Miguel Angel Lopez's lodging for the Vuelta a España's first rest day was just off the course of the pivotal stage 10 time trial, but the Colombian already had one eye on the challenges that lie beyond the ring road around Pau when he sat down with reporters on Monday afternoon.
After wearing the maillot rojo on three separate occasions in the Vuelta's opening week, Lopez currently lies third overall, just 17 seconds behind his fellow countryman Nairo Quintana (Movistar), 11 down on second-placed Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and 3 ahead of world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
On taking a seat in the lobby of the Kyriad Hotel, Lopez conceded that those narrow margins will widen considerably on Tuesday afternoon when Roglic is expected to seize the overall lead in the 36km time trial.
"My number one rival is Roglic. It's his speciality, and he's been very good in the mountains," Lopez said.
"The idea is to lose as little time as possible. Being sincere and looking at the time trial, then I could lose 1:30 to 2 minutes but the idea is to lose less. But there's a lot of the Vuelta still to go, though, and that gives me hope.
"There are lots of high mountains to come after the time trial, so I've got to stay calm and focused. I hope to do a good time trial, then let's see what we can do in the stages to come."
Lopez evinced similar optimism ahead of this year's Giro, mind, but his pink jersey challenge unravelled when he conceded 3:45 to Roglic in the first long time trial in San Marino. That subdued performance was mitigated in part by punctures, and ill fortune continued to plague his Giro thereafter, culminating in his contretemps with a wayward tifoso on the road to Croce d'Aune.
On Sunday, Lopez's solo attack on the road to Andorra was interrupted by his crash on the gravel sector that led to the foot of the final climb to Cortals d'Encamp, an incident that must surely have made him wonder if his Vuelta might prove as ill-starred as his Italian campaign. Lopez was half a minute clear of his rivals and seemingly destined to re-take the maillot rojo when his wheels slipped from under him amid driving hail, and he instead finished the day nursing bloodied forearms and a deficit on his direct rivals.
"I'm not thinking about bad luck, we're just doing things as well as we can," Lopez said on Monday. "Besides, if we start analysing other Grand Tours, normally I've been a minute or two down by this point, whereas here I'm doing a lot better – although there is the time trial to come, of course."
Just 20 seconds separate the top four on this Vuelta and despite the looming presence of 20-year-old Tadej Pogacar – now 5th at 1:42 after winning in Andorra on Sunday – Lopez maintains that the final winner in Madrid will come from the quartet that currently lead the overall standings.
"Yes, definitely. You can see that the four of us are always up there," Lopez said. "But there is a long way to go, and all kinds of things are possible, so we have to wait and see."
Pogacar's displays on this Vuelta feel in keeping with the tenor of a season that has seen an emerging generation of young talent carry off some of the biggest prizes, most notably Egan Bernal, who won the Tour de France at just 22 years of age. It is easy to forget, however, that Lopez himself is shy of his 26th birthday. The disappointment of his 7th place at the Giro, after all, was offset by a second successive victory in the best young rider classification.
"Yeah, I'm an oldie," Lopez joked. "No, seriously, there are lots of young guys coming through. And at 25, you are old. There were young riders on the Vuelta podium last year, and again in the Tour with Egan. It's incredible."
After placing third overall at both the Giro and the Vuelta a year ago, a spot on the podium in Madrid is no longer the summit of Lopez's ambition, even if much will rest on what he can achieve in Tuesday's time trial. The stage will inevitably set the tone for the second phase of the Vuelta; Lopez's hope is that it will not define his race altogether.
"The time trial is very important, but it's the mountain stages that matter the most," Lopez said. "And there are still five or six really tough mountain stages to come."
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