Luis Villalobos showed up at the 2018 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with a relatively thin palmarès, which is perfectly understandable for a 20-year-old rider who joined the Aevolo Cycling Team just last year. But with his eighth-place overall finish, along with the best young rider jersey, the recently crowned Mexican time trial champion raised expectations considerably.
Villalobos consistently rode with the best climbers at the race, finishing fourth on the stage 2, which climbed over Mount Nebo, and backing it up with eighth on the 'queen stage' to Snowbird before successfully defending his young rider jersey on the climb up and over Empire Pass on Sunday, finishing eighth again on the final stage.
"I am very happy because it's been a long time since there have been Mexicans in the big races," Villalobos said after the Snowbird stage. "Today was a day that felt like a dream for me because of all the work that I have done all year.
"It was a big day for me, and so I'm enjoying that at one of the biggest races here in the United States," he said. "It's my first time at the Tour of Utah, and it was wonderful for me, for the team, and for the opportunity for everything we have been given, to trust in me today, and I hope for better things to come in the future."
While waiting for the stage 5 press conference to start after the finish at Snowbird, Villalobos was hit with the realisation of what he had accomplished. A message from home made him very emotional as everything finally began to sink in.
"My family sent me a message, and, like everybody, sometimes you get a moment where it all kind of coalesces in your head, like, 'Wow, this is all really happening, and it's just unbelievable,'" he told Cyclingnews. "That's why the emotion came out."
Villalobos' father, Juan Francisco Villalobos, raced professionally in the 1990s, and his son appears to be following in his footsteps.
Aevolo director Mike Creed told Cyclingnews that he knew his young rider had talent, but Villalobos had yet to put together a string of good days.
"I knew he had it, but he was very inconsistent when he showed it," Creed said. "At the Tour of the Gila he got top 10 on the first day, but he was climbing with the first three until he kind of gassed himself when he followed an attack, and then he got sick and he kind of fell off.
"So I've seen him do some really good stuff. It just wasn't ever consistent. This is the first time it's been consistent – and it's amazing."
Creed hired Villalobos last year after getting a phone call from the rider's uncle, who lives in El Paso, Texas.
"He had won the Mexican junior championships and done well at the Tour de l'Abitibi, and then his uncle reached out to me," Creed said. "I saw the name, but I didn't know how to get hold of him, but then his uncle reached out to me. As I'd already seen the name, it just made sense."
Villalobos will go to the Colorado Classic next week with Aevolo, but the future is unclear after that. His phone may be ringing soon with other offers for next year, but he said he's currently just focused on the rest of this season.
"This year is this year," he told Cyclingnews before the start of the final stage in Park City. "The most important thing is to finish this race with my spirits high, and then we'll see what happens next year. But I'm super grateful that the team gave me this opportunity this year to grow, and we'll just take it from here."
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