Henao at his final Paris-Nice. (Photo VK/PN/Cor Vos)

Where did Sergio Henao go? Turns out, Arkansas

After a decade in the WorldTour – racing grand tours and winning Paris-Nice – the recently-retired Colombian is back on the bike.

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Colombian Sergio Henao announced his retirement just a few months ago, after Team Qhubeka – Nexthash folded last December. Henao had spent nine seasons racing in the WorldTour, winning multiple national road championships at home, winning Paris-Nice in 2017 by two seconds ahead of Alberto Contador, and being part of the 2016 winning Tour de France squad with Team Sky. 

At 34 years of age – despite his long list of accolades at Team Sky, and after finishing 21st in the Tour last season – Henao was left without a contract. He then made the difficult announcement that he would retire in March of this year, losing hope that a return to the World Tour would be possible. 

So when his name appeared on the start list at Walmart’s Joe Martin Stage Race, many doubted it was indeed the former WorldTour rider. But sure enough, it was the Sergio Henao, racing for a small team out of Puerto Rico – Emanuel Ibarry & 2nd Bike Team. He would go on to finish 4th on GC.

CyclingTips caught up with Henao in Arkansas to chat about his return to racing, his plans for the future, and how he sees the WorldTour and his former teammates ahead of the upcoming Tour de France. 

How do you see the WorldTour these last couple of years? 

Cycling has really changed in Europe. I raced a few years with Tadej Pogačar, and I saw his talent and class, he keeps things under control. He’s young, and doesn’t have a lot of experience but you can see his strength. Looking back, it’s the same with Egan Bernal also, and other riders who are so young but winning already. Cycling has really changed a lot. 

Pogačar is a strong and level-headed rider – there are a lot of things he needs to learn about his body, but he has already demonstrated how professional he is, and there is no doubt that he will garner many more titles. To be so young and manage the pressure Pogačar is under, having won a Tour and then returning to win another with all that pressure with such ease, I think it’s a talent that is rare in the world. 

He is a young man that is so focused on what he wants, and so we will have to wait and see. He, along with these other young riders, arrive with another chip – more prepared, better trained, they’re more structured, and focused.  They will continue to grow, and enjoy the big races.

You know Egan as well. Following his accident, he looks very good considering what he went through. Do you think he will be able to return to the level that he was at? 

With regards to Egan, before anything it’s about him as a person. It seems that he’s come out of it okay, he’s returning to training and so we will see how his recovery goes as he begins to ride his bike again – if he’s riding with pain or other issues that bother him, the important thing is not to put pressure on him. These things take time. He’s young and still has his whole career ahead of him. It’s not about if he returns to competition, but first it has to be 100% about his recovery. It’s important not to put pressure on him otherwise he won’t be able to recover well. He’s young and has many races ahead of him, many more Tours, Vueltas, Giros, so the important thing is that he recovers. 

I was also a teammate of his for a year, when he first signed with Sky. We were able to race together, I also saw his class, his style, he’s very intelligent and has many levels, the most I have seen. When I shared the team with him,  I thought he could be the Colombian rider to win the Tour de France, and give Colombia our first Tour. He didn’t take long to demonstrate it as he won only a few years after becoming pro. 

He of course now has to face the Slovenians like Roglič and Pogačar who are very strong, especially in the TT. But, I have faith that Egan will continue winning titles. 

Henao was just outside the top 20 at the 2021 Tour de France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Speaking of your own career, were you happy to return to Colombia? Did you consider staying in Europe to try and return to the WorldTour? 

To be honest, I didn’t want to retire. After Qhubeka folded I looked for other opportunities with other teams after the Tour, but it wasn’t to be. I had good results last season, I was happy with the team – being able to return to the Grand Tours, racing with my teammates – but when the team does not continue as they said … looking for a team now at 34 years old, I’m not the same level that I was at 25. Sure, it’s also hard to secure a contract when teams are focused on signing younger riders like we are seeing – as young as 18, 19 years of age – and then winning stages at the Tour as is the case with Pogačar. 

Sure, I have more experience as a veteran; the endurance older athletes have developed over the years is also something that the younger riders lack a bit. We see Valverde who is still racing at 40 years of age, at the level that he’s racing, is also something special that he has when we see riders older than 35. In my case, I wanted to continue racing but nothing came out of it. So, I think it was the time to leave it. 

It was hard, because it’s a way of life. At the same time, sometimes I felt that I didn’t want to do it anymore but when you are forced to stop due to a team’s folding so you aren’t able to enjoy your final years … It wasn’t something that I had planned. I returned to Colombia, starting my new life. Now I’m here in the United States with this team with these guys, with the invitation of Juan Esteban.

