Ask anyone for their favourite to take the overall classification at this year’s Giro d’Italia, then Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) are likely to be high on their list. Probe a little further, though, and Miguel Angel Lopez will not be too far behind.
The 24-year-old turned professional with Astana three years ago, in 2015, and has been touted as a future Grand Tour winner for almost as long. Now in his fourth season, the Giro d’Italia is just Lopez’s third three-week race, but he already has a proven track record. After missing the entire first half of last season due to injury, Lopez emphatically bounced back to take two stage wins at the Vuelta a Espana and finish eighth overall.
Despite his breakthrough performance at last year’s Vuelta, Lopez says that he feels no additional pressure heading into his debut Giro d’Italia next week.
“There is no pressure because I will be taking the Giro d’Italia day by day,” Lopez tells Cyclingnews, doling out a refrain he oft uses. “Obviously, I’m thinking about the general classification but I’ll be living it day by day. Every day I will enjoy it to the maximum. In the Vuelta a Espana, I went really well, and for this Giro, I have been working really well, but maybe things don’t go as well.
“It’s a race that I’ve always liked. The Giro is really beautiful. I’ve always watched it on television but I’ve never been there. I like it a lot, and let’s see what happens this year.”
Unlike last year, taking on the Giro this year meant that Lopez had to hit the ground running and, for the most part, he has done so. After a solid, if uninspiring, start at the Colombian national championships, he moved onto the Tour of Oman, where he won a stage and helped teammate Alexey Lutsenko take the overall victory. Lopez finished second himself. He went on to take third at the Abu Dhabi Tour before a slightly disappointing 16th at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Following the Italian race, Lopez spent a month out of competition. He took the time to go home to Colombia before returning to Europe for an altitude training camp. The Tour of the Alps last week marked his final race before he lines up in Jerusalem in less than a week. He put on an aggressive performance to take victory on the queen stage to Alpe di Pampeago and finish third overall, and he says his form is similar to where he was going into the 2017 Vuelta a Espana.
“I feel like I have a relatively similar condition. Last year, I hadn’t raced that much, but this year I have raced more consistently. Last year was quite unique, but the sensations at the Vuelta a Burgos were really good and I was able to win a stage there, and then afterwards the Vuelta went really well. Now, I hope that the Giro will go perfectly.”
Miguel Angel Lopez in the Astana line up at Tour of the Alps (Bettini Photo)
The strength of Astana
One thing that Lopez can be assured of is that he will have the backing of an on-form Astana squad. The Kazakh outfit took almost all of their Giro d’Italia line-up to the recent Tour of the Alps and dominated the race throughout, with three stage victories, including Lopez’s, and had five of their seven riders make the top 15 – three of which were in the top 10. It is a part of what has been a confidence-boosting start to the season for the team. They’ve racked up 14 wins so far with nine different riders, with Lopez among five riders that have won twice. Lopez says that this is a major motivation, and he says it's a sign the team is operating as just that, a team.
“We have a lot of riders doing really well this year. Some of them are really young. There isn’t any tension between the best, like in other years. We are really motivated and it is an opportunity for us all and we are able to win with different riders. There is no captain,” Lopez tells Cyclingnews, perhaps referencing perceived tensions between former Astana riders Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa during the 2015 Giro d’Italia.
“It’s been really motivating up until now and there are many more races ahead. We’re almost halfway through the season, and for sure, it will be a magnificent year for the team.”
Lopez also has the wisdom of veteran directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli to build upon. The former team manager stepped back from a role in the team car during the past winter but followed Lopez during his recon of some of the Giro’s most important climbs and will be lead directeur sportif for the Giro d'Italia.
“Martinelli is a great person,” says Lopez. “He gives you a lot of motivation and a lot of confidence. Since he arrived with the team, I have got to know him. I like him as a director and he is a great person. He’s very relaxed. He has a lot of experience, he gives a lot of advice and he is really important for the future.”
Miguel Angel Lopez and George Bennett at Tour of the Alps (Bettini Photo)
The Monte Zoncolan, in the Udine province east of Trentino, was one such climb that Lopez went to see ahead of the Tour of the Alps. It is only the fifth time that the climb has featured in the Giro d’Italia, after making its debut in 2003, but it has already built up a mythology around it and this year is likely to sound the death knell to the chances of many a hopeful.
“It will be a really important stage. It is a really hard stage and the final will be really tough,” explains Lopez. “It is a really hard climb and for sure this day will really test the legs. I hope that I will have them when we arrive at the Zoncolan in the second week. I’m expecting a really tough day.
“I really like the mountain stages and I think that they can be spectacular. I think that you can gain a lot, or lose a lot. You will have to keep your concentration throughout. It will be a Giro d’Italia with quite a few hard stages.”
While he is happy with the mountain stages, he’s less pleased about the start in Israel, with the race starting a day early to include an additional rest day so that they can accommodate the travel involved with the first Grand Tour start outside of Europe.
“It’s mad. It’s basically a week for just three stages and for sure all of the travel will cause a lot of fatigue but it is the same for all of the riders,” he says. “They wanted us to start there and we have to take is all with a lot of positivity.”
Miguel Angel Lopez (Bettini Photo)
Lopez is one of eight Colombian riders that are penned to start the Giro d’Italia in a little under a week. Of those eight, he and Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) have a realistic shot at the podium, while a Carlos Betancur (Movistar) on form could secure a top 10. Lopez or any of his compatriots can come home with the maglia rosa at the end of the three weeks, they would be only the second Colombian to do so after Nairo Quintana won it in 2015.
Lopez sees it as a return to the golden age of Colombian cycling and is confident about its future, with the likes of Egan Bernal and Ivan Ramiro Sosa climbing the ranks.
“We have returned to the era of Lucho Herrera and [Fabio] Parra, great riders and a great era for Colombian cycling,” he tells Cyclingnews. “Like everywhere, we have generations and we have arrived at a new generation with Rigo [Uran], Quintana, Henao, Chaves and coming is an even better generation with Bernal, Sosa, who led the Tour of the Alps. There are many prospects.”