Optum Pro Cycling presented by Kelly Benefit Strategies’ Chad Haga took home a hard-fought yellow jersey at Fayetteville, Arkansas’ Joe Martin Stage Race this weekend, using a powerful effort from the Optum p/b KBS team to full effect.
Haga and his teammates overcame the stiff competition provided by Francisco Mancebo (Kenda-5 Hour Energy), one of the country’s top stage racers, who narrowly derailed Haga’s efforts to claim the general classification prize at the Redlands Bicycle Classic’s final stage earlier this month. Haga was sandwiched between Mancebo, in third, and teammate Nathan English, after Joe Martin’s first stage, a grueling 4 kilometer uphill time trial. The result guaranteed it would be a battle for supremacy across two stages of road racing, finishing off with a downtown criterium.
“We knew the criterium would be relatively inconsequential for the overall GC, so we had to give it absolutely everything we had over the two days of road racing to get yellow into Chad’s hands and protect it from Mancebo, who is always dangerous in races like this,” said Performance Manager Eric Wohlberg.
On the first day of road racing, Haga stayed focused and protected, as yellow jersey holder Nate English lost 15 seconds to the young star across an extremely technical run-in to the finish. Knowing that sizable gaps would open up over the winding finish, the team worked hard to keep Haga near the front of affairs. Teammate Ken Hanson finished second in the day’s field sprint, centimeters behind former ProTour star JJ Haedo (Jamis-Hagens Berman). The shuffle gave Haga a 5 second lead over Mancebo, guaranteeing a slugfest for yellow the following day.
On the rainy third stage, tactics reigned supreme across the foggy, rainy 185 kilometer course, which consisted in bulk of a tough, rolling, 23-mile circuit. Mancebo hovered just five seconds behind Haga, a tiny gap considering the difficulty of the course. He would need to be watched closely if the orange and black hoped to retain yellow.
“Tactically, stage three was decisive,” said Wohlberg. “There were around 100 guys within one minute on GC, so any move would absolutely need to be pulled back in. Given Mancebo’s tendency for late-race, stage-winning attacks, we needed to be very careful.”
The move went up the road as planned, and Chad’s “workers”, including Mike Sherer, Mike Friedman, Tom Soladay, Eric Young, Jesse Anthony, Tom Zirbel and Ken Hanson, were tasked with keeping the race in check.
“The guys turned themselves inside out for over 70 miles through some nasty conditions,” said Wohlberg. “They put it an incredible effort to slowly reel that breakaway in.”
The fourth and last time through the circuit, the Optum p/b KBS team was assaulted hard, when a group of 12 riders accelerated across the gap. Now facing a sizable group of riders, Optum p/b KBS was tasked with pulling again to reel in the now 20-strong group.
“Haga had great faith in his team once things started falling apart – our workers, who had pulled for the bulk of the race, had to get right back to the front, as many riders in that breakaway had a chance to win if things stayed status quo.”
Inside 40 kilometers to go, Jesse Anthony jumped across the gap for added insurance, and Optum p/b KBS and the Cash Call team worked together to polish off the remainder of the gap. Haga remained unflappable, waiting for Mancebo to launch his inevitable bid to win the race.
“Do not play poker with Chad Haga, he is a cool customer,” added a smiling Wohlberg. “Once Mancebo launched across that gap in an attempt to win the race, Chad was right on his wheel.”
Haga and Mancebo, the two top contenders on GC, made it across the gap together, joining the now 18-strong group in the rush to the finish line. Anthony kept Haga safe through the final kilometer, and he finished the race on Mancebo’s wheel, claiming his first stage race of 2013, sweet revenge for the near-miss at Redlands a few weeks prior.
The team’s efforts at Joe Martin moved chad into top position on the NRC standings, and moved the team into first overall. The orange and black will focus on this week’s SRAM Tour of the Gila, the hometown Nature Valley Grand Prix, and Oregon’s Cascade Classic to settle the score in the 2013 NRC.
The men and women of Optum p/b KBS head next to New Mexico’s hot, dry, Tour of the Gila. It will be another chance to show America what it’s top team is capable of in a stage race setting.