The revelation of the Giro in profile
If you were paying attention to the crowds lining the road in Milan today, you would’ve noticed a Costa Rican flag on the finishing straight. It’s a long way to come to show your support, but these have been a historic few weeks, with the country’s only professional riding to a surprising fourth in the General Classification.
Amador is his name, Andrey Amador Bikkazakova to be precise. It’s a strange one, thanks to his uncommon lineage. His mother, Raisa, is Russian, while father Rodolfo is of Galician heritage.
The youngest of three sons, Andrey turned to cycling in his teenage years. He followed in the footsteps of middle brother Ivan, who he would later ride with in three editions of the Vuelta a Costa Rica.
Amador started off racing both on the road and on mountain bikes, and was successful almost immediately, winning nine gold medals at the National Games. Junior National road race and time trial Championships followed, before joining Ivan at one of the top teams in the country, BCR-Pizza Hut.
He quickly overshadowed his older brother. As an eighteen-year-old he finished on the podium at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, as well as coming second in Panama’s Vuelta a Chiriquí later in the year.
With his mind set on turning professional he was advised that moving to Spain would give him the best chance of doing so, and midway through 2006 he did just that. Continental team Viña Magna-Cropu was his destination, where he linked up with future Movistar teammates Sergio Pardilla and Jose Herrada for the first time.
His results there, including a string of podium places at the Vuelta a Costa Rica, saw him noticed by top Spanish amateur team Lizarte. Costa Rica’s first professional, José Adrián Bonilla, helped Amador make the transition, introducing him to team boss Manolo Azcona, whom Amador would later describe as a second father.
Based in Pamplona in the Basque Country, the heartland of Spanish cycling, Lizarte have been a steady provider of cyclists to the pro ranks for twenty-three years.
Joseba Beloki is the biggest name to have raced for the team before turning pro, while other notable names include Claus Michael Møller, Isidro Nozal and Benjamín Noval. More recently Movistar riders Marc Soler, Enrique Sanz and Nairo Quintana’s brother Dayer have made the jump.
Amador won an impressive nineteen races with the team, including the Vuelta a Bidasoa and Vuelta al Goierri stage races as well as numerous classics and stage wins at the Vuelta Navarra and Vuelta al Palencia.
His finest result as an amateur was still yet to come though, going to September’s Tour de l’Avenir as part of an international selection alongside current pros Jarlison Pantano, Mitch Docker and Jacques Janse Van Renseburg.
Having already penned a pro contract with Spanish squad Caisse d’Epargne in August, Amador could ride without pressure. He won the opening 7.5km prologue by seven seconds, something of a yawning chasm considering the distance.
He was rarely out of the top ten for the rest of the race, riding a strong time trial and finishing ahead of future Tour de France contender Tejay Van Garderen on the summit finish at Guzet-Neige. He would end up fifth overall, with future teammate Rui Costa a few places above him.
His first pro season didn’t start off too well, with a broken collarbone in March impeding his progress. Before long though, he would settle into his assigned role at the team – that of a dependable role player, helping Luis León Sánchez to win Paris-Nice.
The next season saw him turn history maker, becoming the first Costa Rican to ride a Grand Tour, something Bonilla had never managed during his three seasons with Kelme. The 2010 Giro d’Italia was one of the more exciting GTs in living memory, with Amador’s teammate David Arroyo coming close to taking the overall win thanks to a mid-race breakaway.
Amador ended up forty-first in that race, with Arroyo hanging on for second. The Costa Rican had proven worthy of a new contract, but an incident in the New Year saw both his life and career hang in the balance.
While out training in his home country, Amador was mugged for his bike by a gang. He was left for dead, lying in a riverbed unconscious for six hours before he was found. Cuts and bruises were the initial diagnosis, but it was later found that one of his kidneys had shut down due to the severity of the beating.
Miraculously, he was back on his bike the following month, going on to finish fourth at the GP Llodio and Vuelta La Rioja in April before disaster struck again. This time it was another broken collarbone, putting him out of the Giro squad. Another landmark came later in the season as he became the first Costa Rican to ride the Tour de France.
After the annus horribilis of 2011, the following season, for the newly-sponsored Movistar team, was his best yet. Ninth in January’s Tour de San Luís was the strongest stage race result of his pro career, but it was nothing compared to what happened in May.
The fourteenth stage of the Giro was the first summit finish. Amador was in the breakaway for the second time in three days, having finished third into Sestri Levante on stage twelve.
On the road to Breuil-Cervinia he was not to be denied though, beating Jan Bárta and Alessandro De Marchi to the win, the first of his career. A solid twenty-ninth on GC showed a glimpse of his future potential.
A strong start to the following season, including an eighth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, was cut short in April. Another broken collarbone (his fifth), caused by a crash in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, meant it looked like it might be another year to forget.
He returned to racing after a month out and was showed enough form to make the Tour squad, helping Nairo Quintana to second overall. Later on bad luck struck again, as a bout of mononucleosis interrupted the second half of his season.
He was back at the Giro last year, part of Quintana’s triumphant campaign, while a team time trial victory at the Vuelta a España was another high point. This year’s edition has seen him break out as a big-time rider in his own right though.
A strong fifth-place finish in the team time trial was followed up by hanging with the big names on the early summit finishes at Abetone and Campitello Matese.
The windswept mid-race time trial around the Prosecco-producing Province of Treviso saw him finish fifteenth, catapulting him into the podium places. The next few days featured more mountain-top finishes, with Amador limiting his losses admirably on the stages to Madonna di Campiglio and Aprica.
For all his efforts, Astana’s Mikel Landa managed to wrest third place from him, but Amador managed to hold off a resurgent Ryder Hesjedal in the final trio of mountain stages to hold on to his fourth place.
Even Amador has been surprised at what he has achieved this month. He put his improvement down to weight loss, claiming that he’s five kilograms lighter than he was at Cervinia three years ago. But while he may be getting slimmer, his pay cheque won’t be – his contract is up for renewal at the end of the season.
Something else to note is the absence of team leaders Quintana and Alejandro Valverde. With the duo both focused on the Tour, it’s the first opportunity Amador has had to race a Grand Tour for himself.
According to journalists in the small Central American country, one of whom made the trip to Milan for the final stage, Amador has risen to the status of national hero back home. His is a star on the rise, and for a man who has so many firsts under his belt already, you have to wonder what his next might be.