Monday, March 31, 2014

Time Heals All Tanlines

For a while now I've considered starting a blog to chronicle my adventures as a professional cyclist, much like dear old big brother.  I think it a little ironic, then, that my first blog should be about my choice to end a very short-lived career as such.  I'm sure among many cycling friends, this decision is one that will garner little sympathy, but I'm fine with that.  In the end I have had to boil everything down to what I consider to be in my best interests and disregard everything else.  If you care to know the reason behind the madness, then strap in, because you're about to get a crash course in my life.

You see, I've got this older brother that has managed to find a lot of success in life.  Great guy, great values, incredibly smart, and talented on a bike beyond belief with determination for days.  In short, growing up, I had an incredible role model to look up to and emulate to replicate successes and avoid mistakes.  Despite my admiration for him, we didn't always get along as well as we do now.  I like to joke that we never shared a room until we were all grown up and in college.

We both grew up playing baseball on teams our dad helped coach.  Baseball was, and still remains my first love.  I still get nostalgic any time I put a glove on, and hesitate to let anyone use the gloves I so carefully broke in and maintained.  Whenever Chad's team was playing I would make sure to ride to the game with him and our dad and get there an hour early for the warm-ups.  I would always hang out in the outfield and run down any over-thrown balls that got by.  Even though I was three years younger than most of the guys on the team, they usually didn't mind me hanging around since it meant less running for them.  I even got to sit on the bench with the guys during the game, so long as I didn't distract them.  I learned a lot from those years of watching baseball at a higher level, and developed my playing skills even further.  I got to know the guys on the team pretty well and grew fond of my nickname, "little Haga". The name stuck, as I found out years after Chad had given up baseball for music and bicycles.

I don't remember much  about my first day of high school.  I remember being nervous and wondering if I'd be able to find my friends in the freshman class of almost 900 students.  I remember taking the wrong lunch period and having lunch twice that day.  And I remember walking into the room for the baseball class period.  If you never played organized sports in high school, you may not know how seriously the seniority system is taken.  The class for baseball was held inside a coaches office with very limited seating.  If you were a freshman, you were guaranteed to sit on the floor.  If you managed to grab a chair, any guy from a higher class had the right to boot you to the floor.  When I walked through the doors of that office, I had no idea what to expect, and what I got surprised me more than I could have guessed.  As soon as I walked in, I met the eyes of a lot of familiar faces I didn't expect, and almost immediately heard the yells, "Little Haga!!!"  Suddenly all eyes were on me.  I'm pretty sure I almost broke my tailbone I sat down so fast trying to avoid the attention.  I wasn't on the floor for long, though.  Some jaded sophomore got the boot from his seat, and it was given to me.  I was set.  I had the protection of the senior class, and the coach already knew I was someone to look at.  And from then on, I was "Little Haga" and it felt good.

After seeing Chad race mountain bikes at one of the the local courses I was intrigued.  I ended up riding with him at the local trail on weekends.  He likes to take credit for improving my abilities by leaving me behind and forcing me to get faster if I wanted to keep up.  It's true, though. I eventually got better, and had some success of my own in mountain bike races.  Together we made our road racing debuts in the Cat 5's in the Tuesday Night criteriums.  For me, the racing scene was still back seat to baseball, but I really enjoyed it and the way it brought the brothers Haga closer together.  Eventually, though, I had to give up baseball when I was faced with the prospect of being underplayed.  I was frustrated, and heartbroken to leave my first love behind, but cycling was there to ease the pain and give me something to chase after.

I found the Texas Highschool Cycling League my senior year.  Since I wasn't going to be playing baseball, my weekends were freed up.  My mind was set.  I would travel all spring to races around Texas with my mom and dad, and I would win the overall category. I knew my dad had grown frustrated along with me as I played less and less in the baseball games.  When I made the switch, he became my number one supporter.  We spent a lot of hours in the car together traveling to races.  He was always in the feedzone when I needed him, and always there to see me across the finish line.  When I got my first win and saw the pride in his eyes, my motivation got supercharged.  I won just about every race that year.  I became a huge target to the other racers.  They would watch me all day, but I'd still get away.  My dad likes to reminisce that it wasn't a race until I decided it was time to do something.  I was downright cruel in my tactics at times, but I loved every minute of it.

The high school races were often held in conjunction with collegiate events, which meant I got to show off in front of Chad and his Texas A&M teammates.  I got to hang around the team and get to know a lot of them while he raced, just like the old days.  Many of the riders would compare their time trial times to mine, and we had some good rivalries going.  I remember suddenly being taken seriously when my time in a hill climb tt would have placed me in the top 5 in the collegiate A category.  I imagine it was sometime around then I got my next nickname "Hagasita" modified from "Hagasaki" which Chad had been crowned previously.  When I finally made the decision to follow Chad and pursue a Mechanical Engineering degree and race bikes at A&M, my place had already been made among the team once again.

