Photography: George Marshall | Words: Harry Dowdney
At a restaurant nestled in the green hills above Bilbao, Team Sky’s Sergio Henao is trying to pay the whole bill for a lunch with his Spanish team mates. His act of generosity comes after winning the queen stage of the Tour of Poland, a victory set up by typically strong teamwork by the men in black and blue. ‘You don’t need to do that, you only won a stage not the whole race!’ comes the reply, with such light-hearted joshing a fine example of the warm relationship between Henao and Xabier Zandio, David López and Mikel Nieve.
Returning home from Krakow after a successful week’s work, this Spanish-speaking contingent of Team Sky enjoyed a meal together with their families, with Rapha generously invited along too, to discuss their homeland – adopted, in the case of Colombian Henao – and to model Rapha’s Team Sky Spanish Country Jersey ahead of the upcoming Vuelta a España.
“Spain has a great tradition in cycling,” says Zandio, a 38-year-old domestique with a justified reputation of great kindness and charisma. “But there have been better years, in terms of support,” he concludes, prompting an animated discussion with fellow helper López, a Bilbao local with a dry sense of humour. “In terms of fans, I think cycling is as popular as ever, although there are perhaps less people that ride these days,” says López. “Having said that, in certain areas, such as here in the Basque country, you’ll always see people out on their bikes.” Zandio agrees, but laments the reduced numbers of young Spanish professionals nowadays: “economically, there aren’t as many opportunities.”
“In terms of fans, I think cycling is as popular as ever in Spain, although there are perhaps less people that ride these days,”
Talented climber Nieve, 31, is from the Basque Country and, like López, stays near home when not racing. Similarly, Pamplona resident Zandio has stayed in his hometown, which is where Colombian Henao also settled when coming to Europe for the first time in 2012. They, along with Sergio’s young cousin Sebastian who also rides with the team, and a number of back room staff, form a growing core of Spanish speakers at Team Sky. “We are the ‘Latin Mafia’,” jokes Zandio. Since their inception in 2010, the team have used the Balearic Islands as a winter training base each year and the 2011 Vuelta was the scene of Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome’s first ever Grand Tour podiums. The country could well be considered a second home for the team, after Manchester, England.
When questioned on the best that Spain has to offer cyclists, the replies are varied, although non-native Henao is probably best placed to answer: “The kindness of the people, the charisma that the Spanish have, the food… you feel at home here.” ‘Home’ is the byword of the day, not surprising given the reputation of the Spanish and Colombians to stay close to their families if at all possible. “My riding preferences are always what’s nearest to home,” says Nieve. “But in the winter the weather isn’t so great here and you have to go down south.” Zandio and Henao are equally happy with their riding options in the region of Navarra, both mentioning the Col d’Izpéguy as a training climb favourite.
Non-native Henao is probably best placed to answer: “The kindness of the people, the charisma that the Spanish have, the food… you feel at home here.”
With this year’s Vuelta just over a week away, and each of the quartet no doubt hoping to make Team Sky’s competitive selection of nine riders taking part, talk turns to Spain’s Grand Tour. “The Vuelta is more evenly competed than the other Grand Tours. We saw Contador so far ahead at the Giro, for example. In Spain, there are many riders contesting it right until the end,” says López. “In the last few years there has been a trend for the stages to be shorter and much more nervous,” says Zandio, to which Henao agrees, putting it down to the ever-increasing number of stage finishes on climbs.
This year’s race is set for another almighty battle between Froome’s Team Sky and Nairo Quintana’s Movistar – Round Two after the Tour in July. And when Team Sky’s Vuelta selection is finalized, if any of Henao, López, Zandio or Nieve are included, it won’t be a surprise. With local knowledge, charisma and strong legs each of them, the ‘Latin Mafia’ are an asset to any team.
“It makes people stop and stare, the scar on my knee. But returning to racing after such a complicated injury [Sergio fractured his kneecap in June last year] has made me so happy. Of course, there were doubts during my recovery, many of them, and often. You worry you might not return to the same level as before, but with faith in hard work, you get there.
I’m really happy to win the stage in Poland. Winning is always very difficult and this year I have often been second, or third – there or thereabouts but not on the top step. To lift my hands up… it made me so happy to feel the magic of victory again.
I am very proud to be part of such a strong generation of Colombians writing a new story in cycling. Our country has always had a good name in the sport but there was a short time where we weren’t so present in Europe – not for lack of quality, but maybe for fear of coming here and facing the cold, the loneliness, etc.
