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‘Little lion’ Companioni roars into early season races

This week at Redlands Bicycle Classic, the Cuban will be the GC leader after working as a domestique for several years.

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Ruben Companioni muscled his way to his first overall win at Joe Martin Stage Race one month ago, his best victory to date. The “Leoncito,” a nickname given him in Cuba, is now in his second season racing with Holowesko-Citadel. And after working as a domestique for several years, the Cuban finds himself in a position to ride as the team’s leader on the domestic circuit.

“Ruben has been a guy that a lot of teams don’t think about,” Thomas Craven said, director for Holowesko. “He fits perfectly on our team as everyone on our team can win a race. I like to have a team of weapons; Ruben is a freaking missile.”

After winning Joe Martin, a local artist and friend in Miami, Roel Crespo, surprised Companioni with a special Giro helmet painted with a lion on the top.

Ruben Companioli got a special helmet from a fan, Miami artist Roel Crespo. Photo courtesy Ruben Companioli

“It was a gift, I had no idea he was making it until I received a video of the artwork yesterday,” the 27-year-old said, smiling. “In Cuba my dad was a cyclist and they would call him the ‘Lion.’ When I began racing they nicknamed me the ‘Leoncito,’ after him.”

Companioni began his career with Team Jamis, back in 2012, supporting Luis Amaran and Janier Acevedo. Growing up in Cuba, he had played baseball for a short period, before he discovered his love of cycling at the age of 13. Following in his father’s footsteps, he soon began racing with the national team, traveling around the world to compete.

“When I was racing with the national team, I was doing some national track events and also circuit races,” Companioni said. “We would travel to various countries, and in the last year I was with them, we went to a race in Canada. It was there that I decided I wanted to come to the United States. I defected here in June of 2012.”

Companioni secured immigration papers through a foreign policy initiative during the Obama administration that allowed automatic allowance to stay for those fleeing Cuba. Thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, after having been in the States for one year, Cuban immigrants were then granted permanent residency. The policy ended in January 2017.

“I went back to Cuba for the first time last December,” Companioni said. “It had been five years since I had visited. When I came to the United States, all I had to do was tell them that I was from Cuba, and they helped me. My immediate family is here as well, in Miami.”

Companioni connected with compatriot Luis Amaran, who helped him get a contract with Team Jamis soon after arriving.

Since then, Companioni proved his worth as an all-rounder. He sprints well but also proved at Redlands that he can handle tough climbs, winning stage 1 on the Highland circuit in 2016. He remembers that the win was a breakthrough result in his young career.

“The stage win was my best result up to that time,” Companioni added. “We lost the jersey that year [2016], but with each win, it gives you satisfaction after all the sacrifice you’ve given in training.”

After Jamis disbanded at the end of 2016, Companioni signed with Holowesko-Citadel. Though he speaks very little English, he has assimilated well into the program.

“The team here is like family, everything functions so well,” Companioni said. “We all know what we need to do. It has also impressed me because they give you the freedom and trust you to know what to do and when to do it. If I prefer to go to Colombia to train, it’s not a problem.”

Companioni spends the winters and breaks throughout the season, in Colombia training with former teammate, Janier Acevedo.

“I wanted to get to know Colombia and train over there,” he said. “I went and loved it! So, I go now before the season begins, and for example before the Tour of Utah or another race where I want to race well. Now I have an apartment that I rent, my girlfriend is Colombian, so I am happy. It’s a beautiful country.”

This season, Holowesko moved up to the Pro Continental level, securing an invitation to the Amgen Tour of California and allowing the team opportunities to race overseas. The team also hired Bobby Julich as its performance director. Julich began coaching Companioni and after a few months, things are going well.

“I decided to start training with him after seeing him working with several of the guys,” Companioni says. “Bobby is very professional, he educates us on what we should eat, he’ll send us specific workouts, and I believe in what he has told me, so far it’s producing good results.”

Companioni was originally scheduled to race with the team in Europe, but due to visa problems was forced to remain stateside.

“I still have a Cuban passport so it’s a little complication for me to obtain the visa to travel,” Companioni explains. “So, the decision was made to race here instead. I can travel to Canada without a problem, but there are a few countries where it’s a little complicated. Soon, I will be able to start the process to become an American. Once I am an American citizen, I will be able to travel.”

The decision proved to be a successful one. The season kicked off well for him with the Alabama Classic, finishing third at the Sunny King Crit, and winning the Piedmont Road Race.

“The principle objective for the team is California, as everyone knows,” Companioni said. “Before the season began, the team asked me what race I would like to win this season, I told them Redlands. I didn’t think of Joe Martin.”

Redlands champion and Holowesko teammate, TJ Eisenhart, spent his spring in Europe racing and is not on the squad this week in California. The GC battle may be a short one after the opening time trial at Big Bear was forced to cancel due to inclement weather, leaving it to stage 2 on Oak Glen. Holowesko has several options this week, though Companioni remains their top contender.

“I don’t feel the pressure that I am the leader, nor do I want that pressure,” Companioni said. “TJ [Eisenhart] is simply not at the race, so I have a little more liberty to try and escape. If I feel good and things turn out well like Joe Martin, then sure. But, we have several riders that any one of us can be the leader. We’ll see who feels better and how things turn out.”

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