From a Giro d’Italia that went off the rails this spring to a hiccup in the second stage of this Vuelta that cost him the leader’s jersey, the Astana captain is intent on taking control of his destiny once and for all.
On Wednesday’s first major climbing stage of this year’s Vuelta, López pounced to drop his rivals. This time, there were no mechanicals, no mishaps with fans and no misreading of tactics. López jumped with 4km to go and clawed back just enough to recapture the red leader’s jersey he lost in Sunday’s ambush at Calpe.
“Each race is a unique. You have both good and bad moments. It’s true at the Giro, we were very strong, and things didn’t go as we had hoped,” López said. “We came to this Vuelta with a super-team that has my back. So far, things are going as good as we could have hoped.”
Of all the favorites coming into this year’s Vuelta, López seems to have more urgency of getting things on track.
Others seemed to have gotten their just rewards from earlier grand tours, from Primoz Roglic’s Giro third place and a pair of stage victories, to Nairo Quintana, who at least won a stage during the Tour de France.
López left the Giro this spring feeling underwhelmed by his performance that left him believing he could have had more. A string of mechanicals and mishaps hit a boiling point in the final mountain stage at the Giro when a fan knocked him off his bike. López was lucky that he didn’t get kicked out of the Giro after he slapped a fan who had taken him out.
And just when things seemed to be on the right track at this Vuelta, following Astana’s victory in the team time trial to put López into red, he bungled the defense the very next day. López misjudged a decisive counter-attack late in Sunday’s stage to Calpe, and just as fast as he had taken red, he had lost it.
Even though he’s still only 25, López has been around long enough to know not to panic. So after ceding red Sunday, he knew in a Vuelta packed with mountains, he wouldn’t have to wait long for a shot at redemption.
That opportunity came Wednesday on the upper flanks of the deceptively grueling 11km climb to an observatory in Spain’s barren interior. In the first of five new climbs in this year’s Vuelta, the Javalambre climb with ramps as steep as 14 percent was the perfect platform for López to set the record straight.
He countered a move from Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), coming over the top with 4km to go to finish fourth on the stage, 47 seconds behind stage-winner Angel Madrazo (Burgos-BH) out of a three-rider breakaway, but 12 seconds ahead of Roglic and Valverde. It was just enough to dislodge Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) and take over red by 14 seconds to Roglic.
“What happened in stage 2 was just a moment’s lapse. We analyzed what happened and moved on,” López said. “The most important thing is that the legs are feeling good.”
Feeling good and executing are two different things. His legs were feeling equally as strong in Italy, but he ended up seventh overall with a result that he feels didn’t reflect his true fitness.
Now back in red, López will be riding to keep it as long as he can. As the only returning podium-finisher from last year’s Vuelta, López moves back into pole position.
“López is a rival to beat in this Vuelta since day one,” said Valverde, who climbed into fourth overall. “He has a strong team and we all know how strong he is in the mountains. That’s why I was chasing him today to limit the losses.”
Everyone knows López’s lone weak point is his ability against the clock. Against fellow Colombians, he’s fine, but against a world-class time trialist like Roglic, he admits he will be on the back foot. So when the road tilts upward, López doesn’t hesitate.
“We want to take advantage of every climbing stage. We have to,” López said. “We took back some seconds and everything is working well right now. I have confidence because my team is around me 100 percent.”
López has long seemed destined to win a grand tour. After knocking around a few years, he now knows that to fulfill his pre-ordained destiny, he needs to control his narrative. After a Giro that unwound in a unsatisfying manner, López wants to be the one controlling his fate, not the other way around.
“Now we are seeing who is strong enough to win this Vuelta,” López concluded. “This Vuelta is starting to get hard.”