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Miguel Ángel López Wins Vuelta a San Juan

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The Colombian cyclist Miguel Ángel López has won the 2023 Vuelta a San Juan, an important step in trying to put behind him two tumultuous years in which he suffered a few hard knocks to his reputation and saw him kicked off two cycling teams.

The 28-year-old Team Medellín–EPM rider made his race-winning move on the fifth stage of the seven-day competition. The so-called queen stage of the race was the only stage with a summit finish, atop the Alto Colorado, and López had two Grand Tour winners – Egan Bernal and Remco Evenepoel – as well as the holder of the UCI Hour Record, Filippo Ganna, to contend with.

Evenepoel attacked 10 km from the finish but was quickly caught and eventually dropped from the leading group. The stage win came down to López and the Bora-Hansgrohe rider Sergio Higuita, with Lopez eventually dropping his compatriot who was caught at the finish by Ganna in full time-trial mode. López finished 30 secs ahead of Ganna, with Higuita another 8 secs behind. That was also the order of finish of the Vuelta a San Juan.

However, the stage 5 fourth-place finisher probably drew more attention from cycling journalists than those on the podium did, for it was the Colombian former Wunderkind, Egan Bernal, making a comeback from horrendous injuries suffered when, almost exactly one year ago, he rode into the back of a stopped passenger bus at 50 kph (31 mph) during a training run. He suffered a fractured vertebra, a fractured right femur, a fractured right patella, chest trauma, a punctured lung and several rib fractures and feared he would never ride again.

Bernal’s performance in the stage suggests that he is well on his way back to full fitness, though he dropped out of the race just after the beginning of stage 6 because of knee pain resulting from a crash in the first stage of the race. But if the 26-year-old Ineos Grenadiers rider managed to be competitive on the Alto Colorado the day before dropping out, the injury is surely minor and his abandoning the race was just a precautionary move. He was sitting fourth in the race GC at the time.

To remind you, Bernal won the Tour de France in 2019, at the tender age of 22 years and 196 days, making him the youngest Tour General Classification winner since 1909. If injury has so far kept him from fulfilling the promise of that victory, his presence in this year’s Tour would make for a mouth-watering mano a mano a mano with last year’s yellow jersey Jonas Vingegaard and two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar.

Bernal has already declared his intention to race in the Tour and to go for the yellow jersey. “I’m surprised and very happy about how much I’ve managed to do,” Bernal said earlier this year. “Not even a year has gone past and I’m now thinking about the Tour de France, and not just finish or take part but to try to go for the overall and do it as well as possible.”

Evenepoel, last year’s winner of the Vuelta a España and the Road Race World Championship, finished seventh in the race, 1 min 19 secs behind López, who will certainly be feeling great satisfaction after leaving the Movistar team in 2021 after dropping out of the Vuelta in what appeared to be a fit of pique when he was caught out by a move of the race GC favourites in the penultimate stage.

Then, in mid-2022 he was suspended by Team Astana Qazaqstan because he had been stopped by police at a Madrid airport in a drug trafficking investigation. The team terminated his contract in December despite the fact that Spain’s Guardia Civil police force refuted reports that López himself was under investigation.

Some victories taste better than others and López must surely be savouring this one.