Sebastian Henao set for big future with Team Sky after showcasing his talent at Giro d'Italia
Colombian aiming to follow in footsteps of Chris Froome
By Matt Westby
Last Updated: 02/02/15 5:18pm
Sebastian Henao sits down in a quiet corner of Team Sky’s beachside hotel in Mallorca, well away from the media scrum currently engulfing Chris Froome across the lobby.
The 21-year-old climber from Rionegro in Colombia is one of the lesser-known lights of the British squad and is not in demand for interviews today, his anonymity exacerbated by his inability to speak English.
He shouldn’t get comfortable, though. He is potentially the next big thing for both his team and his country and the spotlight is coming.
“He's a phenomenal talent – there’s no doubt about that,” says Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s principal and a man not given to throwing around superlatives too easily.
Brailsford signed Henao just over 12 months ago and although it was far from a gamble, even he has been surprised by how good an acquisition it appears to have been.
Having shown promising early-season form last year, Henao was selected for Team Sky’s nine-man squad for the Giro d’Italia – his grand tour debut – and rather than merely survive, as many riders his age look to do in three-week races, he ended up thriving.
Over the first fortnight we didn’t see much of him, but as the race reached the Alps in its final week, a black-and-blue Team Sky jersey started appearing next to the likes of Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran in the final group on the big climbs. Henao had arrived.
Seemingly getting stronger with every passing day, he finished eighth alongside then race leader Uran on the brutally mountainous 16th stage to Val Martello and, even more impressively, finished eighth on the uphill time trial on Cima Grappa on stage 19.
He struggled to keep up with the front-runners on the terribly steep Monte Zoncolan the following day, but his previous efforts had been enough for a 22nd-place finish overall and fifth in the young rider classification. It was a head-turning debut.
“To come over to Europe means a lot to me and to be able to ride such a big race as the Giro d’Italia last year was really special,” Henao, who had previously ridden for lower-level Colombian teams, tells skysports.com.
“One thing I didn’t know was how I would manage in the final week, so it was a surprise to be riding at that level right up until the end of the race. Those days at Val Martello and Cima Grappa were very satisfying and a great feeling.”
Henao is the latest rider off the seemingly ceaseless production line of exciting Colombian climbers, following the likes of Quintana, Uran, Julian Arredondo, Carlos Betancur, Johan Esteban Chaves, Winner Anacona and his cousin and team-mate, Sergio Henao.
He lives and trains alongside Quintana, Sergio and a clutch of other Colombians in Pamplona during the season, and when on Team Sky duty, he frequently rides at either camps or races with the likes of Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins.
They are walking textbooks for a rider of Henao’s age and experience, and he absorbs every lesson.
“Riding and training with people like Froomey and Wiggo, you learn a lot, not only on the bike but off the bike as well,” he says.
“Froomey is an absolute gentlemen off the bike. He is always giving me little tips and it is great to have someone like that as both a team-mate and a role model.”
So is the ultimate goal to follow in Froome’s footsteps and become Team Sky’s top man?
“Of course,” Henao says. “In the next few years I would definitely like to be in his position as leader of Team Sky, up there fighting for the biggest races.”
In the short term, the aim is to “keep learning and keep progressing”, but Henao admits a first professional victory is also high on the agenda in 2015.
He will aim to get it at the Tour de Langkawi, a hilly stage race in Malaysia to be held from March 8-15, before hopefully heading back to the Giro in May, where a role supporting Richie Porte is likely to be twinned with an attempt to better his results from last year.
“I have heard a lot of good things about the Tour de Langkawi,” Henao adds. “It is a hard race with the heat, but I think it will suit me well and I would like to get into the top three.
“Later, I would like to go back to the Giro, try to get some good results and maybe go for the best young rider’s jersey, depending on the team’s objectives.”
Brailsford is unlikely to hold him back given that he views Henao as being made for stage races in general, but particularly grand tours.
And with the Giro this year containing seven summit finishes, including three in the last week, his ability to climb well deep into a race could be an indispensible asset.
“We saw at the Giro last year just how good he is,” Brailsford says. “He ran eighth in the mountain time trial, which was a super performance, and I think he will go on from there.
“I actually think that the longer the race, the better he will be, so over time I think he will develop into a fantastic stage-race rider.”
But Brailsford isn’t just a fan of Henao the rider, as his personality and attitude have impressed him just as much.
“He is also a great character and I think he has got the right personality to go with that talent,” he adds. “He is one of the most liked guys in the team, despite having very limited English. He gets on with his job with a smile. He is happy and has an exuberance about him.”
Time, it seems, for Froome, Quintana and co to start looking over their shoulders.