After an absence of more than six months, Darwin Atapuma is back pinning on race numbers this week at the Tour of Oman, threading the pins through the red jersey of Cofidis, in which he hopes he can reignite his career after a rough couple of seasons.
In 2016, the Colombian climber finished ninth overall at the Giro d’Italia, with two podium finishes in mountain stages and also at the Vuelta a España later in the year. However, despite finishing second on the Col d’Izoard at the Tour de France in 2017, he has slumped since, swapping BMC Racing for UAE Team Emirates for 2019.
The 2018 season was particularly anonymous, even though he finished both the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. Before coming to Oman, he hadn’t raced since rolling into Paris on the last day of the Tour.
“In truth, it wasn’t good. I was quite inconsistent. It was quite a big drop, because of a health problem that we didn’t know about, and that meant the two years at UAE weren’t very good at all,” Atapuma told Cyclingnews in Oman.
“It was a problem that, in truth, didn’t affect me too much physically, but when I was racing, when you have to dig in and go deep, something was lacking, and that’s what was happening to me for a long time.
Atapuma insists he has got to the bottom of the problems and has had a solid block of winter training under his belt that should allow him to move through the gears in the coming months.
“We have now found the reason and this year we are going about correcting it little by little. There’s still something lacking, but I think I’m on the right path,” he said. “This year we’ve started on the right foot, doing things well, training well. The main thing is that the team puts confidence in me to return to my level.”
In joining Cofidis, the 31-year-old Atapuma, who arrived in the WorldTour in 2014 with BMC, has dropped down to Professional Continental level and joined a largely French set-up, even if there is a small Spanish contingent.
Cofidis have a limited top-level race programme compared to UAE Team Emirates but they are one of the second-division teams with the greatest access to WorldTour races, including both the Tour de France and Vuelta a España. The team is based around Nacer Bouhanni and Christophe Laporte for the sprints, Jesus Herrada for stage races, and in Atapuma, boss Cedric Vasseur believes that he has rounded out his squad with a top-class pure climber.
“I’m happy to be here in this new team, and happy to be here in Oman, because I’ve not raced since the Tour last year. My hopes are high,” Atapuma said.
“It’s not a WorldTour team and they’re a bit smaller but they have the mentality, the structures, and the motivation of a WorldTour team, so there’s not too much difference at all. The important thing is that they have placed their trust in me to do well.”
Atapuma says he’s feeling good in Oman but won’t require a result to prove he’s on his way back. The summit finish on Green Mountain obviously suits him, but he’ll be working to tee-up Herrada, who was fourth overall last year.
His main objectives will come later in the season, at the Tour and Vuelta, where he will once again be out for stage wins in the mountains. He has come close on several occasions, trying relentlessly to get into breaks on the mountain stages but, until now, victory has proved elusive.
“This year, my number one priority is to get back to my old level, and all being well there, win a stage at the Tour de France,” Atapuma said.
“I hope I can be at the Tour and the Vuelta as well, depending on my performances. I’ve got high hopes. My form is growing each day, despite not having raced since the Tour de France last year. Up to now, I’m feeling really good and I’m just happy to be back racing in Oman.
“The motivation has never gone away. For me, it would be beautiful to win in the Tour, or in the Vuelta. In all three Grand Tours I’ve always been second and third, second and third, and I hope I can overcome that barrier and that this year will be the one in which I confirm that I can win.”