It's been nine years since Victor Hugo Peña Grisales wore the yellow jersey in the Tour de France, but Lance Armstrong's former domestique is still fit and racing as well as ever. He's currently back in the USA for the Amgen Tour of California, now ushering in the next generation of talent from his home country Colombia with the government-sponsored Colombia Coldeportes team.
The first-year Professional Continental team grew out of the Colombia es Pasion project, a development program which has fostered the progression of riders like Sergio Henao, now racing with Sky Procycling. Peña joined the squad in 2010 after his previous American team, Rock Racing, fell through. The Tour of California is his first race back in the USA.
"I feel really happy to be back," Peña told Cyclingnews. "Racing here in my two seasons when I was with Rock Racing was a really nice experience. Now to come back to Tour of California I'm really happy."
Peña says the team has a couple talented climbers who come to California with the goal of claiming scalps on Mt. Baldy. "We have two guys who are really world class climbers, [John] Atapuma and [Fabio] Duarte, so we're going to take care of them and make sure they don't lose time. We will try to keep them fresh for Friday and Saturday," he said, referring to the Big Bear and Mt. Baldy finishes. "Every day is hard, but those will be the key stages."
While the Colombians by and large feature prominently on any climb especially those at high altitude because it is the terrain with which they grew up, there are few who can go up against the best in the world in the time trials. Former U23 world champion and recruit from the Geox-TMC squad Duarte is one who can hold his own in both disciplines.
"Fabio can do well in the time trial," Peña said. "He will probably lose time to the stage winners, but against the other climbers I think he can beat them. He might lose one or two minutes to the real time trialists, but with the climbers he can be there. This is what we are hoping for."
Peña is helping to bring the team and the riders to the next level. "The old Colombia - Es Pasion project was a good project for developing new talents like Quintana, Chavez, Henao, Duarte... the new generation. But it was almost like they were scared to take the next step and do the big races. You have to do that at some point. Races like Tirreno-Adriatico this year were really hard for them, it's a different kind of cycling. We did Milano-Sanremo. In comparison, it's like motorcycling, it's so different. They have to see this other kind of cycling, the real cycling. So now they come to California with those races behind them, and they feel like now they are cyclists.
"We hope the government will keep supporting this project because there are many, many good talents in Colombia."
The main advice Peña gives to his teammates is to believe in themselves and know that they belong alongside the WorldTour riders. "The only thing I told them is they can do whatever they want, and don't be afraid. Try to learn how to race, how to eat, how to train, which clothing to use in the weather, the small things. But don't be afraid of the other riders. You need to have respect for the other guys, respect but not fear. Sometimes it's confusing - you can see Peter Sagan before the race and wave, say hello, respect the guy. But on the road, they are normal humans."