Isaac del Toro: Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana inspired me to follow my dream

Moving to Europe 'a pleasure, not a sacrifice' for young Mexican who began his UAE Team Emirates career in fine fashion at the Down Under Classic

Clock10:30, Sunday 14th January 2024
Isaac del Toro rode to third place in the Tour Down Under Classic on his UAE Team Emirates debut

© Sprint Cycling Agency

Isaac del Toro rode to third place in the Tour Down Under Classic on his UAE Team Emirates debut

Isaac del Toro's UAE Team Emirates' career got off to a flying start on Saturday with a third-place finish in the season curtain-raiser, Down Under Classic.

Often dominated by home talents such as Caleb Ewan (Jayco AlUla), the one-hour criterium in Australia instead saw the likes of Jhonatan Narváez (Ineos Grenadiers), Natnael Tetsfazion (Lidl-Trek) and Del Toro flourish - three men who know exactly what it means to travel halfway across the world in search of their targets.

Read more: Down Under Classic: Jhonatan Narváez wins as break narrowly survives in curtain-raiser crit

Whilst Tetsfazion is in many ways a pioneer for African cycling in the European peloton, Del Toro is following in the wheel tracks of generations of riders from the Americas who have blazed a trail in cycling's biggest races. After the success of South Americans like Luis Herrera, Rigoberto Urán (EF Education-EasyPost) and Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers), the North American Del Toro looks to be the next great talent to emerge from that corner of the world.

His path - a long-haul flight to Europe - is similar to many of the riders before him, but Del Toro is remarkable in that he left the family home at the tender age of 15 to follow his dream. To many, this would seem a tough decision to make. But speaking to GCN and other members of the media at UAE Team Emirates' training camp in La Nucia, Spain, Del Toro is quick to insist that his journey has not been a sacrifice at all.

"The truth is that it is not a sacrifice, it is a pleasure and I do it because I love it," Del Toro says. "Although it is difficult to be away from my family and friends, I live with great people who become family, it will never be the same but it helps maintain morale.

"I have always been a very focused person: I train, eat, rest and prepare for the next day. Being here in Europe, without distractions, allows me to focus on my goals."

Those goals have been apparent to Del Toro since he was a young child, racing every Sunday alongside his brother in local races throughout the city of Ensenada, Baja California. At first, cycling was just a hobby that the Del Toro brothers picked up on their father's suggestion, but soon, the professional sport piqued the Mexican's attention and an aspiration began to emerge.

"The Grand Tours and the World Championships are broadcast [in Mexico]," he explains. "When I was younger I saw Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana in the Tour de France and that was what inspired me to follow my dream."

As Del Toro told GCN in an exclusive interview last year, the turning point for the Mexican came when he was 15 years old. Considering whether or not to take a break from the sport and enjoy a normal childhood with friends, Del Toro spotted an advertisement for riders from the Italian Continental side A.R. Monex.

"They launched a call in Mexico," he tells the media in Spain. "I passed each of the selection stages and managed to go to Europe with the team and now I am closing my fourth year with them. Once we arrived in Europe we were exposed to a more professional type of racing and we started to improve."

Although registered in San Marino, A.R. Monex have their roots firmly in Mexico and routinely offer opportunities to the best that the country has to offer.

Read more: Isaac del Toro: from anonymity to the top of the sport

Moving halfway across the world well before his 18th birthday would not have been easy for Del Toro, but the Italian team houses their Mexican riders in one residence and this gave Del Toro the confidence to prosper.

"You have to know how to handle it, with our residence in San Marino we have a house with Mexican cyclists that are around my age and although I have been away from home for 11 months, I feel well accompanied by my teammates and that makes everything easier," he says.

"When I saw I had the ability to [race internationally], I don't like to do things halfway but when I realised I could do it, I felt good about myself and two years ago I started racing with a bigger team and my career started to grow."

In his final season with A.R. Monex, Del Toro certainly caught the attention of the world's best teams and eventually earned himself a multi-year contract with UAE Team Emirates, but it wasn't all smooth sailing for the 20-year-old.

Tour de l'Avenir marks comeback from career-threatening injury

For most people who are aware of Del Toro's name, it is likely due to the Tour de l'Avenir, the race in which the Mexican won on the Queen stage and took the overall title last season. However, the Tour de l'Avenir was a race that had negative connotations for the Mexican before his triumph atop Col de la Loze last August.

For that tale of misfortune, we must look back on 2022 and Del Toro's first season as an U23.

The Mexican had earned his spurs with the A.R. Monex U19 squad in the years prior and was now able to get his first real taste of stage racing in Europe. The youngster placed well in the youth classifications of races such as Tour du Loir-et-Choir, Sibiu Cycling Tour and Valle d'Aosta, and looked well set for his Tour de l'Avenir bow.

There, he would have the chance to test himself against the likes of Cian Uijtdebroeks, Johannes Staune-Mittet (both now Visma-Lease a Bike) and Lenny Martinez (now Groupama-FDJ) at the Tour de l'Avenir.

