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The Colombian climber surged into podium contention on Saturday’s stage 14 with second place and nudged up to fourth overall at 47 seconds behind new leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
López, who earned a career-first grand tour podium at the Giro d’Italia in May, is taking the long view on this Vuelta.
“There is still a lot of Vuelta ahead of us,” he said. “The Vuelta is often not decided until the final days and the stages in Andorra are going to be very demanding. I felt good today, and thanks to the support of the team, I am in a good position.”
López has been patiently chipping away since losing 35 seconds in the opening day time trial in Málaga. He led the GC group across the line at La Covatilla last weekend and nearly won Saturday. His confidence is growing by each stage and he’s hoping for more in Sunday’s mountaintop finish at Lagos de Covadonga.
“Between today’s and yesterday’s stage, we have seen who are the favorites to win,” he said. “Lagos is more for the steady climbers. Today it was so steep that if you get an attack to gain 10 or 20 meters, you only get a few seconds. The stage tomorrow is more important because the differences can be much bigger.”
Despite comments from Nairo Quintana (Movistar) that his compatriot should have helped more in Saturday’s punishing climb to Les Praeres, López said he’s racing with a long view on this Vuelta.
“I had to race with ‘cold blood’ today and I chose to follow Quintana,” López said. “It’s complicated when a team as strong as Movistar has two leaders with Valverde and Quintana. I had to concentrate on making my own race.”
The 24-year-old likely would have been even better positioned on GC if he hadn’t suffered a mechanical on the steepest part of the climb up La Camperona on Friday. His chain slipped, forcing him to clip out of his pedals just as the winning attacks were going off the front. He lost a few seconds to his direct rivals as a result.
“We have full confidence in him and even though he had some setbacks we still believe in the podium,” said Astana teammate Pello Bilbao. “Today was very complicated so it was important that we could get him to the base of the final climb in good position. It’s too bad he couldn’t finish off the stage for the win, but the most important is that we’re there closer to the podium.”
Racing in just his fourth grand tour, López has emerged as a rider with deep reserves to challenge for the podium in the final week. His consistency paid off in Italy when he held on to reach the final podium with third overall in the Giro behind Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin.
His archrivals in this Vuelta are the Movistar duo of Valverde and Quintana. Yates is emerging as the strongest man in the race right now, so to win, López knows he has to leapfrog ahead of all three of them.
“Yates is looking very strong right now, and we’re also seeing his brother [Adam] is strong. I think they [Mitchelton-Scott] are holding him back to help in the final week,” López said. “Yates should go well in the time trial, so I hope to limit my losses. The most important thing is to be consistent and keep your options alive.”
Nicknamed “Superman,” López is hoping to fly in the decisive final week. With two hard stages in Andorra to close out the Vuelta, he knows the race is far from decided.