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Over the past several years, Mexican cycling has seen a boom in new talent racing north of the border. Making the northern transition for these riders is not always as easy as it sounds. Like Americans who race for European teams, they face language barriers with teammates and staff, plus they must adapt to a new style of racing, all while trying to meet their obligations at home with the national team.
Luis Villalobos and Fernando Islas are no different. Both are racing with the under-23 development team Aevolo Pro Cycling, a program in its second year of racing under the direction of Mike Creed. Islas is a new signing this season, while Villalobos is starting his second year with the team.
This also marks the first time the two have been on the same team. Both hail from the same region in central Mexico, an area that sits between 7,000 and 8,000 feet above sea level. They share a friendly rivalry at the national championships, trading both TT and road titles between them the past few years. Islas is the current U23 road and TT champion.
“Initially there was a small rivalry there but I didn’t know very much about cycling or about Luis until my first nationals,” Islas said. “We’ve been to several races abroad together on the national team, so I believe we’ve formed a good friendship.”
Islas began racing mountain bikes a few years ago before switching to road as a general classification rider. The only cyclist in his family, he showed significant talent from the beginning, which earned him a spot with the national program. He finished second overall in Canada’s Tour de l’Abitibi last summer, one of the most prestigious junior races in the world.
In sharp contrast, Villalobos comes from cycling pedigree. His father Juan Francisco Villalobos raced for Canel’s and battled with Laurent Fignon in the 1993 Vuelta a Mexico. He finished second behind the French legend, who happened to be the reigning world champion at the time.
Under the guidance of Creed last summer, the younger Villalobos earned the best young rider classification jersey at the Cascade Cycling Classic, his best result of the year. This year he is targeting the Tour of the Gila to begin his season.
“In your first year as U23, you think it will be easy but it’s hard,” Villalobos said. “Last season served me well to understand how to prepare for this year. I am familiar with the races now, more than anything that will help me heading into this season. My principal objective is the Tour of the Gila, I’m preparing for that 100 percent since December.”
Islas will also focus on the Gila after displaying good form at Aevolo’s team training camp last month. The neo-pro will assist the team and Villalobos whenever possible.
“I know it will be a big change for me racing with the professionals,” Islas said, looking to the season ahead. “I’ve had good luck because everything has happened so fast from when I began to when I signed my contract. My objective with the team is simply to do the best job that I can do for what they ask of me.”
Like Villalobos last season, Islas also speaks very little English, something that can complicate matters.
“It can be nerve-racking at times when other riders or my team are speaking to me and I don’t understand anything,” Islas said. “We may not speak the same language but we have signals for what we want to do.”
Back home, both will be racing this week’s 3er Copa national selection race in Juárez for the Pan American Championships in Argentina later this year. As riders on the national team, both are required to compete in a number of races in order to qualify for the selection.
“It’s not my main objective but it’s a selection race so I need to participate,” Villalobos added. “It’s difficult because at times I’ll have a training camp or race in the States with my team and end up missing the races in Mexico, losing my opportunity with the national team.”
Villalobos is hoping his experience of racing in the States will help him, while it will be the first opportunity for the duo to race together prior to Gila.
“There’s not one team in Mexico that races like they do in the States,” Villalobos said. “The U.S. teams go to race in Europe, they learn the style of racing there and then race that way back home. In Mexico it’s very different, they are always attacking until there is a break or not. A style I think that is not bad but better for training instead.”
The selection race ends April 8, allowing roughly two weeks to recover before the start of the Gila. In the meantime, both riders are focused for the year ahead and are proud to be part of a growing number of Mexicans racing in the U.S., learning to understand their new world and racing in it.
“I am improving my English little by little since our first training camp in Las Vegas,” Islas said. “I am studying and continue to learn and communicate better.”
If not, he will have Villalobos to help.
“He’s my teammate so I will support him,” Villalobos added. “It’s another professional Mexican rider, so more than anything, we’re moving forward.”