SAN JUAN, Argentina (VN) — Few thought Gonzalo Najar could win the Vuelta a San Juan last week when Argentina’s biggest stage race began. But doubts vanished after his long 15-kilometer solo attack in the wind to the Alto Colorado summit finish.
That stage win netted the 24-year-old Argentinian national champion the overall lead, which he defended over the following two days. And it earned him a possible ticket to race in Europe, to leave his Continental outfit for a bigger team and bigger races, and it netted him many pages on the internet and in the dailies.
“La corona se queda en casa,” wrote local San Juan newspaper Diario de Cuyo. “The crown remains at home” headline stretched over a photograph of the 5-foot-11 cyclist holding the overall trophy on the podium Sunday night.
He traveled a long road afterward. He comes from Jujuy, 680 miles to the north of San Juan. The small town in the far northwest has more in common with its neighbors Chile, Bolivia, and Paraguay than the international city and capital of Buenos Aires.
This is the “pájaro que comió, voló” or the “bird that flew” said Ciclismo Internacional, quoting a popular phrase with a nod to Najar’s nickname ‘El Cóndor de Jujuy.’
El Condor traveled to Bolivia to race where he “learned to climb a lot and to defend himself in that terrain.” His advantage is that he comes from a town at 1,600 meters “and I can go 60 kilometers nearby to train at 2,500 meters [8,200 feet]. There is much climbing.”
Just like a young hopeful would in the U.S. or even in Europe, as a 13-year-old, Najar participated in neighborhood races and trained with a cycling group three times a week. After high school, he threw himself full-time into the two-wheel trade.
Bolivia was his only team option until Team SEP San Juan came along, a team existing thanks to the San Juan mayor and city employees. They kept investing, bringing in local Argentinian and the former Chilean national coach to direct the team. It is now in the Continental ranks, cycling’s third tier. Its budget is around two million pesos, or $102,000, and the riders like Najar earn around 17,000 pesos — $870 — a month.
Najar’s confidence grew with his win in the national championships last year and of course, with his wins this week ahead of WorldTour cyclists like Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and other WorldTour teams Bahrain-Merida, Movistar, and Lotto-Soudal. Majka has won three stages in the Tour de France and the mountains jersey twice.
In forums and on Twitter, speculation grew that Najar, desperate to impress, might have resorted to illegal substances to win the UCI 2.1-ranked stage race. After all, last year eight local riders tested positive in the Vuelta a Colombia. The thinking went: How else could an unknown local win the race against the established big guns?
“You have to consider that these riders in South America are peaking for these races, here in January and next month in the Oro y Paz,” Bora-Hansgrohe sports director Enrico Poitschke said.
“For the European riders, they are just starting their season. Many like Rafal have yet to even train at altitude. He is going from here to Sierra Nevada in Spain to train. The locals already ride on a different level.”
The race took a step up for 2017, going from 2.2 to 2.1 at the same time the former Tour de San Luis faded. Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema won in 2017.
In 2018, the WorldTour teams left their top stars at home or sent them to other races. Movistar’s Nairo Quintana debuts next month, Mollema decide not to defend his title, UAE Emirates’s Dan Martin and Fabio Aru begin later, and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who would have been San Juan’s biggest name fell sick the morning of the race and could not begin.
Najar’s road cleared and he rode away to victory. Perhaps now the European teams could call him — as they did in the past with Maximiliano Richeze (Quick-Step Floors) and Eduardo Sepulveda (Movistar) — and help him realize more dreams.
“It’d be very nice to ride in Europe but now is the moment to celebrate this victory,” Najar said. “But if an offer comes up, I will see and analyze it, and go for it.
“I don’t know what races that I’d do well in, but for sure as a climber the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia are on my list.”