Generally, us Colombians are ‘glued’ to our families, to our friends and it is hard for us to be separated. But if you’re following a dream then you just go after it. To have the opportunity to be in a team like this, and live in a place like Spain – which is most similar to our culture, food, weather and even our terrain – helps. Several Colombians, like Santiago Botero and Mauricio Soler, opened the gates for us to come and live and compete in Europe.
“To lift my hands up… it made me so happy to feel the magic of victory again.”
I live in Pamplona near to Xabi [Zandio]. He has been important to all of the foreign cyclists who have come to live in the region. Aside from being an excellent worker and helper for his leaders he has a huge heart and has been a great friend to me.
I think that the Vuelta is my next main objective. Returning to a three-week race after being out for so much of last year will be tough but it’s in a country that I’m living in, and with the culture that Spain has, makes me very excited to do it. Being in good form is an extra bonus.”
“My career in cycling began with my brother, who used to ride a lot. He had some problems and stopped so the bike was lying around the house and I picked it up. Little by little I started riding, joined a club and that was that… to sum it up!
“For Spanish riders, it is always difficult to go and ride abroad because there isn’t a great trend of us doing it.”
In 2007, I took a big jump from Euskaltel to Caisse d’Epargne [now Movistar]. They had just won the Tour with Óscar Pereiro and were always at the front of the big races, with a very strong team. For me it was important to be in the best team of Spain at the time. I spent six good years with them, above all because there were several experienced riders on the team like Vicente García and Pablo Lastras who really taught me how to be a good helper. I learnt a lot.
Winning a stage at the Vuelta in 2010 was probably the best moment of my career. It was unexpected, too - a really hard stage with a very strong group of riders in the breakaway. Winning the Vuelta overall with Alejandro Valverde in 2009 and the Tour with Chris Froome in 2013 were also great moments. You spend so many months preparing for them, and when you get the result it is very special. Both Alejandro and Chris are very appreciative of the work you do for them. When we arrived in Paris, Chris wanted to share his happiness with us. He wanted us all to know that the team was very important to him.
I joined Team Sky in 2013. Xabi [Zandio], who I rode with at Caisse d’Epargne, was there already and he spoke very well of the set up to me. For Spanish riders, it is always difficult to go and ride abroad because there isn’t a great trend of us doing it. But we’re starting to ride more in foreign teams now and they value our work, which motivates other young guys to go out too. It’s always hard to take the decision to change, but it’s great to have another experience and the truth is that I’m very happy at Sky.”
“I come from a family of sportsmen and women: one of my brothers plays pelota [a court-based sport from the Basque country] professionally, another is a football player and my sister plays basketball. I am the youngest of six siblings, and after realising that football wasn’t my thing, started riding my bike quite seriously from the age of 13. I’m 38 now and still pedalling!
I am from Pamplona, which is where Miguel Indurain comes from. He inspired many kids of my age to pick up the bike and was a big hero of mine. The team I used to ride for, Banesto, was based there, so lots of riders would come to live in the area and I have always made friends with them, showing them around. I’ve been called the ‘Navarran Sherpa’ before for this reason.
“Yes of course there has been a great change in the sport, but year on year you aren’t so conscious of it.”
I have been a professional for fifteen years and I still love it. When I think to the start, yes of course there has been a great change in the sport, but year on year you aren’t so conscious of it. Cycling is a passion but sometimes you do it too much. It’s hard, you’re tired and you have to keep riding. Many times it’s a job and to keep on progressing you truly have to love it. I’ll definitely keep riding after I finish my career though. More slowly, and less kilometres, but I will keep riding for sure.”
“When the Euskaltel team closed in 2013 it was rather sad, because cycling is so strong in the region.”
“I am from a small town here in the Basque Country and rode my whole career in teams from the region until joining Sky. When the Euskaltel team closed in 2013 it was rather sad, because cycling is so strong here. The fans had a team to support and the local riders a team to race for. It has made things more difficult for the young amateurs looking to make that step up because there aren’t so many opportunities, which I think is a shame. Hopefully the junior team that still exists can find more support soon.
I joined Team Sky afterwards. For me, it was very gratifying for a team like them to notice and sign me. It was really nice that they could put confidence in me. At the start it was a big change because Euskaltel was quite small, like a family. Sky is much bigger and there are people from all over the world, but I think it’s great that I’m learning from other cultures, new languages. You open up more to the world and it has gone well for me so far.
I have a nickname, which I didn’t really understand, at the start: ‘Frosty’. I guess it’s because my surname ‘nieve’ means snow in Spanish and there’s a snowman with that name…”