Many expected a Colombian to win the stage at the high-altitude summit at the Col de la Loze. When the Tour’s newest mountaintop finish was unveiled as the king-maker of the 2020 Tour, many pegged the torturous climb as ideal for Egan Bernal.
The defending Tour champion never made it, and after Bernal left the race Wednesday morning, the climb was a blank canvas for one of the peloton’s “altitude natives” to take the honors.
With the summit just topping 2,300m, the finish line was still 200 meters lower than where Miguel Ángel López lives high in the Colombian Andes.
“I felt like I was at home today,” said López, who attacked on the steepest ramps of the hors categorie finish. “These are like the climbs we train on in Colombia — long, hard, and altitude. I knew it would be a good chance for me.”
The Col de la Loze was an “altitude-native” playground. Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), who lives at 2,900m in Ecuador attacked out of a breakaway, and was only caught in the closing kilometers. Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss, who grew up in Durango, Colorado, situated at nearly 2,000m elevation, made the lethal acceleration to blow up the bunch.
The two Slovenian slayers were shoe-horned by López fourth and Kuss in fourth on the 2020 Tour’s highest point.
“I was already feeling good at Grand Colombier,” López said. “These higher mountains favor me, and so does the third week. The first two weeks were very fast, and it’s only now that people are getting tired.”
López, 26, is making a big impact in his Tour de France debut. Surrounded by the turquoise jerseys of Team Astana, he survived the first week and did not give up time in the crosswinds. López stayed with the best in the Pyrénées to stay in podium contention, and then rose to the fore every time the elevation soared.
He made a little flare Tuesday at Villard-de-Lans to put the peloton on notice.
What he did Wednesday was impressive. Bahrain-McLaren set a blistering pace, but teammate Pello Bilbao was still with him leading up to the steepest part of the climb. After Kuss moved, López was all over him. Kuss seemed uncommitted and waited to see how Roglič was faring against yellow jersey rival Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Emirates). Roglič finally countered, but López had enough in the tank to hold on for the win.
An emotional López broke down into tears as he thanked his family watching TV back home.
“This is the biggest win of my career so far,” López said. “The Tour is the Tour, and to win like, on something so important, and the way we did it, it really fills you with emotion.”
With the time bonuses, López moves into third at 1:26 back in what will be a tight race for the final podium in Paris. Though he is only 29 seconds behind second-place Pogačar, López will be looking backward in his bid to hit the Tour podium in his first try.
“Tomorrow will be another decisive day, so maybe I can have good legs again,” he said. “For the time trial, everyone knows I am not as good as a rider like Roglič. I would need at least a minute to them. If I have good legs, maybe I can be on the podium in Paris.”
López is part of the wave of Colombian riders who’ve crossed over to Europe over the past decade. Someone overshadowed by the likes of Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán in terms of palmares, López is still a big star back home. He’s been slowing improving his consistency in grand tours and finished third in both the 2018 editions of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.
“We have faith we can do it,” said López. “We knew in my first Tour de France, the most important thing is to arrive to Paris. We started to believe more was possible when I arrived to the third week feeling strong. This victory gives us tranquility. Maybe we can hit the podium in Paris.”