MONTPELLIER, France (AFP) — When Sergio Henao arrived in Europe to pursue his professional cycling career, he shared a house with fellow Colombian Nairo Quintana.
Now, the Sky rider is helping his compatriot’s main rival Chris Froome in the Briton’s quest for a third Tour de France title.
Henao was 24, with Quintana just 22, when the pair embarked in Pamplona, Spain, to start riding the European circuit.
Quintana had joined Movistar, while Henao signed for Sky.
“When we both arrived in Europe in 2012 we had the opportunity to live in Pamplona in the same house,” Henao told AFP.
“We lived for two years — training together, riding the same races — in the same place.”
Even back then, Henao noticed that Quintana had something special.
“Already then you could see he was a very ambitious youngster with a lot of desire to be different and not just a normal Colombian rider in Europe,” said Henao of his friend.
“He wanted to take chances — look where he is now, one of the best riders in the world.”
Despite his talent Henao admitted he wasn’t sure Quintana would be able one day to fight for the sport’s biggest prize — the Tour de France.
“You could see he had potential and already he demonstrated that,” said Henao. “But even arriving in Europe and having such early success, gaining the confidence of a team like Movistar, I don’t know.
“The truth is, the super-talented riders coming from his region of Boyacá, you get one like him only every 50 years.”
A taste of home
Another Colombian, Rigoberto Urán, also came to stay in the apartment. He was already riding with Sky alongside Henao but would leave that team after the 2013 season in a bid to become a team leader rather than a domestique.
The apartment gave the riders a little taste of home.
“Sometimes we would cook Colombian: frijoles (beans), arepa paisa (a type of bread), caldo boyacense (broth from Quintana’s region) … things like that,” added Henao.
Even though Quintana was riding for a rival team to his two housemates, the three Colombians became very close.
“We were like a family. We’re like brothers. Everything went well in the house,” said Quintana.
“And in the races, we did what our teams told us. That’s our job.
“We separated work and friendship. In the house everything was great, like a family.”
With Quintana and Froome going head-to-head in Henao’s first Tour participation, one might think that friendship would be put to the test.
But Henao insists it is as strong as ever.
“He has his job and I have mine. He has the ambition of winning the Tour and obviously he’s been very close,” added Henao of Quintana, twice runner-up to Froome at this race in 2013 and 2015.
“All Colombians are dreaming of this [Quintana winning the Tour]. You could say that my objective here is to prevent him from winning so Froome can do so, but each of us is doing his job very well.”
Whoever wins the Tour, Henao and Quintana will remain close friends.
And next month they will even have the opportunity to ride together, on the same team, for their country at the Olympics in Rio.
The road race at the Games is hilly and with strong climbers like Quintana, Henao and Uran, Colombia will be among the favourites.