Saturday, August 27, 2011

12 short months

Yesterday, I turned 23.  Meh.  I don't usually make a big deal out of birthdays, and yesterday was no exception.  I spent 3 hours bent over in the garden, satiating the congenital disorder my mother passed on many years ago:  the unending compulsion to pull every weed within reach.  Our crops in the garden are getting huge, and the jungle needed to be cleared for better access to the produce (and so they could get more water and sun).  When I laid down to sleep last night, I saw weeds on the inside of my eyelids.  Seriously, it's an illness.  I woke up today with very tight hamstrings and tender fingertips, but the 4 bucketloads of weeds I removed made it worth it.

Anyways, while I was out there, I thought about the various events that have transpired since last August.

At the beginning of the month, I was in Chicago for the Tour of Elk Grove, wrapping up my summer of bike-racing travels across the country, when I got a call from my dad saying that he had lung cancer.  For a guy with zero risk factors (non-smoker), Stage IV cancer was a shock, and an eye-opener.

I started my last semester of school at the end of the month, already looking for a way to become a bike racer after graduation.

I was chugging along through school, actually taking a class I was truly eager to learn about for once.  I was also traveling all over for racing every weekend.  Local stuff, Univest in Philly, Collegiate mountain bike nationals at Lake Tahoe.  I had a blast explaining to all of my senior design project group members that we could only meet during the week (if they wanted me there...).

My dad spent a lot of time in hospitals those months, as his pneumonia caused by the tumors would not go away, and they couldn't treat the tumors with the pneumonia there.  It was hard to watch him suffer, and indescribably painful to hear him hack and cough and wheeze all day, every day.

My dad turned 51 years old, and we had the momentous and emotional conversation where he encouraged me to chase my dreams.

I graduated Magna Cum Laude with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Texas A&M (WHOOP!) and got the heck out of there.  I had decided not to slide into the ready job for me at Texas Instruments, making much more money than I could spend in a year.  Nope, I decided I was gonna be a bike racer bum and live the life.  I had signed with an amateur team in Walla Walla, Washington and would be moving there in early 2011 sometime.

My dad started chemo, and just a few days after Christmas, his hair started falling out in clumps (aided, however, by his fingers--a move preceded by, "Hey, watch this!").  The Haga men shaved their heads that night.  I don't want to ever do that again.

I stayed at home with my parents while Shane moved back to school, and I began training for what would hopefully be a successful year of racing.

My intended team folded with sponsorship issues, and I scrambled for a plan B just a week before my planned move to Washington.  I re-found Team Rio Grande, and there was one spot left for me.  A week later, I was living in Fort Collins, Colorado without much money, no job, and rent and food to pay for.

I made my debut on the national racing scene, taking the best young riders jersey in the San Dimas Hill Climb Prologue.  Just a taste of successes to come....

My dad was accepted into a promising clinical trial.

I found myself on the final (extended) podium at the Joe Martin Stage Race as top amateur, just a week after a top-10 in my first NRC time trial.

My dad was declared officially free of disease.

Leader for 3 days of the Mount Hood Cycling Classic, with 2 dominant time trials.  Top Amateur at Nature Valley Grand Prix. Top-10 at the Elite National Time Trial Championships with a less than stellar ride.

Another top-10 NRC time trial, and the Colorado State Road Race Champion in my last race as an amateur.

I signed with Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth for the remainder of 2011 to see how I'd fare in the pro ranks.  My first race with them, I finished 3rd overall at the Tour of Elk Grove (the same race I was at when I learned of my dad's cancer a year ago).

Since I made the commitment to chase this dream, I've frequently prayed that if this is what I'm supposed to be doing, if this is what God wants me to do, then He'll need to open doors for me and make it work.  Well, in the last 12 months I've been on 4 teams (  I've raced in 13 states. I've made the climb from a local amateur team in Texas to an established and respected professional team, and all I've done is race my bike one day at a time.  I can't wait for the next 12 months!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My crazy roommate

Another semester of school is beginning (but not for me!), and it's caused me to look back on my time spent in College Station with my crazy roommate, RHLCV.

I met Lee on my first race weekend at A&M.  I was driving a group of guys that would later become my closest friends during my time at school to a mountain-bike race way out in the middle of nowhere, TX.  Lee was sitting behind me, telling the other Chad on the team--in graphic detail--the procedure for artificial insemination of horses.

4 years of living with Lee later, that topic wouldn't even rate a 3-out-of-10 on my scale of I-can't-believe-we're-seriously-talking-about-this.

