If there had been any doubts as to whether Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) will be a serious contender at the upcoming Giro d’Italia, the Colombian laid them to rest with a stunning victory at the Volta a Catalunya against some ferociously tough competition on Sunday.
The Volta's line-up this year was exceptional – even for a race that traditionally garners a stellar start-list. There was Chris Froome (Team Sky) and double defending champion and pre-race favourite Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), along with recent Paris-Nice winner Egan Bernal (Team Sky) and Valverde's Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana, who were expected to be two key GC challengers, plus Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), who arrived following his strong Tirreno-Adriatico performance. But Lopez managed to beat them all.
While Valverde's aspirations took a major knock on the first day in the Pyrenees, Bernal and Quintana both proved to be major threats, and Yates looked ready to inherit the overall lead from Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) after the Briton outsprinted Lopez, Bernal, Quintana and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) at the race's hardest finish, at Vallter 2000 on stage 3.
Lopez, though, was able to bounce back with a vengeance at La Molina 24 hours later, and his lone attack on a Pyrenean summit finish, which has rarely seen big time gaps, not only gained the Colombian the stage win by a comfortable margin, but also put Lopez into the lead.
Finally crowned the outright winner in Barcelona three days later, Lopez's oft-repeated prediction that the last stage of the Volta a Catalunya would be the most dangerous of those that remained in the race after La Molina proved to be 100 per cent accurate, with attacks raining down on the Colombian – most notably from Yates, with help from his teammate and twin brother Simon.
But the Colombian said that he had been able to stay calm, and after Yates was reeled in and Bernal and Valverde's late moves ended up cancelling each other out, the rider nicknamed 'Superman' had his biggest stage race GC victory since his breakthrough win at the Tour de Suisse three years ago comfortably in the bag.
"Today was a very tough battle in a tough war, but we were prepared for it," Lopez told reporters after donning his final green-and-white jersey of race leader.
"The attacks by the Yates brothers came in the final part of the sage, but fortunately I had teammates like [Andrey] Zeits and Pello [Bilbao], who had a lot left in the tank and we could make the most of that. I was watching the time gap on Adam, but I knew that he was alone after Simon had been dropped, so I thought it would be hard for him to keep such a big gap when I wasn't the only one chasing.
"There were a lot of favourites behind, and I could get on Bernal's wheel and then on Valverde's too, which was good for me. Above all, I decided to stay calm and not get too stressed. I've been in this situation before – under pressure on the last stage of a race when I've been in the lead – so I knew what to expect.
"But I never thought I could lose the race," he insisted.
Lopez said he had been targeting the Volta a Catalunya since well before the season, in which he already has taken the Tour Colombia 2.1 title. But in what has an exceptional start to the year for Astana, who now have 21 wins in their 2019 palmarès alone, Lopez's victory – their first outright stage race win in the WorldTour this season – is arguably the most prestigious of all to date.
Lopez will now return to Colombia, where his wife is expecting their first child, before heading to the Giro d'Italia – where he took third overall last year, prior to taking third again in the Vuelta a España last September. At 25, and having put so many top names to the sword at one of the hardest-fought Voltas in recent years, Lopez's motivation for May will surely be higher than ever.