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Abner Gonzalez blazes the path for Puerto Rico

Abner González
(Image credit: Movistar)

Abner Gonzalez became the first Puerto Rican in history to reach the WorldTour after signing a three-year contract with Team Movistar last season. The 20-year-old made his debut at the Tour de Provence last week, finishing 32nd in the general classification among a highly competitive field that included Tour de France winner Egan Bernal and World Champion Julian Alaphilippe.

“I feel nothing but happiness, I’m living my dream,” Gonzalez tells Cyclingnews, his smile radiating through the phone. 

“I was glad to have had the opportunity to start my first race in France. It was pretty cold and rained practically the entire second stage, but I felt really good during the race and learned a lot.”

Despite being a territory of the United States, many people around the world know little about the Caribbean Island. Natives of the island are often mistaken for their neighbors in Cuba or the Dominican Republic or as an independent nation altogether. Perhaps due to the authority, the Olympic Committee (IOC) holds in recognizing Puerto Rico as a separate nation, deciding which states or territories they deem as countries. Therefore, Puerto Rico has its own Olympic team apart from the United States. The UCI also recognizes their national championships as a separate entity from those held in the United States.

“People in the States think we don’t know how to speak English. I get asked a lot if I know Ivan Dominguez, but he is from Cuba! I didn’t know who he was until someone asked me at a race if I knew him.

“The States influence a variety of things in Puerto Rico, but for me, I always wanted to race in Europe. It would have been very easy for me to move to the States, to live and want to race there. I started racing national events a year after my brother introduced me to cycling. My parents supported me a lot; I also worked for things that I needed in order to race.  

“I started off well but the fields were small. As a climber, there weren’t many races where I could excel. We have a lot of mountains on the island, but I don’t know why they always organize the races where it’s flat. So, I began to look elsewhere.”

According to Gonzalez, Puerto Rico has little cycling culture to speak of. Out of those who compete, few have aspirations of racing professionally. The island has a national calendar that runs year-round with races held on a monthly basis through the islands’ endless summer climate.

“There is a lot of talent in sport there but they don’t consider racing abroad,” he said. “In the past, riders would focus on the US or in local races because it’s easier. To them, it’s nearly impossible to get to Europe. Within the island we don’t have support from sponsors or much support of any kind. Those who race, do so through the support of their family, ”

In 2017, the island was hit by Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm regarded as the worst natural disaster in recorded history to hit the Caribbean, killing dozens of people and costing billions of dollars worth in damage.  Many roads were damaged and homes were lost. The storm also left the cycling community without races for quite some time.

“The hurricane affected the racing a lot, not only because we were left without races, but people lost their motivation. They had lost their homes, the roads were damaged and many lost their bikes and other equipment.  But, the storm affected their lives more so than the sport.

“To be honest, we’re blessed; the island is blessed. Life in Puerto Rico is beautiful; we’re privileged to live in such a place. If it were up to me, I would spend my entire off-season training there. Sure, the hurricane was a hard day at the time, but little by little the island has lifted itself up again and moved forward. It has its economic problems here and there but thanks to God, we are much better than we were in the days after.”

Gonzalez continued to race national events but after a short period, had the opportunity to race two years as a junior in Spain. He would return to the States, racing with both SoCal Cycling team and the Caribbean team Inteja, before jumping over to Latin America, racing the Pan-American Championships, Vuelta Guatemala, and other small races in Colombia. Throughout his development he never had formal training from a coach, learning everything through natural instinct or off suggestions from friends.

“I never knew much of how to train properly,” he said. “I knew even less about the bike. But, I was able to maintain good form. I would simply attack in the races and if they didn’t catch me, well then I was on my own. I just did what I thought was good.”

Gonzalez returned to Spain and was soon connected with Beñat Intxausti, a retired rider from Team Sky and Team Movistar. Intxausti would take Gonzalez under his wing, teaching him tactics, training, recovery, and the art of attacking in a race. The race results soon followed – a prologue win, top 5 finishes at national races in Spain, and a win at the Spanish Cup. Soon after, teams began to show interest.

“Up until that time, I was doing everything on my own. I would get good results not from knowing how to win, but because I was hungry for it. European races are very different. You must know a lot about racing tactics, if you don’t you’re not going to win anything. I am still raw in this and have a lot to learn.”

Movistar has not placed any specific goals on him for his first season.

After spending many weeks preparing during the lockdown in 2020, Gonzalez says he’s in great form for the season ahead.

“My expectations this year is of course to win 5 races. I’m only kidding! Before anything, my goal is to learn as much as I can, as fast as I can – I want to learn how to maneuver in complicated racing situations. Once I learn how to do that, then I can focus on specific goals. Of course, I do not know if I will win or not, that’s up to God. I hope with all of this, that in the future, Puerto Ricans will open their eyes to the talent we have in cycling and help it grow. At the very least, I want to demonstrate that I have come to stay.”