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Victory in Paris-Nice will help take the sting out of missing out on an Olympic medal last summer for Sky’s Sergio Henao.
The 29-year-old Colombian withstood a barrage of attacks from Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) on Sunday to win Paris-Nice by the narrowest margin of victory in the race’s history, of just two seconds.
Henao’s long overdue success at Paris-Nice comes after five years of steady, if under-the-radar performances — twice second at the Tour of the Basque Country and 12th in his Tour de France debut last year — that often left him overshadowed by compatriots such as Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves, and Rigoberto Urán. And he’s overcome a racing stop due to an investigation of suspicions about his blood levels (no disciplinary action was taken) as well as a freak crash at the 2014 Tour de Suisse during a time trial recon ride.
His fortunes almost changed last summer in Rio de Janeiro when Henao was in the leading breakaway just minutes from challenging for the gold medal. Disaster struck when Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali overcooked a corner on the final descent, crashing hard and taking out Henao with him. Henao was laid up in a Brazilian hospital with a fractured hip and banged-up ribs.
“That is life! Things happen,” Henao told VeloNews in an interview earlier this season. “There was a moment when it looked like a medal was in the books, but then there was that crash. It was in our hands, and it slipped away. It’s a big dream to be part of the history of cycling in Colombia, to win an Olympic medal. I felt really strong that day. I was there with Nibali on the descent, and maybe we were taking too many risks. When you are in the battle for something so important, you simply give everything you have. Sometimes you don’t consider the dangers.”
Already well into the 2017 racing season, Henao insists he’s forgotten about what happened last August in Rio de Janeiro. After debuting at the Santos Tour Down Under (without any nagging injuries from Rio), Henao won the Colombian national road title in February and then held on to win Paris-Nice.
Up next is a return to the Vuelta al País Vasco (second in 2015 and 2016; third in 2013) and a run at the Ardennes classics. Bolstered by his growing confidence, Henao dreams of winning a monument like Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
In fact, he says that near-miss in Rio is driving him even more for major success in Europe.
“The first month or so after the Olympics, there were all these celebrations for the medal winners on TV, and that hurt a little bit watching all that because we were almost down that mountain and onto the flats,” Henao said. “But all you can do is turn the page. I have to be thankful that the injury wasn’t even worse, and that I could return to the bike without complications. We were racing to win. Sometimes these things happen. You have to look at it in the positive light. I was there fighting for an Olympic medal, and that says a lot about where I am now in my sporting career. Now I can dream to win a Liège or a rainbow jersey. After Rio, I have more confidence.”
Henao is the latest in a long string of a third-wave of riders who have come out of Colombia. This latest generation followed on the heels of Mauricio Soler and Rigoberto Urán, who broke into Europe, and proved the Colombians could join international teams and succeed.
In fact, it was Urán who helped bring Henao to Europe with Team Sky in 2012. Later that season, Urán became a Colombian superstar when he won silver in the Olympic road race in London. Henao was hoping to follow in his footsteps, and everything was going to plan until that one corner in Rio. Henao only shakes his head when he recalls the moment.
“We came into that corner too hot,” Henao explains. “Nibali was up ahead, and I think he was afraid that I was going to be faster in the sprint, and he was really attacking. I was trying to stay on his wheel so he couldn’t get a gap. I didn’t want to let him go, and that corner just ate us up.”
Henao said he bounced off a stone wall and landed on the road. His instinct was to get back on his bike, but he immediately knew his race was over.
“It was a little humid in the shade there, but it was the speed that did us in,” Henao explained. “It was a closed corner, and we were going so fast, around 80kph, and to handle that corner was complicated. I saw Nibali go down, but I was going so fast, and I was so close to him that it was impossible for me to get around him. When I crashed, I remember bouncing off a wall and coming back onto the road. The first thing I thought was to get back on the bike, but I quickly realized it would be impossible to continue.
“My entire body hurt, and later when I was in the hospital, I was very angry,” Henao said. “I knew that I had missed out on a chance on winning an Olympic medal. That stuck with me for a few days, but that is cycling. I knew I had to turn the page as quickly as possible. There will be other opportunities. Maybe Tokyo in 2020. Maybe the world championships. We will keep fighting.”
That fighting spirit paid off with the biggest win of his career at Paris-Nice on Sunday. Henao hopes to keep that momentum going, all the way to the next Olympic Games in 2020.