At the start of the Vuelta a San Juan, no one was talking about Roman Villalobos (Canel's Specialized) as a potential overall winner, but, after he won stage 2 and pulled on the race leader's jersey, the 27-year-old Costa Rican said he will do everything in his power to keep the lead through the final podium.
"When you are a rider it is important to have dreams and to think in a big way," he said. "I am a man of challenges, and in my mind is to win the Vuelta a San Juan and to do everything to win, but I have to go stage by stage."
Villalobos said he told his teammates he wanted to win stage 2 to that morning, and he pulled it off against quality riders like Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal), Filippo Ganna (Bahrain-Merida), Oscar Sevilla (Medellin-Inter), and Eduardo Sepulveda and Dayer Quintana of Movistar.
Maybe people should pay attention when he says now that he wants to win the overall.
Villalobos has ridden the majority of his career in Costa Rica, but he spent a brief time racing in Spain as an amateur. He's also raced in Chile and has won the Vuelta a Guatemala twice in 2015 and 2016. He competed in the Volta a Portugal in 2017, a race he says is the most international he's done.
Villalobos has had other success in Argentina, taking third on stage 4 of the 2016 Tour de San Luis behind Sepulveda and Janier Acevedo, and taking second to Sepulveda in the mountains classification.
In his most recent race before San Juan, Villalobos was second in the Vuelta a Costa Rica in December, a race where he's previously won both the mountains and points category.
He's obviously no stranger to podiums, but winning the Vuelta a San Juan would easily be the biggest victory of his career. He currently leads the general classification by four seconds over Ricardo Escuela (Virgen De Fatima) and six seconds over Benoot, the two riders he escaped with near the end of stage 2. Quick-Step Floors' stage 1 winner Fernando Gaviria is fourth at eight seconds, followed by a big group of riders 10 seconds back.
The race is obviously still wide open, and Villalobos will have a tall order to hang onto the lead when the race finishes on Sunday in San Juan. His first test comes later today during the stage 3 time trial, a flat 14.4km route that is not technical in nature.
"The objective is to lose as little time as possible, because then we will have the Alto Colorado climb [on stage 5] that is not a very strong climb but you have to be good," Villalobos said. "I am not bad in the time trial, but the course is a little bit explosive for me. I know that if I want to win the Vuelta a San Juan it has to be with the favourites, the ones who will be fighting on the Alto Colorado."
Villalobos said although he is not a time trial specialist, he believes he can defend his lead well.
"I have demonstrated in a lot of time trials in the past," he said. "I know that I am not a favourite for the general classification, but maybe after this win that I have done today I have more possibilities to win the race. The other stages are different, but I dream to win the Vuelta a San Juan, and if I can't do that, then to try and be on the podium."
After the time trial, the peloton will tackle a 182.8km stage 4 that features two category 1 climbs, but a long downhill run to the finish makes the stage look on paper like another opportunity for the sprinters.
After a rest day on Thursday, the riders will face the Alto Colorado, a category 1 climb that comes after a category 3 and two category 2 climbs in succession. The final two stages look again like days for the sprinters.
Villalobos has a long way to go to make his dream of an overall win come true, but in the big picture, he is already happy with his race so far.
"Here in San Juan, God has given me the privilege to win one stage in professional cycling," he said. "This race is very important with names like [Rafal] Majka, [Darwin] Atapuma and the brother of Nairo. So that makes me very happy."
Happy as he may be with the stage win, he dreams now of the final podium and perhaps a chance to ride on a regular basis with the best teams in Europe. Like every cyclist, he wants to compete at the top level.
"My dream is to ride in Europe," he said. "For now I don't have the opportunity, but I don't know when is the ideal moment to be in Europe. But the most important thing is to work a lot and enjoy the sport that I do."
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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.
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