Politely fighting for victories, both public and personal. Sky's Sergio Henao.

Levi Leipheimer admitted that he didn't know who the young Colombian rider was. Like others, he had to look him up online. The press didn’t know what to make of him either, incorrectly calling his ride at the Tour of Utah last year, a “breakout performance.”

This shortsighted view of Sergio Henao’s riding in Utah ignored (or was unaware of) the fact that he had signed a deal with Sky almost six months earlier, after numerous victories over the past two seasons. But Henao’s story is richer than a contract with Sky, bigger than his wins or any results that you’ll find through a quick search on the internet.

He's one of several Colombian riders who will be racing at the highest level in Europe this season. And thanks to his upbringing, he’s poised to take the opportunity and make the most of it. Even if he politely says “please” and “thank you” as he does so.

2010, Medellín
Henao smiled shyly as his teammates embraced him. Friends and fans alike joined those teammates, as they suddenly started chanting, “Champion! Champion! Champion!” at the top of their lungs. Henao, whose youthful face and braces make him look half his age, suddenly looked even younger as he accepted everyone’s congratulations.

He thanked his teammates, and timidly turned around to speak to the press. Once he faced the cameras and numerous microphones, Henao spoke confidently, but did so in an overly proper manner. It’s the way that Colombian children are taught to speak to adults, and Henao behaved accordingly. He politely referred to journalists as “sir,” and thanked them all for their interest and time, his hands respectfully folded behind his back as he spoke.

But Heano’s quiet demeanor, and his seemingly timid personality hid something: an indomitable fighting spirit. The then-22 year old had just won the 2010 Vuelta a Colombia—a grueling, climb-filled, two-week stage race—in spectacular fashion. Henao’s win had not come easily. Tiny climbing specialist Jose Rujano aimed to take his second Vuelta title that year, and attacked relentlessly on every one of its lengthy climbs. An even bigger challenge had come from Henao’s own teammate, Oscar Sevilla (who was implicated in Operacion Puerto under the codename "Sevillano" while riding with T-Mobile), who proved to be his greatest adversary while holding on to the leader’s jersey for nearly half the race.

Once Henao took the lead from his teammate on stage eight, he worked diligently to distance himself from Sevilla and the others in the general classification, conquering Colombia’s premiere cycling race.

That victory (and the difficult circumstances under which it transpired) put on display what riders in Europe may soon learn as Henao makes his debut with Sky in 2012. The young rider’s shy smile and quiet demeanor should never be mistaken for weakness. Henao’s respectful (almost reverential) manner of speaking, which I experienced first-hand, is merely a reflection of his Colombian upbringing. But so is his insatiable appetite for success.

Henao celebrates with a garland made of arepas

Sergio Luis Henao was born in Rio Abajo, Antioquia. Rio Abajo is not so much a town, as it is a grouping of homes so small that it seldom appears in maps. It was there that a young Henao first raced his bike uphill, on a dare, against his cousins. That victory came at a time when Sergio was beginning to give up on his dreams of becoming the one thing that he equated with success, due to his rural upbringing. Sergio dreamed of being a farmer. He’d often speak about his goal of owning a potato farm and had gone as far as planting several potato plants behind his family’s house.

The plants yielded only a handful of diminutive potatoes. Barely enough for his mother to make soup. So after his first harvest failed, and he managed to beat his cousins in that impromptu bike race, Henao decided to pursue a career as a professional cyclist. It was a dream that his father Ómar had pursued as a young man, but had given up on long ago.

In order to feed his family, Ómar Henao had taken a job as a night watchman at a local farm. The long and unusual hours kept him from training, so his dream of riding professionally slowly slipped away. Sergio was keenly aware of how difficult his father’s schedule was, and how it had caused him to give up on his dream of becoming a professional cyclist. So as he rose through the ranks of Colombian cycling, he told Ómar why he had chosen to become a cyclist himself. It was not to fulfill his father’s dream, or because of the fame that might come his way. Henao told his father that his reason for training and racing was “so that one day you don’t have to work such long hours during the overnight shift. I promise you that you won’t have to work those hours anymore.” With that promise in mind, Sergio Henao continued to train in Antioquia's mountainous terrain.

