SAN LUIS, Argentina (VN) — With Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and a bevy of world-class lieutenants on staff, Astana’s roster is an embarrassment of stage-racing riches, but the team has made room for yet another rising star, Miguel Ángel López.
The Colombian kicked off his 2016 campaign last month with a stage victory atop the toughest climb in the Tour de San Luis, crossing the line just ahead of Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. Not a bad way to start the season, especially when his teammate, Nibali, drew all the attention in the lead-up to the event.
For now, that shouldn’t come as a surprise, but as the cycling world sees more of the 22-year-old, it could change. López even has a handy nickname already. His fans call him “Superman,” a moniker he earned a few years ago when he fought off a pair of would-be bike thieves — despite being stabbed in the leg — while out on a training ride.
López hails from Colombia’s Boyacá Department, the same mountainous region that Quintana calls home, and like Quintana he’s a natural talent on the climbs. He tapped into that talent relatively late, taking up competitive cycling in earnest at age 17, and he battled injuries early on, but before long, he was turning heads in his home country.
Impressive results on the Colombian youth circuit earned him a leadership role at the 2014 Tour de l’Avenir, cycling’s premier under-23 race. When he took a stage and the overall victory, his phone started ringing. López suddenly had a job offer from Astana, a team fresh off a Tour de France victory with Vincenzo Nibali. He accepted.
“I was a bit nervous at the beginning, in 2015, because I was going somewhere I didn’t know anyone, where they spoke another language. The majority are Italians, Russians, Kazakhs. Fortunately there were one or two Spaniards so that I had someone there to pass the time with, so that I wasn’t alone and bored and isolated all the time,” López told VeloNews in San Luis.
“In a little time, it became clear that it’s a great team. It wasn’t as hard as I had thought [to fit in], with no one speaking Spanish. They did speak a bit. So then I made it through a bit more calmly. It’s a great team, and I feel very at home there.”
After he settled in to his new surroundings — though still the youngest rider on the squad — López started learning from Astana’s big names, chief among them Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and Mikel Landa (now with Sky).
“Being in a team where there are two or three fierce leaders that have won the Tour, the Vuelta, the Giro, it lets you learn some things. In my case, as young as I am, still just beginning my career as a cyclist, being alongside those three big riders taught me things all the time that I can apply to my athletic career.”
That paid dividends quickly. López managed a top 10 in Tour de Suisse last June, and then went on to take a stage win and fourth overall in Vuelta a Burgos.
“In the races that they took me to, they gave me a bit of freedom, without any responsibilities of having to do a job. They left me a bit loose, to do what I was able to do.”
Outgunning both Nairo Quintana and his 23-year-old brother and Movistar teammate Dayer in stage 6 of the Tour de San Luis, López picked up in 2016 where he left off at the end of 2015. That was the goal all along.
“This year, the objective is continue growing in my athletic career,” he said. “Growing personally … getting stronger little by little, growing with the team, picking up more experience.”
Given the talent, the tenacity, and adaptability López has shown so far, Colombian cycling fans have plenty to be excited about, if he continues to develop as planned. In fact, they can look forward to the development of quite a few young Colombians. Dayer Quintana took the overall crown at the Tour de San Luis, and Fernando Gaviria (Etixx – Quick-Step), twice a stage winner in 2015, added another one to his palmares in the race this year. For López, it’s about time that his cohort of early 20-somethings stepped into the spotlight.
“These days, Nairo is always the best young rider in all the races,” he said. “But that’s ending now. The young riders’ jerseys are for the under-25 [riders] and Nairo is now passing into a new age group. So now it’s us … Gaviria is now arriving, [Rodrigo] Contreras is arriving, [Jhonathan] Restrepo. We are the new generation.”