Like a kid on a bike for the first time, or a baby making its first steps – that’s how Sergio Henao (Sky) describes the feeling of returning to cycling at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali in March this year. Over four months later, on the queen stage of the Tour de Pologne, the Colombian claimed his first win since his annus horribilis of 2014 – a victory that was met not so much by youthful exuberance as the rather more mature feeling of closure, of relief at being able to consign the trials of the previous year and the accompanying self-doubt definitively to the past.
Henao was suspended by Team Sky early in 2014 after irregularities were noted in his blood values and he spent months undergoing independent testing to help build a picture of how altitude natives respond when switching between prolonged periods at sea level and altitude. He was cleared to return to racing but not without a knock to his reputation and not without a three-month period away from competition.
The 27-year-old made his return at the Tour de Suisse but then came another, more crushing blow. Out for a reconnaissance ride of the time trial stage, he collided with a car and was left with a fractured kneecap. It was an injury that in the end kept him out of action for nearly a year but it was one that threw his whole career into jeopardy.
“The reality was that there was a possibility I wouldn’t be able to return to cycling,” Henao said as he sat down with Cyclingnews in a hotel in Bukowina Tatrzanska, Poland, after his stage win.
“When you’re going through that rehabilitation process, a lot of things go through your head; how will the legs be when will I return? Will I ever get back to the same level as before? There were times when I wondered if it was worth returning to cycling and if I returned then would I return to winning, to being up there in races.”
Henao draws comparisons between the two unfortunate episodes in that they both forced a split from cycling, which he found extremely difficult, given his enjoyment of all aspects of his profession. However, while the nucleus may be the same, the two were different in nature and if anything the issue with the blood values had an even more paralysing effect.
“That one was out of my hands really whereas my injury depended on me, my work, my mentality, my resolve to get the best out of my rehabilitation,” he acknowledges. “It’s the wait, not knowing when you’ll be able to compete again.
“Also people point the finger at you, after so many bad years in cycling people are bitter. People have very bad thoughts without having any proof or without understanding the situation. One of the most difficult things was that it damaged my image. I tried not to attach too much importance to it – I could remain calm knowing it was being investigated, and that I had nothing to hide.”
Coming so soon after the first leave of absence, Henao concedes that the question marks that plagued the injury and rehabilitation periods could at times become consuming, that the good feelings were shadowed by moments of depression and doubt. He counts himself lucky that he was able to rely on such a solid support network, from the whole of the Team Sky staff to his family, friends and those at his European base of Pamplona.
“They’re the people that made it possible for me to overcome my difficulties,” he says, while reserving a special note of gratitude to his girlfriend, Carolina, a physiotherapist whose support was as much emotional as it was physical. “She rehabilitated me, she lifted my morale – she was an incredibly important person for me.”
Henao worked tirelessly in the gym for months to ensure that he would be in the best possible shape to return to cycling. If there were question marks over his future in the sport, they were forced upon him by external circumstances rather than coming from within.
“From a medical point of view it was complicated situation, but he was never thinking about quitting cycling – from day one he was like ‘I’m going to be back on the bike as soon as possible’,” Sky directeur sportif Dario Cioni told Cyclingnews in Poland.
“He must have been through some really bad moments but he’s been incredible, how focused he was coming back to racing. For everyone, it was emotional to see him come back in Coppi e Bartali, he was super happy to be back with a number on the back, again, ahead of expectations because for sure we didn’t think he’d be able to race in March.”
A hugely encouraging return to racing
Henao did make an early return but what was more surprising was the swiftness with which fears that had clouded over him began to dissipate. He was third overall at the Vuelta al País Vasco in early April, recorded two top-ten finishes in the Ardennes Classics, and was then third overall at the Tour of California, suggesting that he would indeed be able to return to his former level.
“I was so happy to be back, I felt like when kid gets on a bike for the first time or a baby makes its first steps. I was happy to be back racing, and to be back to quite a high level because the knee responded and I was in good shape, had prepared well with lots of drive. It was something really special and uplifting,” Henao explained.
Those showings were hugely encouraging but when he surged clear on the summit finish of the queen stage of the Tour de Pologne on Friday, we were perhaps provided with definitive proof that Henao is back. Even if he lost his leader’s jersey on the following day’s time trial, the stage win seemed to hold particular significance – “It’s the first victory of his second cycling career,” as Cioni put it.
“The victory [in Poland] gives me a lot of confidence going forward,” said Henao himself. “I was going well in the other races – I was at a high level but I was just lacking that victory, which is important. It gives tranquillity, a great deal of security and confidence for what’s ahead.”
Next up is the Vuelta a España, which will be the Colombian’s first Grand Tour since the comeback and he can now approach it with the freedom and verve afforded by a clear head. Given that he should have been moving into his peak years last year and this, it gives him the opportunity to re-explore his potential in slightly less pressurised circumstances.
“The Vuelta is my next major goal. We’re waiting to see what Chris [Froome] and Geraint [Thomas] do, so I don’t know what role I’ll have, but whether it’s working for someone else or pursuing my own possibilities, it’s about giving 100 per cent in whatever situation.
“I rode the Vuelta as leader in 2013 and I wasn’t at the level needed. I’ll give it my best and whether it’s glory or despair, just being there over a three-week tour will be good, with such great rivals that will be there. That would be good for me, to see if I’m strong enough yet to fight and be up there in a three-week tour.”
Whatever happens in Spain, the ghosts of 2014 seem to have been laid to rest and Henao can start to get excited about what he might go on to achieve, all the while thankful for simply being able to race his bike again.