Henao with his family

Like playing for Real Madrid
As 2011 came to a close, Henao enjoyed the last few months that he'd be able to spend living with his parents and young sister. When I spoke with him, he was preparing to move to Spain in order to join Rigoberto Urán.

Henao is now the second Colombian on Sky’s roster. Although Sergio considered offers from Movistar and Geox more than a year ago, it was Sky that got the young Colombian’s attention.

“They’re an amazing team, incredibly organized, and very good at what they do. To me, signing with Sky is like being asked to play for the Real Madrid of cycling. It’s a huge opportunity.”

As Henao says this, I can’t help but wonder how this young man from a rural Colombian town will handle racing for an English-speaking team, and living in Europe. But the 24 year old seems unfazed by the changes he’ll experience during the upcoming season.

I ask if Urán already being with Sky played a role in his reason for signing with the British team. In response, he casually acknowledges that having a fellow Colombian on the team will be helpful to him.

“Rigoberto is a great rider,” he says. “One with lots of experience, and someone who has given Colombia a great reputation in this sport. I’m glad to have him there for me, because he’ll be able to help me in many ways when I need it.”

Henao has known Urán for many years, and clearly respects him and his accomplishments. He speaks fondly of him on a personal and professional level. At the same time, Henao’s tone leads me to believe that he’s ready for the move to Sky and that he could handle it without any help from a fellow Colombian.

Santiago Botero

The Director: Santiago Botero
Speaking with Henao’s last team director Santiago Botero (former time trial world champion who is largely remembered by many outside Colombia as a client of Eufemiano Fuentes), I realize that my take on the young Colombian’s demeanor is accurate. Botero is quick to point out just how serious and fearless Henao is.

“Like most other riders in our team [Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia], Sergio comes from a rural family of very meager means,” Botero says. “He appears to be shy at first, maybe even vulnerable. But he’s not. When you get to know him, you see why he’s been so successful. He’s extremely ambitious, determined, and insanely disciplined, even by cycling standards. He’s fearless.”

During our conversation, it also becomes clear that Botero’s advice to Henao goes well beyond the race tactics that directors commonly discuss with riders through race radios. Botero’s experience as a Colombian who raced in Europe at the highest level is invaluable. This has also helped ease Henao’s concerns about racing abroad.

Henao gets a drink in Colorado

“I’ve spoken with him at great length about his move, to help him prepare for what’s in store,” Botero told me. “Luckily, he’s going to Sky already as a fully-formed cyclist. When I went to Europe, I still had so much to learn. Sergio’s case is different. He’s raced at a high level already, and experienced riders have surrounded him. He’s had time to take in information about racing and living as a professional over there.”

When I ask Botero what specific conversations he’s had with Henao in this regard, he’s quick to answer.

“Some of these things sound simple, but are sometimes hard to keep in mind when you are there at first, and completely disorientated. He needs to live in a place that has good training loops. He needs to live by the mountains, in order to ensure that he can do all his training there. A big mistake that some riders in his position make is that they keep coming back to Colombia in order to train. That’s usually not the smartest thing to do, in part because it keeps the rider mentally tied to Colombia in a negative way. He needs to make his life there [in Europe], to make friends there, in order to focus on his job. But he needs to feel at home in Europe, so that he’s not counting down the days until he can come back to Colombia.”

Upon hearing this, I can’t help but picture young Colombian cyclists scratching out days in a calendar, or marking days on a concrete wall, as a prisoner would while he awaits the day of his release.

Botero thinks likewise: “It’s hard to do your job, and train properly, when all you’re thinking about is going back home. Sergio will learn, and he’ll realize that the hardships inherent in this move are not sacrifices, but opportunities to learn that he must take advantage of.”

Henao too brings up his willingness to learn, though he admits that some difficulties lay ahead. He’s been thinking about the language barrier that he’ll face within Sky. He admits that it’ll be difficult to learn English, but he’s eager to tackle the task.

Note the Rabobank/Giant frame. The team uses these frames, since they simply buy whatever frames are available from the Colombian importer. They also buy smaller items like handlebar tape, which is carefully rationed throughout the season.

“School was hard for me, I wasn’t a great student,” he says. “But learning English will be very important for me. Where I went to school, they didn’t really teach other languages, but I’ll be studying whenever I can now, because I know how important it will be for my future.”

