Cycling Academy's Luis Lemus knows how to make a comeback with panache. The 24-year-old Mexican recently returned from a four-month absence from competition after breaking his leg, but he didn't waste any time throwing himself back into the thick of the action, capping off his return this weekend with his third national road race title.
Lemus added to his 2012 and 2013 titles Sunday in Mazatlán, soloing to the top of the long summit finish by more than a minute and staking a serious claim to what would be his first Olympic berth.
“It was a great sign that the leg is holding and the form is coming back,” Lemus told Cyclingnews Tuesday after returning home from the race. "After two years of not having [the national champion's jersey], you want it more. You know the meaning of it.”
The view from the top of the nationals podium looks good, but Lemus' journey there has been anything but serene.
After riding with US teams Jelly Belly and Airgas-Safeway since 2012, Lemus moved to the Israeli Cycling Academy team in the off-season. The first-ever Israeli pro team has a solidly international roster, and Lemus was looking forward to representing Mexico in races around the world. But that goal came crashing down – literally – in Lemus' first trace of the season, the G.P. Costa degli Etruschi in Italy.
A hard fall left Lemus in the hospital with a broken rib and a broken leg. The fracture to the neck of his left femur just below the connection with the hip was going to require months of healing before he could race again, and Lemus knew he was in for a long haul. Cycling Academy enlisted the help of team friend and former pro Paolo Bettini to look in on Lemus while he was in the hospital, trying to keep his spirits high and tracking his medical care.
It was a month before Lemus could work out on his rollers at home in Mexico, combining physical therapy with roller sessions of less than an hour just three times a week. The indoor training eventually changed to outside rides, and Lemus returned to racing at the Winston-Salem Classic at the end of May. He suffered in the race and did not finish, but he jumped up to another gear for the Philadelphia Cycling Classic a week later, making it into the day's breakaway and riding well for his team.
“I was already being part of the race, not just trying to finish, so that was a great feeling,” Lemus said.
He proved again he was on the right track during the Tour de Beauce, where he got into the breakaway on the Mont-Megantic stage and nearly held off the field on the way to the summit finish. Lemus was the last survivor from the move, which included his race-leading teammate Mihkel Raim and many of the general classification favourites.
“We were in a really good situation,” he said. “We had the yellow in the break, and there was nothing to do in terms of helping to keep the gap or anything.”
Lemus gave it 100 percent at the bottom of the climb and almost made it to the top alone, But Rally Cycling's Sepp Kuss caught and passed him just 200 metres from the line. Lemus held on for second ahead of Hugo Houle.
“I was not thinking about getting a result,” Lemus said, recalling advice from director Nicki Sørensen to just give it his best. “I was just thinking to give my best, on that climb. Of course when you're there you want to win and all that, but when I got defeated in the last 200 metres I just accepted it because I did my best. Sepp just had a different gear when he passed me.”
Lemus took it one better at the Mexican championships, taking off with 12km remaining over the final 35km climb to the summit finish and then holding off the field for the win. A breakaway of 12 riders put pressure on the bunch early, but the group had whittled the advantage to four minutes from three survivors as they hit the bottom of the climb. When a group of about 50 riders caught the escapees 5km into the ascent, the race exploded. Lemus followed some attacks but road conservatively, hoping to save his effort for the end.
“When we started racing at seven in the morning it was already 30 (Celsius) with about 60 or 70 percent humidity,” Lemus said. “That just went up during the day. It takes a lot of energy from your body. And then you add that climb at the end, you need to be really conservative. My plan was to do a big time trial on the climb. Try not to go too much in the red. Follow some moves and attack, but nothing crazy, never make a big effort to follow something.”
At one point, Lemus was dropped from the lead group, but he eventually caught and passed everyone on the road with about half an hour of riding remaining.
“I tried to not go to deep into the red and tried to stay focused,” he said. “At one point with about 5km to go I heard there was one rider within 15 seconds. But the thing was just not to panic and keep riding well. He didn't catch me, and in the end he was more than a minute behind me.”
The result not only confirmed Lemus' return, it put him in good position for Mexico's only spot in the Rio Olympics road race. Lemus expects word any day now about which rider the Mexican Federation will choose to send. In typical fashion, however, Lemus is optimistic about his chances while trying to keep calm and not get too far ahead of himself.
“I already had my heart broken once four years ago," he explained. "We only have one spot, and to be selected from all the riders that we have would be just a huge honour.”
Meanwhile, Lemus has bigger issues to deal with at home. He vowed not to shave his new beard until his first win. But that's not sitting well with everyone.
“Now my girlfriend doesn't want me to shave,” he said. “She's like, 'No, you never told me that.' I didn't, but that's what I was thinking. Now people are saying, 'What if you lose your power?' But on the other hand, my mom really wants me to shave.”