Or perhaps the Vuelta blew him up.
Late in Saturday’ brutal and dramatic stage, López did something almost no one — at least no one as paid as well as he is — ever does: leave a race in anger.
Also read: López angrily pulls out of Vuelta a España
Sure, we all know the Movistar Team bus isn’t “The Brady Bunch” — two seasons of “The Least Expected Day” on Netflix confirmed that. And we all know that racing bikes can be frustrating and maddening business.
Yet what López did Saturday — pulling out of the penultimate stage in apparent rage after watching his podium spot melt away under pressure from Ineos Grenadiers and Bahrain Victorious — could haunt him for awhile.
Also read: Can Movistar get it right in the final week?
For Movistar, this Vuelta a España was going about as well as it could be.
López was hot off winning the “queen stage” at Gamoniteiru and Movistar, with Enric Mas second and López third, was poised for its first grand tour podium since Alejandro Valverde was second in the 2019 Vuelta. Only a superior Primož Roglič was in their way.
And all that despite being down to five riders.
On Sunday’s final time trial, there will be four.
López will have his reasons — and Saturday evening everyone was still waiting for answers — yet pulling the chute when things are not going your way is hardly a tactic for ensuring confidence and commitment from everyone around you.
In fact, Colombian media was citing unnamed sources saying that Movistar sport directors were asking López not to pull from the second chase group because they didn’t want the two GC groups to rejoin. Why? Because sport directors felt second-place Enric Mas would have a better chance to defend second in Sunday’s time trial with a bigger gap to chasers.
That might not make sense, but it could be one explanation why López blew a gasket, and left the race in a huff.
Dice una fuente en El Tiempo: “'Le dieron la orden de no perseguir. No querían que le siguiera dando y eso a él no le gustó. Los técnicos lo regañaron porque venía tratando de llegar al grupo de adelante'”.
No lo defiendo, pero no le puedes pedir eso a un ganador.
— Thomas Blanco (@thomblalin) September 4, 2021
Needless to say, things were not going well for López on Saturday, who started the final road stage with a target on his back.
Ineos Grenadiers and Bahrain Victorious dropped the hammer midway through the hilly stage designed by former Tour de France winner Óscar Pereiro, who lives nearby and trains on the sharp, steep climbs.
The bunch immediately fractured under pressure, and López was caught out on the wrong side of the split.
With Movistar down to just five riders, there were only three riders left to try to help Mas and López in what was quickly turning into a trap. Other teams piled on, and López simply didn’t have teammates, allies, or the legs to try to close down to the gap to Jack Haig and Adam Yates, the two GC rivals who were both gunning for him.
What happened next remains uncertain. Did López quit because he was losing grip of the podium? If so, it’s a black mark against the rider. Or was López enraged by team orders? That still isn’t reason to quit a race and let down your teammates.
Anger can be spilt after the race, inside the team bus. Stepping out of a grand tour in anger isn’t a good look, no matter the reason.
We all know López has a temper — remember when he swiped a hat off of a fan who knocked him off his bike at the Giro d’Italia a few years ago?
— Nairo Quintana Fanclub (@NairoInGreen) September 4, 2021
We all know he’s not afraid to speak his mind. Remember, López was the rider who called out Movistar during the 2019 Vuelta and called them the “same bunch of clowns” who do the same “stupid things” when the team attacked in crosswinds after half the peloton crashed behind them.
And we all know that Movistar isn’t a seamless, streamlined operation. Just watch the first two seasons of the Netflix documentary series to find out why.
Also read: López delivers stunning win at Gamoniteiru
There was no official word out of the Movistar camp Saturday, but they have to be steaming no matter what happened.
Sport director Patxi Vila, who joined Movistar last year after helping Peter Sagan win three world titles, was providing new balance and focus during the Vuelta. Cameras captured an image of Vila pinching his brow in exasperation — apparently from a scene from Saturday’s charade — that said more than any official press release ever will.
Teams pay riders to follow orders, if even sometimes they might not make sense at the time.
And López recently signed a two-year contract extension to stay in Movistar colors. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture.
— Albert Rivera Rabal▲ (@AlbertRiveraR) September 4, 2021
Race cameras did not capture the unfolding drama, but a Spanish TV reporter was on the scene. After watching the gap grow to more than four minutes, López unexpectedly stepped off his bike.
The TV reporter described how Vila tried in vain to insist he continue. Teammate Imanol Erviti, a longtime veteran on the team, also encouraged López to finish.
López was spotted speaking on the telephone as he stepped into the back seat of the team car. About what? To whom? We don’t know.
Those details could be telling, but they won’t be an excuse for López.
Finishing a race even when the chips are down is also part of the DNA of a sport built on team spirit, sacrifice and determination against the odds. Riders cross the finish line with broken bones, in the hope of being able to continue.
López decided to go home instead.
Of course, López isn’t the first rider to blow a gasket and leave a race.
Rohan Dennis did it a few years ago at the Tour de France a day before a time trial stage that many expected he could win. More than a decade ago, David Millar pulled out of the Vuelta in angry protest after racing through torrential rain in Asturias. He rode to the top of the Angliru, put his race number on the finish line, and went home.
And there’s been more than a few episodes were riders have been ejected from races. Tom Steels, now a mild-mannered sport director at Deceuninck-Quick-Step, was kicked out of the Tour in the 1990s after throwing his water bottle at a rival in the middle of a finish-line sprint. Vincenzo Nibali was booted from the Vuelta once for a blatant “sticky bottle” violation.
Yet none of them were racing for a podium or were one of the GC leaders of a major team. López still likely would have finished sixth overall on the stage going into the final time trial. Maybe the memory of his slip from third to sixth in last year’s Tour was still haunting him.
There’s another expression that comes to mind when the chips are down: bike racing doesn’t give you character, it reveals your character.
As teammate José Joaquim Rojas said at the line, everyone reacts differently to severe situations. López chose to quit.
Did Greg LeMond quit when he was told to ride for Bernard Hinault? No. He came back and won the Tour the next year.
Primož Roglič, who suffered an even more shattering demotion in the 2020 Tour, didn’t quit, either. He came back from that Tour disappointment and won the 2020 Vuelta, an Olympic gold medal, and in all likelihood, will win his third straight Vuelta crown Sunday.
López is a highly talented racer, no doubt, and it’s likely he will bounce back from this. Will he bounce back? And if he does, will his teammates work for him?
There will have to be some intense conversations behind the scenes in the coming hours, days and weeks to turn the page on this latest episode and smooth what’s sure to be some ruffled feathers.
Damage is done, will it be undone? Time will tell. In the meantime, López is going home, and Movistar is finishing the Vuelta on Sunday without him.