Another week, another mountaintop, another Miguel Angel Lopez show. After triumphing on Green Mountain at the Tour of Oman, the Colombian produced another stinging series of accelerations at Jebel Hafeet on the final stage of the Abu Dhabi Tour, but he had to settle for second place at the summit behind a seemingly unbeatable Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
The wide, freshly tarmacked roads can give a deceptive impression of the 10km haul up Jebel Hafeet, but gravity trumps the smoothest of surfaces. As the gradient stiffened, Lopez was among the climbers to come to the fore, and the Astana rider proceeded to launch a searing solo attack with 4km remaining.
When Valverde bridged across shortly afterwards, it was immediately apparent that this would be the winning move. The pair were on a different plane to the rest, and their pursuers could never draw to within 15 seconds from there on in. Though well-matched on the climb itself, there was no real contest when they road flattened out at the summit, as Valverde led into the final corner to claim the stage victory and move into the red jersey of overall winner.
"I was attacking to try to win the stage, and when Valverde came across, I knew beating him in the sprint was going to be very, very difficult," said Lopez, who could console himself with third place overall and the white jersey of best young rider.
"When we got to the finish together, I knew it would be complicated. I tried my best to do something in the last kilometre, but it was difficult. He was first into the last corner, and then in the last 50 or 25 metres it was practically impossible to pass him."
Lopez, like so many on his Astana team, has begun the new campaign in sparkling form, underscored by his podium finishes in Oman and Abu Dhabi this month. The Colombian's 2018 campaign is centred on his Giro d'Italia debut, and his next two outings will come on Italian roads, at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps.
Just 24 years of age, Lopez's vicious turn of pace in the high mountains carried him to overall victory at the 2016 Tour de Suisse, as well as a win atop Superga at Milano-Torino. A broken tibia that winter only temporarily halted his progress. Lopez returned to stitch together a brace of mountain stage wins at last year's Vuelta a España, where he placed 8th overall, and his maiden Giro will be the source of considerable interest.
"I've been working well with the team to be ready for the Giro. The idea is to go there and look to finish high up on the general classification," said Lopez, who downplayed the idea of finishing on the podium at his first attempt, though he didn't dismiss it either.
"Bueno, we'll see how things play out. I think we'll set out taking things day by day. I don't know the Giro, but we'll try to stay with the strongest riders. We've got a strong team like always."
Astana's stunning collective start to the season continued with Michael Valgren's surprise win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, though that victory came less than a day after general manager Alexandre Vinokourov cast doubts about the team's future. In an interview with Kazakhstani publication Vesti.kz, Vinokourov complained that the Astana team had not yet received funding from its government sponsors for 2018, though Lopez – like the rest of his teammates – said that he was not concerned by the news.
"I think there are little problems to be sorted out, but I think in the end it will all be resolved," said Lopez, who recently agreed to a deal to stay at Astana until the end of the 2020 season. "There's a lot a tranquillity and good morale on the team and we hope there'll be a quick solution."