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José Rujano – the pint-sized Venezuelan climber who’s struggled to make an impact since his 2005 third place at the Giro d’Italia – insists he still has it.
Rujano will be back in Europe this season with Italian squad ISD-Neri and promises to make the most of yet another opportunity to prove he’s more than a flash in the pan.
Rujano’s top goal will be the Giro, where he hopes to regain the spark that made him one of the most talked about pure climbers of his generation.
“I will not go to the Giro just to race, no. I will fight to be among the top three,” Rujano said in an interview in his native Venezuela. “I want to win it. Now I am a lot more mature, I know what I have to do. And the most important thing is that ISD-Neri has accepted that my preparation be the same as what I did in 2005.”
Rujano, 28 next month, has failed to live up to expectations since his breakout 2005 Giro performance.
That year, riding for the colors of team manager Gianni Savio at Colombia-Selle Italia, Rujano nearly rode away with the pink jersey. His searing attacks in the mountains had some pundits comparing him to a South American Pantani and ended up with third, a stage victory in an epic day to Sestriere and the climber’s jersey.
Rujano, however, couldn’t manage his success very well.
He quickly fell foul with his mentor Savio in a bitter salary quarrel and then failed to make an impact with a high-profile move to Quick Step for the 2006 Tour de France.
The Belgian outfit quickly lost patience and a switch to the doomed Unibet.com in 2007 saw Rujano making few headlines.
In 2008, Rujano struggled to gain traction at Caisse d’Epargne and retreated to a South American team last season, where he quickly proved he can still be a factor, becoming just the third foreign rider to win the Vuelta a Colombia and claiming Vuelta a Táchira for the third time in six years.
Now acting as his own manager, Rujano said he’s hoping to make the most of yet another shot at glory in Europe.
With ISD-Neri, he will start his season with the Táchira race later this month (Jan. 13-24) before traveling to the Tour of Malaysia in February.
Despite the ups and downs of his career, Rujano certainly hasn’t lost his self-confidence.
“I consider myself the third-best climber in the world right now, behind the Spanish riders Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodríguez,” he said. “I don’t believe that (Lance) Armstrong and Andy Schleck are natural climbers. Of course, they are very good in the mountains, but not with the capacity of a pure climber. Someone once said, and with good reason, ‘I want to see Rujano alongside Armstrong and Schleck.’ He’d beat them.”
Before he can beat them, however, Rujano needs to get back in the game.