Jack Haig is smiling, and fair enough. The 25-year-old – “the Ginge” to some of his team-mates in a nod to Haig’s auburn hair – is nearing the end of his best season yet. The Mitchelton-Scott rider was Simon Yates’ right-hand man at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, helping him to two weeks in pink at the former and the red jersey at the latter.
Haig has also secured strong results of his own, giving credence to the emerging view that the Queenslander is Australia’s next big general classification hope. Amid a disappointing year for Australian male cyclists, with Richie Porte’s persistent misfortune and Caleb Ewan’s absence from the Tour de France – Haig has been a real bright spot.
“It was super nice to have the hard work of the Giro and the Vuelta end with such a high of Simon winning overall,” he says enthusiastically. “It was very important for the team.”
Yates’ Vuelta success was a redemptive moment for the Briton after the Mitchelton-Scott rider had seemed on track to win the Giro pink jersey only to lose it in dramatic style on stage 19.
“That was a pretty big come-down,” admits Haig, who had been ever-present alongside a pink-clad Yates for two weeks. “Everyone was on such a big high during the Giro because we were racing so well, getting some stage wins along the way.
“But the come down was short-lived,” he continues. “Sure, on stage 19, climbing up Colle delle Finestre with Simon was a bit hard, but once we got to the finish and had a debrief and looked back on what we had achieved in the two and a half weeks up to that point, it was pretty special. No-one looks back on the Giro with disappointment.”
After elation several months later at the Vuelta, Haig’s strong 2018 campaign has continued as the season heads towards its conclusion. He finished 19th at the UCI Road World Championships last month, leading Australia after Porte’s late withdrawal. Haig stayed strong as others wilted on Innsbruck’s gruelling climbs, but was unable to stay with the winning move of Alejandro Valverde and company.
“It was exciting to come to Worlds and see where I am at, but if I am realistic it is probably one or two years too early in my development to be a real contender for something like this,” he admits. “It is more about getting that experience of being the protected rider in the race, so if the opportunity comes when the development time is right, I know how to do it.”
Haig’s journey to the world championships began on the dirt, thousands of kilometres from Austria’s mountainous ascents. As a teenager, Haig was an avid mountain biker. He inadvertently transitioned to the road due to a sponsorship linkage, joining National Road Series team Bennelong SwissWellness in 2013. At that year’s Tour of Tasmania, one of the most prestigious races on the domestic calendar, Haig upstaged team-mate Nathan Earle to win the yellow jersey – joining an honour roll that also lists the likes of Porte and Cadel Evans. Haig hasn’t looked back since.
“That was where it all started,” he reflects. “It was a bizarre year because I wanted to keep racing the mountain bikes, but then I found myself in contention for the National Road Series overall lead and [team manager] Andrew Christie-Johnston told me I had to stay. I wanted to hang out and ride mountain bikes! If I hadn’t had that step in the National Road Series, I wouldn’t be here now.”
Fast forward to 2018 and Haig’s success has been rewarded recently with a two-year contract extension at Mitchelton-Scott. The deal came as a surprise in some quarters given the rider still had another 12 months remaining with the Australian-registered team, but Haig is thankful for the added certainty.
“There were two reasons: one for more security, and also the team wanted to reward me for some of the riding I was doing,” he explains. “It makes it more relaxing not to be in a contract year. It makes it easier to settle down – particularly when you are coming from outside Europe.
For now, then, Haig’s future is with Mitchelton-Scott. In August the team’s chief sports director told Cycling Central that their young climber “is for me definitely the next Australian general classification rider.” Haig admits to being heartened by such an endorsement.
“They are pretty ambitious words but it would be nice if it comes off,” he reflects. “To hear it from Matt White, and the team, from [general manager] Shayne Bannan, from [team owner] Gerry Ryan – it is nice that they have confidence.”
Such public comments from Mitchelton-Scott’s leadership give Haig an added assurance that the bigger opportunities will come. “It makes it a more relaxing environment because I know it is their long-term goal and it’s in their best interests to develop me,” he suggests.
“That allows me not to rush anything and slowly work along,” says Haig. “That’s one reason I enjoy working so much for Simon, sacrificing for him, because I believe my time will come when it is right.” After the form Haig showed in 2018, it would not be surprising if that time comes sooner rather than later.