It’s an opportunity to share the experiences you’ve had racing in Europe with the younger riders. 

Sure, racing with the guys on this team who are so humble, and alongside the riders here in America. I am able to show them a little of what I learned, how I was able to improve, to help them find those doors in their sporting career. That’s also what I was able to have and that’s why I’m here. 

So I’m here with this small team, there is no pressure. I accept it because it’s like when I was first starting in Colombia we were like this. It’s also more than that, we have only one massage therapist for eight, we cook, we clean. Juan invited me, he wanted me to race with them and so I thought why not. I’ll go for the month to the United States to train, to compete, but without any pressure – only to enjoy the training, I had only been training twice a week. Nairo [Quintana] invited me to train with him, but I told him, “no, don’t worry.” But I continued being active, training in the gym, and training several times a week. 

I come here and I enjoy it because I know how the racing is here. I raced Utah, California, and Colorado – I loved the American races. This is where the doors opened for me to go to Europe. I always had fun, it was less pressure, less stress racing here than it was in Europe. This month I’m here with the guys, to train, to get to know them, and so here we are. 

I’ll be here for a month, and then I’ll go back with my family and I’ll come back in August. I live in Medellín, in Rionegro. So I’m enjoying my family, racing here a bit, and then going back home and training. 

Henao was part of the 2017 Tour de France-winning team (to the right of Chris Froome). (Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

Road racing in the US has been suffering – we’ve lost quite a lot of stage races, with a lot of teams focused now on crit racing. How important is stage racing in gaining experience in order to make it to Europe? 

Stage racing is very important. I understand crit racing for Americans is a spectacular fiesta. But if the United States wants to continue having riders like Tejay van Garderen and others, you need to have stage races. I have noticed the country has lost a lot of teams because of this, races have been lost like Utah, California, and Colorado, races that were very good. 

For the calendar, it’s a pity to have lost those sponsors, and then it kills teams, we lose riders. I understand the crits can be more spectacular, but it can also be profitable for the riders because of the money they provide, but stage racing needs to be part of the American calendar, like we saw with Utah and Colorado and other big races. It’s good that they return because it’s important for riders to have those opportunities. There have been many good American riders that rose during that time, but I think losing these great stage races is part of the reason we aren’t seeing more Americans and so I hope they are able to return.  

Brandon McNulty right now on UAE, and Sepp Kuss [Jumbo-Visma] – both are very strong riders, they need to have stage races. I forgot they had both come out of these races. Without these types of races it’s going to be very difficult for teams and riders in North America to be noticed by Europe. 

How do you see cycling in Colombia since returning back home? 

Colombia continues to grow, even though I just recently got back. Just the same, the talent will continue to grow, to gain the confidence in order to have the possibility to reach Europe. They continue to learn by example from riders like Rigoberto, Nairo, myself, and what other riders have done, like Egan and Sergio Higuita, I think it’s a big motivation for them. Who knows if we will see another Egan or Nairo but either way, the juniors continue to grow. We will see with time what opportunities lie ahead. 

Hopefully the Tour of Colombia will return next year. It was [paused] partly due to the pandemic but also economically, but we expect it will return. It’s a race that really exemplifies Colombia, but it’s also a great opportunity for the up and coming riders to move up to a team at a higher level. 

Henao in Colombian national champion colours at the 2018 Vuelta a España. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

There is a lot of talent in Latin America, but the problem is that there aren’t a lot of races. We lost the Vuelta Mexico, we have the Vuelta Guatemala, but like I told you, apart from what we have in Colombia and here in North America, another part is the organization and level of competition. If you go to the Vuelta Guatemala you won’t see the same level of competition that you see in Colombia, or when you come to the US and see more Pro Continental teams, or  WorldTour teams, that’s what helps you improve and move up. It’s the same without stage racing here, they will have the chance to go to Guatemala or Colombia, but it won’t be the same level or opportunity to grow as a team or as an athlete, to see where you stand in order to make it to Europe. 

Have you thought about what you want to do after you stop racing? 

No, right now I am just enjoying my time. I would like to continue racing for a few more years but I’m not really thinking about going back to the top level, there’s more stress and pressure. Now, I’m relaxed, enjoying my family. I’m thinking about things around cycling, like commentating, or maybe a cycling podcast or maybe as a reporter. I would like that, but more from the perspective about my experiences in order to be able to share with the people, all I was able to experience and the pressures I was under as an athlete, and my life in this sport. 

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