In contrast to the skinny build of most of the peloton, Jhonatan Restrepo's shoulders and chest seem large. They reveal his past as a swimmer and his ability for sprinting.
"Yes, they are bulkier than usual for a cyclist," he admits with a smile. "Back when I was a child, I used to swim a lot. I was pretty fast and was crowned national champion four times." It was then that his father first called him 'Rayo' ('Lightning', in English), coining a nickname that still accompanies his son.
Even if broad, Restrepo's shoulders felt some pressure over winter. "My team, Katusha-Alpecin, let me take a couple of months to fully rest after completing the Vuelta a Espana. I needed it because I had been competing on both track and road for almost three entire years and I felt pretty tired, he explained."
In exchange, they asked the 22-year-old rider from Pácora in Colombia for a strong start this season. "I did my part and trained hard during the winter. And it has been worthwhile."
Indeed, the Colombian rider has begun his second full season as a professional rider with an interesting streak of placings. He was 10th at the Tour Down Under, went on to take fourth place at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race and stood on the podium for the first time last Saturday at the Vuelta a Murcia, where he won the sprint for second place behind lone winner Alejandro Valverde.
How Facebook got him to the WorldTour
Restrepo's career has been a steady and consistent rise through the ranks. Yet his biggest breakthrough didn't happen on the road but via social media. He was a highly considered prospect on the Colombian Under 23 scene, yearned to head to Europe and so decided to create his own chance to fulfil that dream.
"Back in December 2014, my manager and I began contacting WorldTour teams via Facebook. We sent messages to almost everyone of them". Katusha answered. "We got in touch with Viatcheslav Ekimov and, when some months later I won the Under 23 PanAmerican Championships, they offered me a gig as a stagiaire with the team." That "gig" became a pro contract that same year, right after the Vuelta a Burgos where he first raced with the team.
Stepping up from the Colombian youth ranks to the WorldTour was "huge" for Restrepo.
"Suddenly I had to train harder and be more focused on the bike. Besides, it also took me a while to get used to those sessions of core exercise and stretching in the evening, after my training rides." His first races as a pro were frustrating, but he gradually got better and, by the Tour de Suisse, he already felt he could make it as a professional.
"The team was patient with me and gave me a nice racing schedule where I was always commissioned with support roles," he said.
A surprise came in August when he was taken to the Vuelta a Espana.
"I was meant to contend in the Canadian races but I did well at the Vuelta a Burgos and the team offered me a spot in the line-up for the Vuelta. Of course, I accepted it and got to learn quite a lot. There were days at which I felt great, and others in which I was almost dead. The Pyrenean stage, par example, was the worst day of my life. I could hardly turn my pedals."
The experience from the 2016 season has been very valuable for Restrepo, even if these are the first steps on a long walk and he is yet to find out what type of rider he is.
"I frankly don't know so far. I really enjoy every kind of race. In Australia, I felt great on the hills, whereas in Murcia I was amongst the best in the long climb up the Collado Bermejo. Besides, I usually can be in the mix in the sprints. I'm discovering myself, and I like it."
Restrepo's versatility was already well proven back in the Under 23 ranks. Spells on the track had given Restrepo "some speed, some skills and little fear of fighting for position in a sprint," he had also shown consistency both climbing and time trialling. As a matter of fact, he was second on the Vuelta de la Juventud, the main Under 23 stage race in Colombia, only beaten by Ecuador's Richard Carapaz, now a rider with the Movistar team.
Despite the stage race skills exhibited in his early years, 'El Rayo' is currently inclined towards one-day races.
"This season I'm going to race the Ardennes classics for the first time. If I cope well, I would love to focus my career on them." He also met the cobbles last year, "and it went quite well, but this season I won't attend the Northern Classics because Katusha-Alpecin has several strong contenders for victory there, like Tony Martin, Alexander Kristoff or Viatcheslav Kuznetsov, and I understand the team wants to support them in the best possible way."
Besides Amstel Gold Race, Fléche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Restrepo's racing schedule features the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco.
Before tackling the Ardennes Classics, Restrepo will take part in next week's Abu Dhabi Tour and then spend three weeks in Colombia to do some altitude training and visit his family.
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