During the summer after my freshman year, a room at Lee's townhouse opened up and I wanted out of the dorms.  At that point, I had no idea what I was getting into.

It worked out, though.  I apparently have a high tolerance for odd personalities (don't worry, he knows he's an odd-ball).

Every day was an adventure with Lee, especially when we had free time (or desperately needed to be doing something productive).

There was the time we spent an afternoon fitting an office chair to our cruiser bike.

We killed tons of time drilling holes in the caps of 2-liter bottles, fitting them with valve stems from flat tubes, and pumping them to high pressure to create rockets....

Lee would occasionally remember that he, in fact, owned multiple bicycles and decide to ride them.  One time, it was just the two of us on an easy ride, and he challenged me to a two-up rolling start sprint.  We picked starting and finish points.  I would crush him, but he needed proof.  I chose a good gear that I could accelerate in.  Lee slammed it in the 53x11.

We started, I quickly pulled away, and as I approached the finish I heard a terrible grinding noise.  Keep in mind that only Lee could pull this off:  As he finally got up to speed, his right foot unclipped on the downstroke, and swung over the top of the rear wheel--jamming against the rear brake while the spinning tire burned through his sock and into his foot.  If such a thing as a third-degree tire burn exists, he had one.  The chaos with his right foot threw him off balance, and his left foot came unclipped too.  Speedplay cleats at speed are terrific tarmac skis, and he left a 50-foot drag mark to his final resting place in the dirt.  His chain had come off and was tangled in everything.  And finally, as we were inspecting the damage to his spokes, our heads down near the bike, the rear tire exploded in our ears.

Like I said, every day's an adventure.

There was the period of a few weeks in which we battled racoons taking over our attic, eventually giving birth in the wall next to our fireplace.  We screwed with the babies by blasting sounds of a momma raccoon through the stereo system.

Did you know that they make a rodent deterrent for such situations?  Its ingredients include such rarities as wolf urine and racoon blood.  It is rancid.  We filled a syringe with the stuff, punched a tiny hole in the wall next to the babies, and pumped it through.  They were gone the next day.  The downside is that we had filled the syringe while sitting on the couch, and learned a couple days later that we had spilled some.  Oops.

Lee only eats a few different meals.  Homemade pizza, homemade mac-n-cheese, mustard and cheese sandwiches, and tacos.  My junior year, he discovered (yes, I said discovered) yogurt.  We had tacos every week.  Lee has a very thorough procedure for readying his corn tortillas so that they won't break.  5 tortillas, each gets a small mound of taco meat, and a sprinkling of cheddar cheese.  He gets the chair, I get the couch, we eat in front of the tv because our dining room is filled with bikes.

Hold that thought.

In my family, we love to steal food from each other.  Walk-by swipings during the split-second that someone looks away.  Disappearing silverware and dishes.  You've got to be good to get away with it, because we're always on high alert.  Shane and I once each swiped a cookie dough ball from the sheet while our mom was making them.  Each walked by in opposite directions, timing our mom turning from cookie sheet to the dough and back again while working.  We're good.

Back to the tacos.  This particular day, Lee had left his glass of water in the kitchen.  He put down his taco plate and went to retrieve his glass.  By the time he returned seconds later, I had choked down one of his tacos and rearranged the others to appear as if he'd only made 4 this time.  He was on the second taco before he discovered the absence.

Productivity hit a new low when little Haga moved in.  2 bedrooms, 3 guys, 14 bikes.  Let the good times roll.

My final semester, Lee moved in well ahead of us because vet school starts earlier.  He told us that there was room, by his calculation, for 8 more bikes in the dining room.  He returned that afternoon to find we had brought 11.

When Shane and I would get restless on long study nights, we resorted to what would become a past-time in the RHLCV-Hagasaki-Hagasita household: scaring Lee.  Childish?  Absolutely.  But Lee screams loudly, and very much like a girl.  We couldn't help it.  Whether it was hiding in the dark at the bottom of the stairs or pretending we had gone to bed while he was in the shower (but actually hiding in his closet), we were creative about it.

Lee could hold his own, though.  He had tons of suture material from his labs and summer internship, and needed practice.  We returned from school one day to find our pillows sutured to the sheets.

There was the time Lee and I got Shane to break a raw egg on his face. We told Shane that Lee was too afraid to break a hard-boiled egg with his forehead, that he thought it would hurt.  I would do it, but I had just eaten an egg.  Always looking to prove that Lee's a sissy, Shane jumped on it.  It was awesome.

