Jarlinson Pan­tano has come a long way since leav­ing his home in Colom­bia to be­come a pro­fes­sional cy­clist. He re­flects on the jour­ney that led him to the top as he prepares to step up to meet new chal­lenges this year

Procycling - - Contents - Writer: Daniel Ben­son Por­trait Pho­tog­ra­phy: Chris Auld

Pro­cy­cling meets Trek-Se­gafredo’s new Colom­bian sign­ing, who won a Tour stage last year, and has set his sights higher for 2017

When Jarlinson Pan­tano in­fil­trated the racewin­ning break on the fi­nal stage of last year’s Tour de Suisse, not many would have put their money on the Colom­bian win­ning. Af­ter all, the then 27-year old had yet to taste vic­tory as a pro­fes­sional, and with com­pan­ions in the form of Jon Iza­girre, Miguel Án­gel López, Te­jay van Garderen, Rui Costa and War­ren Bar­guil, the IAM Cy­cling rider was cer­tainly not the favourite to win.

Yet with the line in sight it was Pan­tano who surged clear, churn­ing a huge gear to seal an ex­cep­tional but de­serv­ing vic­tory. The fact that it took al­most 200 me­tres for him to come to a stop, be­fore turn­ing around and falling into the arms of his com­pa­triot López, said it all. Shock, sur­prise, ex­cite­ment – a full flurry of emo­tions rushed through Pan­tano, who had dreamed of this mo­ment ever since he left home to come to Europe. And as he gave his first post-stage win­ner’s interview, voice trem­bling as he talked about his sac­ri­fices and his fam­ily, it was clear how much the win meant to him. He had made it, from the sub­urbs of Cali, Colom­bia, through the U23 ranks, to the top table and a WorldTour vic­tory.

A full six months on from that break­through win and Pan­tano doesn’t ap­pear to have changed a bit. He still car­ries him­self with that cool, calm and col­lected de­meanour, that in­fec­tious smile is broadly slapped across his face, and he still waxes lyrical about his pas­sion for the sport. The kit has changed – he is a Trek- Se­gafredo rider now, and his English has vastly im­proved, but that’s about it.

“I re­mem­ber com­ing back to my room later that night, af­ter my win, and be­ing a wreck,” he tells Pro­cy­cling as he stops for a coffee dur­ing his first train­ing camp with Trek.

“Leigh Howard was my room­mate and he was say­ing, ‘What’s wrong with you? You’ve won, you’ve won.’ But all I could re­mem­ber was every­thing I’d gone through and all the hard times and sac­ri­fices. Leav­ing my fam­ily be­hind to come to Europe; that was the tough­est choice for me.”

While you might be fa­mil­iar with the paths that led Nairo Quin­tana and Este­ban Chaves into the WorldTour ranks, lit­tle is known of Pan­tano and how he made his way to Europe. Born in the western Colom­bian city of Cali, it was Pan­tano’s fa­ther José Gabriel, a pas­sion­ate am­a­teur, who in­tro­duced him to the sport at a young age. Cali, although home to a re­spected velo­drome, is not a city blessed with a huge cy­cling in­fra­struc­ture – it’s more as­so­ci­ated with foot­ball and salsa danc­ing - and as a ju­nior, Pan­tano was forced to head north to race. Times were hard, how­ever, and the fam­ily was re­liant on friends to fi­nan­cially help their son’s dream of be­com­ing a bike rider.

“When I was a ju­nior rider we had lots of prob­lems at home. We had no money and I thought that I was go­ing to have to stop cy­cling and get a job to sup­port ev­ery­one. Then my fa­ther’s friend stepped in to help, but noth­ing has ever been easy. I’ve al­ways had to fight,” Pan­tano says.

“It’s hard in Colom­bia. Now there are teams in Cali and in the south of Colom­bia, and I have my own foun­da­tion, but it’s re­ally hard for young rid­ers to get a chance in cy­cling. There are few spon­sors and not many routes to the top. What we have on our side, though, is a love for cy­cling. It’s not just a sport but a way of life for us. Most rid­ers at home are on the min­i­mum wage, they earn a bit of money but there are also teams that don’t pay at all.

Nor­mal rid­ers will earn around 350 Eu­ros a month, and that’s on a se­ri­ous team.”

Even as a ju­nior, Pan­tano’s ta­lent was clear. In 2004, in the El Valle de­part­ment cham­pi­onships, he won gold in the pur­suit, team pur­suit and road race. He was a good climber; he also had a tenac­ity and re­silience that drew the at­ten­tion of the Colom­bia es Pasión team (now Man­zana-Pos­to­bón), an out­fit that forged a rep­u­ta­tion for blood­ing Colom­bian ta­lent. In 2007, Pan­tano made his first se­ri­ous ven­ture to Europe, com­ing 37th at the Tour de l’Avenir. When he re­turned a year later, he took a highly com­mend­able sev­enth spot, fin­ish­ing ahead of the likes of Te­jay van Garderen, Dami­ano Caruso and Peter Stetina.

“The first races here were so dif­fi­cult,” Pan­tano says as he looks back to those early days. “Rac­ing in Europe and rac­ing in Colom­bia are just so dif­fer­ent. They’re worlds apart. Here in Europe they race so hard on the flat, way faster than back

in Colom­bia. You’ve got all of these round­abouts here, and be­fore you even get to the climbs you’re al­ready on the limit and go­ing full gas. On the climbs it’s hard here too, but back home ev­ery­one is a climber. Here there are maybe 20 guys who can climb at the top level.