At this point in my life, I'd given very little thought about my future.  Chad and I had been good at most of the same things in our life up to that point, so it made sense that we were on the same track.  However, if you sincerely asked me why I was in Engineering, I wouldn't have been able to give you a good answer.  I was great in math and science, like Chad had been, so it was the logical choice in my mind.  It wasn't the right one, though.  The spring semester of my second year, I had an epiphany while sitting in class.  I could not have cared less what the professor was talking about.  In fact, I was sure I would hate my life if I had to deal with the things he was talking about, daily.  It was that semester that I decided I no longer wanted to be in the engineering program, despite my 4.0 GPA the previous year. I was pushed to my breaking point that year.  My epiphany came just after the add/drop date, so I was forced to endure a year of differential equations, electrical engineering, and thermodynamics despite knowing for a fact I would be changing majors.  It was during that time that I was forced to finally sit down and think about my future and determine what I was interested in.  My love for the outdoors, combined with my passion for sports (especially baseball) and background in landscaping and yard work made my choice clear-cut.  I was welcomed into the Turfgrass management program with open arms.  I loved every minute of it, and never looked back.  When I'd finally thought about it, I realized that just because I was qualified to be an engineer like Chad, didn't mean I had to be one.

In school, I traveled to a lot of collegiate races with the team on the weekends, and to Texas races on open weekends.  I progressed rapidly when my focus shifted to the bike.  In one season I jumped from a Cat 3 without any upgrade points, to a 1.  I started the season on a DFW area team that had very limited support at races and managed to work my way onto the same Cat1 elite team Chad was on.  They'd seen me progress and kept a close eye on me.  With Chad on the team they were able to lock me down before any of the other teams came knocking.  I spent the rest of my college days on the Austin-based Super Squadra team.  I got to be close with my teammates and came to be fond of my nickname "Baby Haga" that stuck after Chad moved to Colorado and into the professional ranks.  I continued to progress on the same track as Chad, and naturally people started talking about the Haga bros racing professionally together.  It sounded logical.  If Chad can make it, so can I.  So that was my aim.

When I finally graduated college last summer, I was frustrated.  I had set out to secure a professional contract in 2013.  I didn't have the financial cushion leaving school that Chad did due to the difference in pay between an internship at a golf course and an engineering internship.  In my mind, if I didn't have a professional contract leaving school I wouldn't be able to support myself.  I had very few offers from anywhere.  I didn't do as well at U23 nationals as I'd hoped, and I figured that was my ticket.  And then I got a text from Chad that Michael Creed was interested in me for Team Smartstop.  I couldn't believe I was actually going to get my shot.  When I finally signed the contract, I didn't care that I wasn't a salaried rider.  This was going to be my big break.  I worked really hard.  I dropped the 5 lbs I'd been trying to lose really quickly.  I did two-a-days, I lifted, I did core work, I ran. I rode more than I ever had. I wanted to make the most of the opportunity.

Training camp eventually came, and I was excited to show off my form.  I was caught off guard, then, when every day of camp I struggled to hang on.  Each day I got crushed by my teammates and I was amazed at their strength.  I realized that as hard as I had worked, I still needed to work harder if I wanted to get a shot at racing.  But something changed when I got back from training camp.  I knew the riding I needed to do, but I struggled daily for the motivation.  Each day it was tough to get out the door and get on my bike, and many times I would turn around after only a few minutes of riding.  My motivation was drained.  I realized I was not enjoying my time on the bike.  Each ride was just one big countdown.  My thought process went from "want to" ride, to "have to" ride.  I was stuck riding out of obligation and I grew more and more frustrated when I didn't do the rides I was supposed to do.  Training had driven me into a reclusive, verging on depressive state.  It was time to reconsider things.

When I was forced to think about it, I realized that much like engineering I had pursued this career because it was expected.  I loved cycling when I started, but over the years it lost its excitement.  For a long time, I realized, my head had been fighting my heart to keep chasing what I thought was my dream.  Several years ago I endured the most miserable semester of my life trying to get away from engineering.  I know how it feels to be stuck doing something that your heart is not in, and I owe it to myself to get out before it's too late.  If I were to continue, my team would be counting on me to perform at a level requiring training I cannot sustain.  At training camp I saw how excited and motivated my teammates were, and to risk taking away one of their opportunities is the most irresponsible thing I can imagine.  I've realized that I am not obligated to be a professional cyclist just because I'm good at riding bikes.  So after talking with my family and close friends I've decided to step away from racing indefinitely.

I'm excited to take cycling back to its recreational level and let the fun back in.  When it's crappy weather outside, I won't ride and won't have to feel guilty or worse, ride the trainer.  I'm going to mountain bike, a lot.  And I'm not going to stress about how good or bad I feel on a given day.  But best of all, I'm going to think about where I want to go in life, and what I want to be doing.  And I'm going to chase that. If one day the desire to race strikes, you better believe I'll be back. And you better watch out, because I'll be there because I want to be and I do like winning.