While I don't miss school in the least, I certainly miss the shenanigans.  It's okay, though, as my partner in crime carries on my legacy with the oddest Aggie in the land.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Baby steps are too slow

I've been called out by many people on my lack of posts recently.  For all my spare time, I manage to fill it with everything but updating my blog...

Since Mt. Hood so long ago, I've won the best amateur jersey at the Nature Valley Grand Prix, got a top-10 at the Elite Nationals Time Trial, a top-10 at the Cascade Cycling Classic prologue, won the Colorado State Road Race Championships, and was signed to a pro team for the rest of the year.  Just when I think the year can't get any better, I'm proven wrong time and again.

My first race with Kelly Benefit Strategies-OptumHealth would be the Tour of Elk Grove outside of Chicago--the richest 3-day race in the US with $155,000 up for grabs.  Thursday morning, I went out for a quick ride to shake the legs out and get in a few efforts, then a few hours later was in the air, Chicago-bound.

After meeting my new teammates and sorting out the time trial bikes the next morning, we went for a spin on the prologue course--a T-shaped course, run counter-clockwise, 4 miles and change in length.  I was supposed to be one of the first to go on the team, but the promoter somehow flipped the start-order of all the teams, and I became one of the last to go.  The winning time for the past few years was right around 8:30, so I predicted a time of 8:45 for me based on my other prologues this year.

All of the teams were set up along one road in the expo, so spectators could wander along and watch us all warm up and talk to us--a new, and cool, experience for me.  Even though it was only 80ish degrees, the humidity was such that I may as well have gone swimming before my start.

My family was back home watching the race on the interwebs, and my dad gets points for being able to pick me out in my new getup (I barely recognized myself).

So there I was, on the start ramp for the Tour of Elk Grove prologue, my first race as a pro bike racer.  What  was I thinking? Go fast, mane.

And shiny side up.

I've only come down from altitude a few times now after fully acclimating, and every time I've learned that my body can go harder than it seems I should be able to.  Especially in prologues, I have to remind myself that unless I keep pushing the pace higher, the pain won't increase like normal.  Basically, screw pacing, just go hard.

So that's what I did.  I killed it from the start, and half a mile later was at the first u-turn.  This was the tightest one, and I came in hot.  Half-way through I had to grab brakes, but popped out at the curb and was back on the gas.  The radar speed limit sign as I passed by the start/finish said 33.  I railed the right-hand turn and continued to push.  I was a bit gun-shy going into the next u-turn, even though it was much wider.  I stayed off the brakes, but got out of the aero bars.  Angry that I could have gone faster through the turn, I vowed to stay in the aero bars through the next one.

I finally got there, railed the turn in the aero bars, but got on the power too soon and kicked the back wheel in the air with a nice pedal-check at better than 30 mph. In the aero bars.  Fun stuff.

It hardly phased me, though, and I began the ratchet the pain up higher as I closed on the last turn.  I needed every inch of the road as I again stayed away from the brakes, and killed myself to get to the line.  At the end of the day, I ended up 17th with a time of 8:40.  Better than predicted!

The next two stages are usually field sprints, and after the tight prologue the race is usually decided by the time bonuses during the race.  Our plan was for me, our highest-placed rider after the prologue, to try to get up the road early and sweep some time bonuses before the inevitable catch, and hang on in the fast field sprint.

I was active from the gun, trying to get into breaks for the first few laps on the 10-mile course.  Every lap had 26 turns, and all the accelerating out of every turn was killing me.  I've been racing up mountains all year, and this was essentially a 100-mile crit.  I got away a few times, but never for long enough to sprint for time bonuses.  Finally a large group got away, but I was not in it.  I had teammates there, but I was definitely upset to have missed the break in my first race.

In the mix at the front of the field
As the break's lead grew over 2 minutes half-way through, United Healthcare set up their train on the front, and in 2 laps brought the break back.  The field was gassed from the brutal pace UHC had set, and Dan Holloway told me I needed to get to the front stat.

Stat means now.

I was dying from my efforts in the first half of the race, but I knew he was right and I busted it up one side of the field, he the other.  Dan followed the first move to attack the instant the break was caught, but the field wasn't ready to let another get away just yet.  Immediately, a group of 3 leapt away just before a corner and established a small, but tangible, gap.

2 more riders jumped away in pursuit and I continued my seated sprint to the front, skirting the edges of the pack and staying as low as I could.  I kept my momentum and shot off the front as soon as I got there, my sights focused on the the two riders just ahead.  I quickly made the junction, and the three of us closed the gap to the leaders.  We kept the pace high, and the twisty course gave a solid advantage to a small, cohesive group.

