By Gary Kingston, Vancouver Sun May 22, 2012
VANCOUVER — His former team manager calls diminutive cyclist Sebastian Salas a “little pocket rocket,” but the first-year pro out of Vancouver is quickly making a big name for himself.
While Victoria’s Ryder Hesjedal has been creating headlines for his run at the leader’s jersey in the prestigious Giro d’Italia this month, the big-dreaming Salas turned heads last week at the Amgen Tour of California, the largest stage race in North America, by winning the King of the Mountains jersey.
“It’s a great thing for Canadian cycling when we’re both making an impression in some of the bigger races going on in the world,” Salas, 25, said Tuesday after returning home from California. “Obviously, [Hesjedal] was leading the Giro and now he’s sitting second overall.
“It’s just great to know he’s from here, from B.C. and for me it’s just a matter of plugging away at it, keeping motivated and [racing one of the Grand Tour’s in Europe] will happen.”
A spectacular climber on and off a bike — he owns the unofficial Grouse Grind record of 23 minutes, 48 seconds — Salas accumulated the most climbing points during the eight-stage Tour of California which wrapped up Sunday in Los Angeles.
During different stages, the 110-rider field had summit finishes at Mt. Baldy and Big Bear Lake and also made a hugely challenging climb up Mt. Diablo.
“I had a couple of good races beforehand, so I knew I had some good climbing legs coming in,” said Salas, who signed in January with U.S.-based Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies and was a late addition to the team’s eight-rider roster for California.
“I wanted to have a shot at either going for a big stage win or doing something impressionable in the race. The King of the Mountains jersey, you have to collect points all week. I had to make sure I was aggressive and make sure I was either always in the break or calculating how many points were up for grabs and go and get them.”
Salas said he’s still trying to process what he accomplished.
“I mean the high from being on the podium every day, in front of thousands of people on live TV [for Sunday’s final stage], it’s still such a shock to me. It’s starting to sink in now. It’s the biggest victory for our team in the last few years and the biggest thing in my career.
“And it was definitely a team effort, having veteran riders with so much experience to help me throughout the week and encourage me. That really made it possible.”
Salas was just 73rd overall, an hour back of the Tour’s overall winner, Robert Gesink of the Netherlands, but he’s only been a competitive cyclist for three years and his time trial and other cycling skills need some development. However, his climbing ability is already attracting the interest of top pro teams.
“I’ve said to everyone that he can go to the top and be one of the world’s best climbers,” says Marc Ernsting, who gave Salas his start with the Vancouver-based H and R Block amateur squad. “He needs to take it step by step to longer and harder stage races over the next year or two and then he can take that next step to the World Tour.”
Asked what it is that makes the f5-7 Salas so good on the leg-burning hills, Ernsting said simply: “His engine.”
“His VO2 max is world class. And his power to weight ratio is the perfect combination for his body type. Plus, he has an absolute passion for it … that passion and desire to go that extra bit harder over that climb.
“He found his niche. That’s initially what he was focused on so he would be noticed.”
Salas says there are several things he needs to continue to work on and improve if he’s going to be a contender for overall titles in the bigger races, things like how to conserve energy, when to go for stage victories and when in races he can pick up time on rivals.
“It’s starting to happen. It’s more of an intuition rather than something you think about. It’s super important to be able to instinctively know what needs to be done.”
Home for three weeks of rest and recovery, Salas will tackle the Tour de Beauce in Quebec and the Canadian road cycling championships in June. He’ll also contest the beginning of early July’s BC Superweek — “being able to race [the resurrected] Gastown Grand Prix is going to be huge” — but will miss the Tour de White Rock for a good reason. He’s getting married July 14.
Salas has a philosophy degree from UBC and an informational technology degree from BCIT, but says his only focus now is riding.
“I fell in love with the bike when I started to pursue that. I’m dedicating my whole life to try to be a professional cyclist. Right now, I’m living the dream.”