Miguel Angel Lopez claimed victory on the queen stage of the Tour of Oman atop Green Mountain, helping his teammate Alexey Lutsenko take control of the overall classification as the Astana pair indicated they are ready to fill the gap left in the team following Fabio Aru's departure.
Lopez attacked the group with his teammates Lutsenko and Jan Hirt on the final climb with only Gorka Izagirre able to follow. Lopez and Lutsenko then dropped the Spaniard, pushing away to win by 12 seconds on the punishing climb.
"I am so happy to win today," said Lopez after the stage. "I felt very strong today, the legs worked perfectly on the climb. Actually, nobody could attack on the final climb, so we just followed our plan, and after some great work from our teammates, we went away together with Alexey. Of course, the climb was super hard, but we managed to do it as we wanted and finally, we took the stage. It's a nice feeling to win here and to start my season in this way."
Lopez comes into 2018 off the back of a strong finish to last year where he won two stages of the Vuelta a Espana and finished eighth overall. It was a massive confidence boost for him after an extremely challenging start to the year. An off-season crash in 2016 left him with a broken tibia and meant that he couldn't begin racing until June at the GP du Canton d'Argovie in Switzerland. He then headed to the Tour de Suisse to defend his title but had to abandon after stage 5 when he crashed heavily and broke his thumb.
"It was a very complicated season because of the fracture that I got at the end of 2016. I think that my comeback went really well with what I was able to do at the Vuelta. I didn't think that the year would go this way," Lopez told Cyclingnews.
"It was really difficult after the fracture but I managed to return to the level that I had at the Vuelta. There was a very high level there and a lot of strong riders and it finished off the season perfectly.
"It was really important because I've never won a stage in a Grand Tour. In the Vuelta, it was a dream to finish like that. To take those stages was a big motivation and a boost for my confidence, in respect to my rivals for this season and the coming years, when thinking about the general classification."
No extra pressure after Aru moves on
There have been some changes at Astana over the winter, with Aru moving to UAE Team Emirates with the Kazkhstani team lacking the time and funds to replace him. Lopez is now Astana's second general classification leader with Jakob Fuglsang, but the 24-year-old Colombian says that doesn't feel any additional pressure.
"I feel the same as always. I always want to make my best races in the Grand Tours. It's a dream that I've had since I was little. We just have to go little by little and go day by day," he said, adding that there were plenty others to shoulder the team's ambitions along with him.
"Fuglsang is our main guy in the Tour de France and there are also other important guys in the group like [Alexey] Lutsenko, Magnus Cort, who is really good in the sprint, and [Riccardo] Minali who is really young but has plenty of expectations on him. It is really good because our team is always giving everyone opportunities."
With Fuglsang focused on the Tour de France this season, Lopez will look after the team's general classification ambitions at the Giro d'Italia in May. It will be his first attempt at the Italian Grand Tour, while he will look to close out the year with a strong finish at his third Vuelta a Espana.
"My big goal this year will be the general classification at the Giro d'Italia. It will be my first Giro d'Italia, I've never done it before," he said.
"I would like to win a stage of the Giro d'Italia, that is the motivation. In my head, I am very motivated for it, and I would also like to end the season in a good way at the Vuelta."