It’s with that attitude, and for that reason, that Sergio Henao is taking on this, as well as other challenges. He knows how important meeting them is to his future, and in turn how important they are for the future of his entire family.

It’s something that Giovanni Jimenez, the first Colombian cyclist to ever turn professional back in 1968, also realized.

“When a young Colombian rider becomes a professional, it’s not just him who’s earning a salary,” Jimenez said. “Because these riders come from such poor families, it’s actually a whole extended family who benefits financially. He’s riding for many people back home. It’s an unusual aspect of Colombian professionals, particularly when compared to riders from most other countries.”

Although the world view of Colombians has changed overtime, some things stay the same. In this video , Henao discusses his inability to attend Sky training camps due to visa issues. During the interview, he explains how Rigoberto Uran is having the same problems, and pleads for someone to help them out and clear their visas. This is a common occurrence for Colombians, since we are largely unwanted by many countries. This means that visas can take as much as a year or more to clear...although sometimes you're simply not approved to enter a country at all due to your place of birth. This was the case for Victor Hugo Peña the year that he wore the yellow jersey at the Tour.

Calculated dreams
Speaking with Henao, it’s easy to sense his excitement as he relays details about the challenges that lay ahead. He’s also looking forward to new obstacles—ones that he’s only now starting to realize may be possible for him to take on.

But he doesn’t speak as a wide-eyed dreamer might. To the contrary, his thought process is that of a very calculated and committed individual.

As we speak about his climbing abilities, and his slight build, I ask what races he’s looking forward to competing in while in Europe. He will be the latest Colombian climber to demonstrate his skills across famed mountain passes in a continent other than his own.

But as I ask about several mountainous stage races, I hear Henao take a deep breath. “I very much want to race Paris-Roubaix. I’ve seen the race, and it seems so different, and so difficult that it strikes me as the most beautiful one in the calendar. It’s completely foreign to me, and to everything I’ve grown up with, but I dream of racing it … and clearly I dream of winning it.”

Henao’s sober tone stands in contrast to his use of the word “dream.” He knows how hard he’ll have to work to get there, and how incredibly difficult the race is. But I wonder if he’s aware of the historical significance that his dream carries.

In 1983, when the Tour de France first allowed an amateur Colombian team into the race, the pavé in early stages completely shattered the small riders who lacked experience on such terrain. Most of them retired, never getting far enough into the race to see their beloved mountains.

Later, in 1985, the cobbles would once again hurt the chances of Colombians at the Tour. On that occasion it was Lucho Herrera who lost massive amounts of time to Laurent Fignon because of the pavé. Not used to the cobbles (much less the crosswinds), riders like Herrera conceded twenty minutes or more to their European rivals. Such has been the luck of Colombians while racing on cobblestones.

But as Sergio Henao speaks about Paris-Roubaix, those distant memories of past Colombian attempts to conquer the cobbles fade into the background, though he stays firmly planted in reality. He’s not dreaming. He knows that a race like Paris-Roubaix demands tenacity and respect from those who take it on. Luckily for Henao, his Colombian upbringing has given him plenty of both.

The biggest victory
In a season that may see as many as four new Colombian riders enter the highest level of the sport, Henao will likely remain the focus of the Colombian media. The young man from Rio Abajo has already accomplished so much, that his potential to do even more seems obvious.

But while dreams of far-off places like Paris-Roubaix swirl around his head, Henao’s biggest dream is much closer to home. Regardless of how he performs during the next season, regardless of whether or not he ever makes it to the velodrome in Roubaix (or even the starting line in Compiègne), his biggest objective is already about to become a reality.

His father Ómar is set to retire from his job as a night watchman, thanks in great part to his son. Henao is proud of this victory, and he knows it’s one that will never come up in his palmarès, no matter how long any of his adversaries look for it on the internet.

Originally printed in Road Magazine

Suggested reading:

Choosing to Forego Revenge, and Looking to the Future Instead. An Interview with Rigoberto Urán.

Sharing bikes, and getting by with very little. An interview with Santiago Botero, director of Gobernacion De Antioquia-Indeportes Antioquia.

Missing friends, family, and mom's cooking. An interview with Andres Diaz and Carlos Alzate of Team Exergy