucca, Italy through our mutual friend Ben King.  Chad had just arrived in Europe to begin his first year on the World Tour – racing at the highest levels of the sport. At the time, I think Chad had quiet confidence, however, he wasn’t 100% sure how his body would hold up and respond to the demands of longer stage races, and a Grand Tour (if the opportunity presented itself for him to ride one).  After we parted ways last year, Liam and I were able to have a sideline seat to Chad’s progress throughout the season by reading his well-written and entertaining blog.  Did I mention that Chad is also an excellent writer?  We were on the edge of our seats with his race reports and tales from the road.  Chad had a stellar first year and an impressive showing in his first Grand Tour at La Vuelta de Espana in the Fall.

So, needless to say, we were really stoked when Chad agreed to spend a day with us riding bikes, talking life, and exploring his new training base – Girona, Spain.  Girona is in the North of Spain (Catalunya) just across the mountainous border from France.  Although Girona is only a 4-hour drive from where we live in France, it is a world apart.  In Girona they speak Catalan, they eat at different hours than the French (lunch at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and dinner can be as late as 10 or 11 at night), people love to go out at night and be in the bars and cafes, and the crowd seems to just flow into the streets the later it gets (granted we were there on a Friday night, and Girona is a University town), and all around outside the city are miles and miles of nearly empty, well-maintained roads.  As Chad told us, you can ride in the foothills, you can ride the flats, you can ride the punchy climbs down by the Mediterranean Sea, or chose to head into the mountains for the really big stuff.  It’s got a little bit of everything, and the weather is generally good year-round.

Girona -The Jewel of Catalunya
The day that we had arranged to meet was a clear day, however, the wind was gusting to about 50 miles per hour (80km).  Liam had just come off a training camp in the Haute Alpes with three days of riding in similar winds, so it was no problem for him.  However, for me, filming with one hand and riding with the other, it presented somewhat of a challenge.  At one stage, we were blasting downwind at a speed of about 75km an hour and made a right-hand turn into a huge crosswind.  Liam and Chad were literally riding at a 45 degree angle slant in order to not be blown off their bikes.  I was riding along behind with one hand on the bars and one hand filming, thinking this is a really cool shot, and not realizing that in about 2 seconds the same wind was going to hit me.  I didn't go down, but it was close.  We were riding one of Chad's go-to loops in the foothills just north of the city.  The route took us through hilly farmland and up through small hamlets which consisted mainly of a small groups of houses built around a community church.  I think we passed maybe three or four cars the entire time we were on the loop - we literally had the roads to ourselves.  While we were out on the loop, we talked about what cyclists do when they ride - "riding bikes."  We talked about time trialing and pain thresholds.  Chad at one point said, "I like the pain when you think you can't take it anymore, and then you go one notch harder." And, "you know the effort is about right when you can start to taste blood in your throat." Yes, cyclists are a different breed!  We also talked about workouts.  At the moment, Chad is working on his climbing by doing a lot of off-tempo hill work.  In these workouts he is constantly changing the speed and pace on a climb, never allowing himself to fall into a comfortable rhythm.  This training forces his body to adapt, and to be better able to handle the changes of pace and attacks that come when he races in the mountains.  Liam and Chad gave it the gas and hit it a few times on the hills.  It was awesome!

Liam and Chad on the "Go-To" Loop
After the ride, we headed back into Girona.  As you enter the city from the north, the view is pretty intense.  Up above sits a massive Gothic Cathedral whose presence influences the feel and perception of the town.  This religious building with its timeless, classic quality gives the area a monumental feel – it is the anchor of the city.  Another prominent feature of the Catalan town are rivers with multiple bridges and beautiful building structures along the banks.  Whether you walk or ride it seems that you are always crossing bridges in Girona.  Back at the appropriately named "Girona River Cafe," we sat down with Chad for an interview to talk bikes, training, season goals, and about life in general.  Chad was heading off to Italy for Tirreno-Adriatico – a seven day stage race across the North of Italy.  He has got his eyes set on the last day time trial.  If he has the legs left after 6 days of racing on Italian roads against the likes of Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, and Vincenzo Nibali (all past Tour de France winners) he is going to go for it in the final time trial.  The stage is a flat out and back 10km along the coast in San Benedetto del Tronto.  We now know that he'll be at a "tasting the blood in your throat" effort level for that one.

River Front Girona

Gothic Cathedral - Center Piece and Anchor of Girona
Not everything that we covered was exclusively about cycling.  Chad told us about some of the volunteer work he had done, during the off-season, while down in Mexico.  It was the second year in a row that he volunteered, with other like-minded athletes, to build a house for a Mexican family in need.  Chad expressed that, as an athlete you are constantly immersed in your training and performance, but it is nice to be able to spend some time away thinking about and helping others.  We also talked about music and being a musician.  For Chad, the piano is something that he can go to that is completely unrelated to cycling.  It gives him balance, and from what I had read – the man can play!  I had been trying to locate a piano in town so that we could get a sampling from the maestro.  I finally tracked one down, but it was at a jazz club that, unfortunately, didn't open until 9pm.  Chad told us that he had just purchased a full sized electronic keyboard that he had back at his apartment, and he invited us to come over for a sampling  On the walk over to the apartment, we had some fun with a bit of Girona sightseeing.  I kissed a Lioness's butt, but for more on that you'll have to watch our "Training Day" video. Once back at the apartment, we were treated to a wonderful sampling of music.  Chad is truly a talented pianist.

After the interview, we said our goodbyes and wished Chad good luck for the race in Italy and the rest of the season in general.  Our day spent in Girona had left us thinking, not only about cycling, but also about the diversity and capabilities of a human being.  One person has the capacity to be many things – athlete, musician, engineer, writer, Samaritan.  We left Girona inspired and motivated to explore all the wonderful possibilities of life, both on and off the bike. 

Live Strong, Train Safe, and Live Well!!

This is Bill and Liam signing out.