The latest twist in the strange odyssey of Miguel Ángel López sees the Colombian rider return to the team he left one year ago.
On the heels of his controversial exit from the Vuelta a España with one stage to go and the subsequent breaking of his contract with Movistar, López confirmed Friday he’s penned a two-year deal to return to Astana Qazaqstan Team for 2022-23.
“Coming back to the Astana team is a return home,” López said in a statement Friday. “In the world of professional cycling, a rider who wants to keep on moving forward sometimes has to change something in his career, to gain new experience. Sometimes it is a good one, sometimes not.”
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With those guarded comments, it appears López is saying he’s happy to have his brief but controversial tenure with Movistar come to a close.
And the official announcement Friday is the latest chapter in what’s been one of the most explosive and headline-grabbing stories of the 2021 season.
An implosion unseen in cycling history
The U-turn is the latest chapter in the ongoing saga involving López, Astana general manager Alexander Vinokourov, and Movistar’s Eusebio Unzué and members of the Movistar Team.
The arrival of López to Movistar seemed to be going fine until everything unraveled in a question of hours in the tense and decisive final road stage of the 2o21 Vuelta.
Also read: López quits Vuelta as podium spot melts away
With his contract to join the long-running Spanish WorldTour team, López was being groomed as Movistar’s new GC captain, and he was doing nicely to fill in the gap left by the recent departures of such marquee riders as Nairo Quintana, Richard Carapaz, and Mikel Landa.
Things were going so well that Movistar and López had agreed to a contract extension just before the 2021 Vuelta started, and he paid back the team with a victory in the “queen stage,” finishing atop the new summit finish at Gamoniteiru in Asturias.
Everything unraveled in spectacular fashion in a question of hours in a rollercoaster stage across the steep and narrow roads of Galicia.
— Albert Rivera Rabal▲ (@AlbertRiveraR) September 4, 2021
López was caught in a crossfire in a series of nothing-to-lose attacks from podium rivals, and the Colombian, who started the day third overall, was left stranded in a chasing group while teammate Enric Mas, who was poised in second, was in the front GC group.
What unfolded next was one of the most spectacular meltdowns in cycling history.
Seeing his podium chances evaporating and apparently angered by team orders coming across the radio, López angrily stepped off his bike to quit. Despite entreaties from his sport director, teammates, and Unzué himself, López refused to carry on.
With about an hour remaining in the final road stage, López quit the Vuelta, and the cycling world spun into pandemonium.
No chance to repair the damage
The ensuing hours, days, and weeks saw recriminations on both sides.
López said the team ordered him to stop chasing, and Colombian backers of López hinted that the team was trying to torpedo his chances within the team to ensure that Mas — a Spanish rider — would be assured of a podium spot.
Unzué and Movistar Team officials denied those accusations, and insisted that they were pleading for López to continue racing, not only to conserve what still could have been a sixth or seventh place on GC, but also as payback for all the hard work his teammates had put into the Vuelta during the previous 19 stages.
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
Unzué later explained that the team was telling López to “stop chasing” only so that chasing teammates from behind could regain contact with the López group — loaded with riders who had no interest in pulling back the leaders.
The story played out in headlines over the next several days and weeks, with Colombian and Spanish cycling media and pundits each taking sides.
According to sources, riders on Movistar Team approached team management and said they did not want López to remain on the team after his angry and abrupt departure from the penultimate stage. López, too, expressed frustration with the Movistar way of doing things.
The die was cast. López was gone.
A return to Astana, a team in transition
Beyond the headlines in the wake of the Vuelta implosion, a different drama was playing out at Astana-Premier Tech.
The long-running Kazakh team was also undergoing turmoil. Longtime general manager Vinokourov was forced off the team that was largely founded and created for him in what was a tug-of-war between the Kazakh’s and the arrival of new Canadian co-sponsor Premier Tech.
When the 2021 Tour started, Vinokourov was sidelined as general manager, and the Premier Tech group, led by company owner CEO Jean Bélanger, was trying to wrestle control of the team.
Within a question of weeks, however, major players in Kazakhstan, including up to the nation’s prime minister according to media reports, hoisted Vinokourov back into his general manager’s role. That led to an exit by Premier Tech, which is still shopping around for a new WorldTour partner in 2022.
Vinokourov’s return to the top of the team — now called Astana Qazaqstan Team — helped open the door for López’s comeback.
López left Astana to chase a better deal at Movistar, and when everything unraveled during the Vuelta, a freshly minted Vinokourov was waiting with open arms to bring back their prodigal son.
López turned pro with Astana in 2015, and following a tumultuous few months, he’s back.
“Miguel Angel Lopez is a rider who grew up and achieved his greatest successes in our team, and therefore I am happy that after a short break he is making his return to Astana Team,” Vinokourov said in a press release. “Over the past year, Miguel Ángel has gained serious experience, which, perhaps, he lacked in our team. I think that this experience, both good and not so good, will help him to continue his development.”
In the wake of the López incident, both teams have been regrouping.
Movistar is betting on youth, and has signed six new riders for 2022, including Alex Aranburu, Óscar Rodríguez (both from Astana), and Colombian climber Iván Sosa.
The Spanish daily AS also reported this week that longtime sport director José Luis Arrieta will not continue with the team, with Patxi Vila taking over the reins as the lead sport director for 2022.
After a few months of uncertainty about its financial future, Astana Qazaqstan is now filling out its roster for 2022. Several big names leave, including Jakob Fuglsang, Aleksandr Vlasov, the Izagirre brothers, and Luis León Sánchez.
Incoming riders include Vincenzo Nibali, Gianni Moscon, David de la Cruz, Joe Dombrowski, and, after one tempestuous season away, López.