Our break included Dahlheim, fellow Texan, from Bissell
Just snag some time bonuses, because it's sure to be a field sprint, I thought.  UHC had missed the move, as well as some other teams, so certainly we'd be pulled back.  The group was working well together, and after a lap, I heard my director, Jonas, honking the car behind me.  I dropped back and grabbed a bottle while talking tactics with him.  I was the highest-placed rider in the break, the field had sat up--UHC had blown themselves in their efforts earlier--we had a 2-minute gap over a small chase group.  In short, this was a legitimate yellow-jersey opportunity.

At the conclusion of that lap, I sprinted for the time bonus, taking 2nd for a 2-second bonus.  Keep it rolling, Jonas said, this was big.

Half-way through the lap, an awkward rotation through a corner opened a gap, as had happened several times already. The split was 3-and-3, and I thought nothing of it, that we would simply rejoin and continue on.  By the time I realized we weren't getting back on, I was also discovering that my legs were done.

I was with Dahlheim and an Exergy rider, and the three of us were all cooked, slowly losing time on the others and falling back to the chase group just 1:45 in arrears.  The Exergy rider dropped off, and it was just me and Andrew in no-man's land, with a lap to go.

Both of us were completely cracked.  Then the moto ref told us two chasers were coming up fast, and indeed they were.  Fast Freddie Rodriguez and a GEOX rider had broken free of the chase group and were motoring by us.  We sprinted to get on the wheel, and sat on as they rotated.  I wanted to contribute, but simply couldn't.  Finally, with a few miles to go, my last goo kicked in and my legs were rested enough to resume working for GC time.

With just a kilometer to go, we caught the Fly-V rider that had been dropped from the leaders.  We now had a shot at the podium!  My sprint was one of the best I've had, considering how fatigued I was, and was edging out Dahlheim and the GEOX rider for 3rd until the final 25 meters, when I faded and was passed by both.  Nonetheless, 5th place!  The GC race had just become much more selective.

When the dust settled, I was in 3rd overall, 54 seconds from 2nd, and just 5 seconds ahead of Fast Freddie.

The final stage, a circuit race around the prologue course, would be hotly contested with 1st and 2nd, and 3rd and 4th in GC separated by only a few seconds each, and several time bonuses up for grabs.  And I had to defend against Fast Freddie.

Thankfully, a large group of non-threats got away early and swept most of the time bonuses. I had some very experienced teammates leading me through the field and making sure I was staying rested and out of trouble. The break came back, and it was certainly going to be a field sprint at the end. Dan pipped Freddie at the line for a sprint bonus to steal a second, but Freddie had still gotten 2.

Then, as the race was winding down, the field was hotting up, and everyone gets a little on edge, the storms rolled in.  Storms so heavy that the roads were nearly flash-flooding, the rain stung as it hit our faces, and we could barely see the rider 2 bike-lengths ahead at 40 mph.  Our brakes stopped working in the heavy rains, and the field became frantic as everyone began fighting for the front.  My teammates sold out for me, battling the rain alongside UHC's leadout train so that we would stay away from the certain crashes.

Downpour, much?

As we rolled through the start-finish for one lap to go, our train was sprinting up the right side to reclaim position when all bedlam rained down on us.  Someone far up had crossed wheels, and bodies and bikes were flying everywhere.

It was nice knowing you world, but there's no way I'm not going to flip over the 2 bodies and 3 bikes sprawled in front of me.  My brakes don't work and we're doing well over 30 mph, I'm gonna meet the pavement.

Then, somehow, the bodies tumbled out of my way.  My bike rammed the other bikes in front of it, and knocked them out of the way.  Just as quickly as it began, the road ahead of me was clear.  And the race leaders--most importantly Freddie--were getting away.  Time to sell out!  Cash in all the chips! Close that gap!

You can see me on the left, just getting through the mayhem
I was making ground on the leaders, but they weren't slowing down and I was all on my own.  Then a very welcome sight: Mike Creed coming back for me!  He sprinted up to speed as I neared, and brought me back to the leaders as we hit the first turn of the lap.  Only 20 or so riders remained in the field now.

All I had to do was finish with or ahead of Freddie, and the podium was mine!  Despite Emile Abraham needlessly pushing me into the curb with a grin on his face just because he could, I managed to defend my position in the sprint.  Debut race with my first pro team, and with the help of my teammates and a serious case of SIO (you either know it or you don't) in conditions that had me freaking out, and I was on the podium.

Baby steps? Pssh.  You just get there slower that way.

And I managed to fit the jumbo check in the bike case for the flight back.  Sweet.

I kinda like this bike racer thing.