INTERVIEW: JARLINSON PANTANO
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 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 was overjoyed by his stage nine win at the Tour de Suisse
Pantano reacts to his third place inish in stage 14 of the Giro d'Italia in 2014
Pantano is naturally a strong climber and descender, but he’s built up other skills