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Jarlinson Pantano, Contador’s new best friend

Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador has a new best friend and an even better ally. His name is Jarlinson Pantano. The 28-year-old Colombian climber has emerged as a valuable new weapon for the veteran Spaniard as he dares to take on Chris Froome and the Team Sky machine in this year’s Tour de France.

In both Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya, Pantano played an integral role in setting up Contador for the decisive mountain climbs. It’s that kind of help that has Contador optimistic about the looming battle awaiting in July.

“All I can say is thanks, thanks, thanks,” Contador gushed at Paris-Nice after Pantano helped blow up the race. “He’s an incredible guy, and we’re really good friends. He will be crucial for me, especially in July.”

Though Contador came up just two seconds short of victory at Paris-Nice and finished second at Catalunya last week, things are looking up for Contador as he pedals toward the Tour.

Why? At Trek, Contador is finding the kind of support he never saw the past few seasons at Tinkoff. As the team backed by the outspoken Russian magnate started to disintegrate, it was every man for himself, with Peter Sagan chasing stage wins and the points jersey, and Rafal Majka chasing mountain jerseys and stage wins. Contador was often left isolated and with little help deep in the mountains. Out-gunned by a team of climbers surrounding Chris Froome at Team Sky, there was little Contador could do during the past few Tours.

That looks to be changing at Trek, where Contador will get support in the mountains he hasn’t seen in years. In addition to Pantano, Contador will be able to count on help from Bauke Mollema, Pete Stetina, and Haimar Zubeldia. Even with the team bringing John Degenkolb to hunt stages during the Tour de France, the squad likely won’t split along the fracture lines seen at Tinkoff.

For Pantano, the chance to ride for Contador is something he is relishing.

“I am very excited to be on the team,” Pantano said at a team camp. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to learn from a rider like Contador. I am looking forward to working for him and learning from him.”

For Pantano, the move to Trek comes at a decisive moment in his promising career. After his breakout 2016 season that included stage victories at the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France (and two more second places), many teams came calling. He chose Trek to be at Contador’s side.

“My role changes at Trek, and now I will be working for Contador,” he said. “But that is something that really motivates me. It’s a big honor to be able to work for a rider like Contador.”

Trek is going all-in with Contador for the Tour. Last year’s GC man Bauke Mollema has humbly stepped aside (at least for 2017), and decided to take on the Giro d’Italia, and will ride the Tour to help Contador. Pantano is doubling down as well, sacrificing his chances to be a leader on another team while taking notes as he watches Contador take on Froome.

“We’ll have a very strong team, and I think we’ll have realistic options to reach our main objective, which is to win the Tour de France,” Pantano said. “And Contador is a rider that I want to learn from for the good of my own future. He has so much more experience than me, and he is truly a team leader. He’s one of the best leaders ever for grand tours, so that’s clearly going to help me for the future.”

Who is Pantano? He’s yet another superb climber coming out of Colombia. This latest wave of climbing talent is surpassing even the legends of the 1980s. Led by Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán, and Esteban Chaves, Pantano is making his presence known. A few years older than Chaves and Quintana, it’s taken Pantano a little longer to find his place in Europe.

“Cycling has really grown in Colombia, and people really follow the sport,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen when a Colombian finally wins the Tour, but the Colombians will go crazy!”

A son of an amateur cyclist from Cali, Pantano raced with Colombia es Pasión from 2007 to 2011 and turned pro with Colombia-Coldeportes, riding with the team from 2012-2014 — an experience that left him frustrated and out of the spotlight. Pantano criticized the former management of the team, which eventually closed without fulfilling its goal of promoting Colombian cycling to the top level in Europe. Like many of his compatriots, he had to find a new home on a European team. His break came with IAM Cycling, which finally gave him freedom to ride for his own results in 2015 and 2016. Last year, he earned the breakout rider award at the Tour de France.

“It was the best year of my career, but that only motivates me to keep working,” he said. “Here at Trek, I will get some chances. The idea is to get better step by step, and hopefully one day be able to challenge for a grand tour.”

This year, he might get his chances at a race like the Tour de Suisse (with Contador likely racing the Critérium du Dauphiné) and again at the Vuelta a España. It all depends on how Contador goes in the Tour. Even at Catalunya, he nearly won the final stage, finishing second to winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar.

And why not? Pantano said he believes he could one day challenge for the yellow jersey. Despite only racing two Tours — he was 19th in both 2015 and 2016 — he believes his best years are ahead of him.

“I believe the right questions isn’t if a Colombian is going to win the Tour, but when,” he said. “Nairo has already shown he can do it. Chaves is very strong. I won’t dare say when it will happen, because Froome is very strong. He only prepares for the Tour, and he’s shown he can win it year after year. Right now, it’s complicated, but one day it will happen.

“Could it be me to be the first Colombian to win the Tour? Well, it’s something I dream of!” he continued. “First, I dream of being in contention for the podium. I’ve demonstrated I can be in the top 10 of a big race [4th at the Tour de Suisse], but I have to keep working and keep learning. I know it’s difficult, but maybe someday.

“That’s why this is team is perfect for me right now. I can learn from Alberto and continue my progression.”

Contador and Pantano are now bosom buddies. Pantano is hoping some of Contador’s winning ways will rub off.

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