A major crash in training put paid to those hopes, though, with the then-18-year-old fracturing his femur and being put on the sidelines for seven months. At first, Del Toro feared his dreams of turning professional were over, and the rehabilitation that followed would serve to make his start to 2023 a challenging one.

"The truth is that this has been a difficult year because I broke my femur. I thought it would be the end of my career and the first part of 2023 was very difficult and frustrating," he says. "I knew I had the ability, but recovery is difficult and things were not working out for me. But I'm grateful to have such good people around me who supported me to keep going."

The long road to recovery saw the start of Del Toro's season delayed until March 2023, with his first stage race of the season not until June. But he was quick to impress at the Sibiu Cycling Tour and Valle d'Aosta once again, and headed into the Tour de l'Avenir full of confidence.

With third place at Valle d'Aosta, Del Toro had proven himself to be one of the world's best climbers, but dehydration on stage 2 of the Tour de l'Avenir threatened to blow his chances of a good GC finish. He and his teammates were not given enough supplies and suffered in the heat, which left the Mexican with an uphill task.

"I started the race with a goal and I didn't want to give up on it. I began to look at the stages and see how I could use the peloton to my advantage and it was a bit of chaos, but little by little the path was being laid out," he says. "I never had control, but I was stealing seconds from the breakaways. I knew that the time trial was complicated and that we lost time at the beginning, but I also knew that I had to be creative to get into the general classification."

The Mexican team lost two minutes to the frontrunners in the stage 3 team time trial, but little by little over the next two stages, Del Toro clawed his way back into contention and headed into the sixth stage 1:24 down on pre-race favourite (and future UAE Team Emirates teammate) Jan Christen.

It was on stage 6 that Del Toro delivered the biggest performance of his career, winning alone on the Col de la Loze summit finish and catapulting himself up 19 places into third on GC.

Read more: Isaac del Toro picks up his first victory in fantastic style at the Tour de l’Avenir

"I always tried to be calm, to be fresh so I could think well and one day I decided to push every day to put my rivals under pressure," he remembers. "I was alone and had to leave them without teammates so they would be in the same conditions.

"The truth is that it went better than I thought, I didn't think I could win like that. It was a very good feeling on the bike, but I was also scared because I didn't know if I was going to bonk again."

Despite his doubts, Del Toro finished on the podium of the race's final three stages, with his second place on the last day enough to lift him into the race lead as Matthew Riccitello (now Israel-Premier Tech) faltered.

Finishing in the top three of all but one of the final six stages, the then-19-year-old made a clean sweep of the mountains, points, youth and overall classifications, and the big teams soon came knocking for his WorldTour signature.

'After the Tour de l'Avenir, my phone exploded'

The rumours linking Del Toro with UAE Team Emirates date back to Javier Ares and Alberto Contador linking the WorldTeam with his signature during TV coverage of the Vuelta a España last year. Although Del Toro was coy on the talks at the time - "just the fact that they mention my name makes me feel very flattered" - he now admits that the interest was quite overwhelming at first.

"After l'Avenir my phone exploded, I received calls at all hours. It was chaotic and I couldn't do things right, I couldn't concentrate on my training and it was a lot to handle," he says. "But that's where the talks with the teams began."

Del Toro relies on his family and friends for representation and guidance, rather than opting for an agent, and in UAE Team Emirates, the trusted circle found a team they were happy with.

"I have a complicated situation because I come from another country and another continent, I still have a lot to learn and I decided to come here because I [trust] the approach that UAE wants to give me. I think coming here is the best decision and I am very happy to be with this team, it is amazing to be able to eat with all of them at the same table!"

Read more: 19-year-old Mexican talent Isaac del Toro signs for UAE Team Emirates

As he speaks to the media on the Costa Blanca, the Mexican is not long back from a training ride with his new teammates, amongst them the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Adam Yates and João Almeida. Under this tutelage, Del Toro is in the perfect environment to learn what it takes to become one of the best riders in the world.

It is a privilege that the youngster is not taking for granted.

"I have so much to learn, everyone has taught me something since I arrived. I have not stopped learning from day one and I have incredible teammates."

The roll call of riders who have won the Tour de l'Avenir is illustrious, to say the least, including future Tour de France champions Greg LeMond, Laurent Fignon and the aforementioned Pogačar. In this light, much will be expected of Del Toro.

Those expectations will only naturally rise with the impressive manner in which he debuted for UAE Team Emirates on Saturday. But with a level head that saw him through an early move to Europe, a broken femur and numerous setbacks at the Tour de l'Avenir, Del Toro's dreams for the future remain grounded.

"I would like to be a good rider, a versatile cyclist, and I would like to dream that in 10 years I will continue to enjoy it as much as I do today."

With such maturity at a young age, UAE Team Emirates seem set to have another star on their hands.

Read more from UAE Team Emirates' training camp:

Additional reporting by Nancy Arreola

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