Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) had a breakout season 2016 but was unable to hit the same heights last year. As he continues his start to the 2018 campaign in his native Colombia, the 29-year-old hopes a combination of factors, including sinus surgery and the retirement of Alberto Contador, can help him back to his best.
Pantano lit up the Tour de France in 2016, his second season at WorldTour level with IAM Cycling. He won a memorable stage in the Jura mountains and went on to continue his assault in the Alps, finishing second on two occasions.
Before that, he'd won a stage and finished fourth overall at the Tour de Suisse.
Last year, however, he was unable to win a race outside the Colombian national time trial championship and had a disappointing Tour de France.
"The truth is that last season, at the start it was going OK, but in the end it didn't turn out as I'd hoped. I didn't feel how I wanted to," Pantano told Cyclingnews in Pereira at the Colombia Oro y Paz race.
"I don't know why exactly. Not all years are the same, I guess. I thought I had problems with allergies, but in the end it wasn't allergies. So at the end of the year I had surgery on my nose, because I had chronic sinusitis. But in reality I'm not exactly sure where it went wrong."
Consolation last year came in the form of being able to help Alberto Contador as the curtain came down on the Spaniard's career. Pantano was in better shape in the Vuelta a España, where Contador attacked throughout and claimed a special victory atop the Angliru on the penultimate day. Earlier in the year he played a key role as Contador almost pulled off a spectacular heist at Paris-Nice.
"In the end I can't say my season was all bad. I tried to do a big job for Alberto and that left me pretty happy on the whole that at the end I could help him in his final season," he said.
Indeed, Pantano struck up a strong relationship with Contador over the course of their year together. He had tears in his eyes on the Angliru, and in Colombia there was an emotional reunion between the two after Contador flew out as a guest of the Oro y Paz this week.
Contador's departure, however, opened a door for Pantano.
"This year Alberto's not here so I think I'll have a bit more freedom to try to win stages in the Grand Tours, which is what I enjoy the most," said Pantano.
He will head to the Giro d'Italia this year as he looks to put stages of all three Grand Tours on his palmares. At the Tour de France, Pantano will be called upon to work for the team's GC leader, Bauke Mollema, but he insisted he'll look for his own opportunities, too.
Stage wins are what it's all about for Pantano – for now at least.
"Going after stages in the Grand Tours, that's what fills me with motivation. The Giro, the Tour, they're races I dream about. That stage win in the Tour changed my life and I want to do that again this year. I'd love to win stages in all three Grand Tours.
"Three-week races, I like to race them without pressure, be more chilled, try to win stages and that's that. As you know, for a GC rider you have to be there, enduring, every day. Further down the road, I don't know. We'd have to test it out and see if I have what it takes. I really like the week-long races, though – I think I can look at GC at Tirreno, Catalunya, races like that."
Pantano was less certain of his prospects in the hilly Classics. "I've always found them pretty tough," he said. "The one-day races have never been great to me. With going for stages in a Grand Tour, you get yourself into the last week and everyone's on their limit. That type of stage hunting appeals much more to me."
Pantano has played down his own chances at the Colombia Oro y Paz, given he only started riding his bike mid-way through January. His nasal operation took place in December and he was off the bike for 20 days, picking it up again on January 12 before riding the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina.
"I feel much better. After the surgery I've felt pretty good and hope it continues all year," he said.
"Starting in San Juan and now Colombia is something different. The truth is I've felt much better than at this time last year. This year has started a bit more chilled than and I hope that makes a difference, too."
Adored in his home country, he has been reveling in the support from Colombian fans.
"We're all very proud of this race, and for me I hope it's the start of better things."