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However, after a dramatic day Sunday that saw defending champion Egan Bernal and multiple grand tour winner Nairo Quintana flaming out on the Grand Colombier, Colombia’s Tour hopes now rest with under-the-radar nearly-man López and father figure Urán.
Bernal and Quintana wilted under the searing pace set by Jumbo Visma on the Hors Categorie haul in the Vosges while Urán and López continued their unspectacular if consistent ascent of the GC ladder, both taking top-1os on the stage and now within 11 seconds of each other on the classification at third and fourth-place.
Having gone into this year’s Tour de France as one of a trio of Colombians at the top of EF Pro Cycling, Urán was not even touted as the most likely “escarbajo” in his team to succeed at the Tour, let alone as his nation’s brightest hope after two weeks. However, after co-captain Sergio Higuita crashed out of Sunday’s stage and with Daniel Martinez well out of the running after a wave of early misfortune, it’s 33-year-old Rigo flying the Colombian flag, now sitting 1:34 back from race-leader Primož Roglič.
“It’s been a difficult day because we’ve lost a teammate,” Urán said after taking 9th on the Colombier. “In the end, we have to keep looking forward, we didn’t lose too much time on the finish line.”
Urán took solace in not ceding many seconds in the GC battle on Sunday, a testament to his approach to the race as a whole. His path to third place on the podium has come through quietly and efficiently getting it done, never putting a foot wrong, and remaining consistent while others around him have fallen away. With three tough mountainous stages and an uphill time trial to come, the veteran isn’t going to change his approach.
“We’ve just got to make sure we focused going forward right up until the last day,” he said.
While Urán has superstar status in Colombia among both cyclists and the general public, López is more of an unknown quantity, rising to take third overall at the Giro and Vuelta in 2018 and always being among – but never quite at the front of – the pointy end of GC pecking orders since.
The 26-year-old has charted a path similar to Urán through the Tour, rarely animating but also never doing much wrong save for a pride-denting faceplant when the race was neutralized on the slippery opening stage in Nice.
The Astana man proved capable of withstanding the flurry of attacks from the lead group in the final kilometer of the Grand Colombier on Sunday, taking last place in the four-man final gallop to the line.
“Fourth place today, that’s not bad,” López said Sunday. “I am very happy with this stage, the first day in big mountains. I think it was a good one for me as I was able to stay with the best riders and also to follow their attack in the end.”
López and Urán will have their work cut out if they’re to overhaul Slovenian duo Roglič and Tadej Pogačar in the standings, and they may well be left to race for the podium rather than the yellow.
Colombia’s best yellow jersey hopes before the Tour had come through proven champions Bernal and Quintana. All eyes were turned toward a mega-match up between Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma in a battle for the overall, while Quintana was seen as a wildcard threat.
However, the wheels began to come off Quintana’s Tour hopes before the summer season even resumed, with a crash while training in Colombia robbing him of training time and leaving him a watt or three off his best through the early-August races. Though unnoticed at the time, it was a crash on Friday that was the final nail in Quintana’s coffin. While the world turned its attention to the withdrawal of Bauke Mollema and concussion of Romain Bardet after the collision midway through stage 13, Quintana also fell hard and raced through the weekend wrapped in gauze and bandages.
Quintana’s body gave up the fight Sunday when he dropped out of the lead group early on the long final grind to the line in the Vosges, with his young compatriot Bernal soon joining him.
“I knew it would be difficult to resist on this stage with the series of difficulties until the summit of the Grand Colombier,” Quintana said after losing nearly four minutes and five GC placings on the stage. “I tried to do it, but the second crash I had on this Tour de France on the Puy Mary stage was tough because we were racing very fast. It caused a lot of pain. I thought I could take it.”
Now in ninth overall, Quintana is left with the hope that Monday’s rest day sees him recover sufficiently to launch a stoic battle to hold onto a top-1o.
“Ultimately a fall remains a fall, it is with my pride and my heart that I climbed to the top of the Grand-Colombier,” Quintana said resolutely on Sunday. “I will now try to recover and finish on this Tour from the top.”
Quintana may yet be able to drag something out of the race. However, Bernal, now 8:25 back in 13th on GC was a shadow of his former self Sunday, and questions remain over what the 23-year-old has left in the tank for the final week.
“My back is not the excuse,” the defending champion said after the Grand Colombier meltdown, despite Michal Kwiatkowski being spotted dropping to the medical car seeking advice shortly before his leader crumbled.
“I did my best, for myself and for the team,” Bernal said. “There are other riders who are stronger than me, and I have to accept that. I felt empty and had no strength. There are no other excuses. I just didn’t have the legs.”
Bernal went into the Tour with the weight of a decade of Sky / Ineos Tour dominance on his shoulders as he headed up a youthful team that had controversially omitted stalwart former champions Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. Similarly, Quintana had gone into the race leading an ambitious Arkea-Samsic squad focussed around him, prioritizing the Colombian over then-national champion Warren Barguil when dishing out the captain’s armband.
No such squeeze on Urán and López however.
With Astana having already scooped a stage win with Alexey Lutsenko on the race to the top of Mont Aigoual, anything in the top-6 would likely be considered a bonus as it puts marquee rider Jakob Fuglsang into duty at the Giro.
The veteran is seemingly phased by nothing, even the expectations and hopes of his cycling-mad nation.
“I took the pressure off myself five years ago,” he joked on Sunday. “My only pressure was to keep my mother, and I already do that, and my mother-in-law.”