“And when I first came to Europe I had to fight against the other rid­ers. And I mean re­ally fight. Lit­er­ally. The Euro­peans would look at us Colom­bians and… let’s just say they didn’t like us very much. On flat, windy stages we had to be near the front, but none of the es­tab­lished Euro­pean teams would let us any­where near the front of the pelo­ton.”

In 2010, and once again at the Tour de l’Avenir, Pan­tano found him­self on the wrong side of an an­gry Euro­pean rider. The Colom­bian team by that time were bet­ter es­tab­lished, and Quin­tana would go on to win the race with Pan­tano tak­ing third. How­ever, they didn’t have it all their own way at all.

“When we won the Avenir there was a bit more re­spect, but things did turn vi­o­lent a few times, and we fought a lot, mostly with the French rid­ers.

“I re­mem­ber one rider who wanted to push Nairo off his bike but he took me down into a ditch in­stead. Nairo came to me, we spoke and then we went up to this guy and Nairo grabbed him. You’d think with two against one we’d stand a chance, but Nairo ended up in the ditch with the other rider too. It was crazy.”

In 2013, Pan­tano made his Grand Tour de­but with the Colom­bia team at the Giro d’Italia. A year later he re­turned to the race, stronger and wiser. A third place fin­ish on the stage to Oropa caught the at­ten­tion of a num­ber of teams, and his con­sis­tency through­out the 2014 sea­son earned him a ride on IAM Cy­cling.

He may not have en­joyed the ca­reer tra­jec­tory of Quin­tana, who won the Giro in 2014 and Vuelta in 2016, but Pan­tano nev­er­the­less has made important steps in his de­vel­op­ment. And at IAM Cy­cling he linked up with two in­di­vid­u­als who have helped to shape his ca­reer.

Mar­cello Al­basini, a di­rec­tor on the Swiss team, whose son Michael rides for Orica-Scott, spot­ted Pan­tano’s ta­lent early on but no­ticed that the climber was still raw. He helped coach and nur­ture the new sign­ing, who knew no English when he joined the team. Al­basini could see that while Pan­tano had power and fi­nesse, he was of­ten wast­ing en­ergy in the pelo­ton, and lacked the skills of some of his team­mates. He could climb, he could de­scend and his will­ing­ness to learn was there, but Al­basini saw that the pieces needed to be put to­gether.

IAM’s Vi­cente Reynés was an­other per­son who spot­ted Pan­tano’s prom­ise. The Spa­niard, who re­tired at the end of 2016, took the Colom­bian un­der his wing, even let­ting him use his home in Mal­lorca as his Euro­pean base. The two trained to­gether and the men­tor­ship helped build Pan­tano’s con­fi­dence, while at the same time es­tab­lish­ing his roots in Europe.

“Vi­cente is like my Euro­pean fam­ily. He and his fam­ily were so wel­com­ing. We met dur­ing my first year at IAM and straight away, as soon as I reached the team, he asked if I wanted to come to live with him. I jumped at the chance. At the Colom­bian team they wouldn’t let me do any­thing like that, so I lived in Reynés’s sec­ond apart­ment, which is about 100 me­tres down from where he lives.

“But cy­cling in Europe is some­thing I’ve grown to ap­pre­ci­ate. I think that the rac­ing here suits me. The longer the

race, the bet­ter it is for me, and I think I’ve shown that in a few week-long races al­ready. I get bet­ter as the race goes on and I feel stronger as oth­ers start to get tired.

“Vi­cente, Mar­cello, they are peo­ple who helped me to progress lit­tle by lit­tle each year and to im­prove. I’ve not been like Chaves or Nairo, but each year I’ve stepped up and I hope that one day that I can be on the podium in big races.”

So far Pan­tano has de­liv­ered on all of that prom­ise and pro­gres­sion, with a stage in the Tour de France sit­ting neatly next to his Suisse win in his pal­marès.

How­ever, for 2017 the Trek team’s goals have broad­ened, and the 28-year-old will be ex­pected to make an­other leap as he looks to sup­port Al­berto Con­ta­dor at the Tour de France. It’s a role that Pan­tano has yet to ex­pe­ri­ence, but he is rel­ish­ing the op­por­tu­nity and the re­spon­si­bil­ity that comes with it.

“This team seems like fam­ily, which is important to me, and it’s a good group of peo­ple where I could have my own op­por­tu­ni­ties. But most im­por­tantly, I can work for Al­berto Con­ta­dor. That for me is the pri­or­ity. Maybe I’ll have my own chance in a race, like in the Tour of Switzer­land, but Al­berto is the leader and the fo­cus. I like the idea of hav­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity to help him win the Tour.

“This year, for me per­son­ally, I just want to win a stage. I don’t care what race it’s in. I just want to win. I want to try for a top 10 in the spring stage races if I can, but the team comes first.”

Per­haps Pan­tano didn’t need to cross the line first in the Tour de Suisse to prove he was a win­ner. The qual­i­ties he has as a rider were al­ways there, but as with the work he car­ried out with Al­basini and the nur­tur­ing he en­joyed with Reynés, the pieces in the jig­saw just needed align­ing. The rider, the man, has not changed, he’s just put every­thing in the right place.

“When I need mo­ti­va­tion,” he says as he leaves, “I just look back at what I did last year. For me the win in Switzer­land was more spe­cial than my Tour stage win. It was my first big win. The Tour is the big­gest race, of course, but the Suisse stage, I’m in love with that win. It gave me such de­light, be­cause I’d never won.”

Pan­tano re­acts to his third place in­ish in stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia in 2014

Pan­tano was over­joyed by his stage nine win at the Tour de Suisse

Pan­tano is nat­u­rally a strong climber and de­scen­der, but he’s built up other skills

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