Vuelta a San Juan’s sole mountain top finish did not disappoint. The action started with Remco Evenepoel’s premature attack and ended with Miguel Angel Lopez’s monstrous time up Alto Colorado, breaking Gonzalo Najar’s 2018 record mainly due to the huge tailwind.
The stage was fairly easy before the climb as the peloton climbed on shallow mountains all day before Alto Colorado. The highway climb itself is not that hard. 18.8 kilometres with a 4.4% average gradient is perfect for heavier riders like Filippo Ganna, who always performs on Alto Colorado. With only 1 kilometre above 6%, this means drafting has a huge impact for the entirety of the climb.
Miguel Angel Lopez is now riding for Medellin-EPM and this might be the biggest race in his 2023 calendar as no WorldTour or Pro Conti team wants to sign the Colombian after Astana terminated his contract. Before the race Lopez did a huge effort at altitude in training and was clearly in superb shape. His teammates paced the climb as hard as possible on shallower gradients at the start to fatigue other riders.
Unexpectedly, with 9.8 km to go, Remco Evenepoel launched from the peloton which still had many riders left and with Medellin and INEOS having multiple teammates left for their leaders. Probably no one was expecting it which is the main reason why Evenepoel even got a gap. On a 4-5% gradient, it is extremely hard to beat a group that is working together even if you are by far the strongest rider. With Medellin and INEOS’ best efforts the World Champion was brought back in a few kilometres, however the leading group was shattered and included only a handful of riders.
It was also a huge tailwind which favoured long range attacks. If it had been headwind Evenepoel very likely would not have even considered such a brave move.
Lopez immediately accelerated and upped the tempo when Evenepoel was caught, making sure the Belgian was dropped whilst his legs were cooked after the hard effort. If a rider goes into the red zone at high altitude like Remco it is much harder to recover than at sea level. Bernal pacing Ganna brought Lopez back initially, but Superman attacked one more time and dropped Sergio Higuita from his wheel proving he is still possibly the best high altitude climber in the world. Maybe only Jonas Vingegaard could challenge Lopez at such a high altitude.
Despite the shallow gradients in the remaining 5km, Lopez was too strong enough for everyone and won the stage comfortably. Despite now being on a continental team, the Colombian had optimised everything as he had a road suit, fairly long socks, S-Works bike with aero wheels and aero helmet – likely a faster set-up than he had at either Astana or Movistar. Aerodynamics are extremely important when climbing at such high speed.
Ganna had performed well on Alto Colorado already in 2018 and 2020 and was back at his game, proving that 4-5% gradients suit huge riders if they have big watts under the bonnet. Ganna at one moment was even 15 seconds away from Lopez closing the gap, according to TV time gaps, but the 7% section at the end finished his attempt to close the ga as it was too steep for him, compared to the much lighter Lopez.
Lopez won the stage by 30 seconds and the last two days will be for sprinters. If there are no huge crosswinds or unexpected crashes, the GC should not change. Evenepoel finished 69 seconds behind Lopez between Brandon Rivera and Nicolas Paredes from the SEP San Juan team. Quinn Simmons who is also a fairly big rider compared to the Colombians performed well for his standards and ended in the Top 10 of the stage. It was brilliant to see Egan Bernal performing at a high level after his horrific crash a year ago.
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Thanks to the pacing of his team and huge tailwind Miguel Angel Lopez was able to break Gonzalo Najar’s 2018 record. Najar attacked very early and did not have such a huge tailwind pushing him forward, which is why his performance from a watts perspective is still way more impressive.
Najar did an estimated 6.3 w/kg for 36:58 min up to a finish at 2624 metres above sea level, one of the greatest climbing performances ever. Nonetheless, Lopez’ effort was also very good as he did an estimated 5.99 w/kg for 36:20 min whilst Ganna was 8 seconds faster than Najar and did 5.77 w/kg. All calculations are made normalised to a 60kg rider, which means Ganna’s unadjusted w/kg that he actually put out were much less compared to the lighweight Colombians Higuita, Bernal, Rubio and Rivera all of whom finished behind him. In the 2020 edition the best climbing time was 39:06 set by Miguel Eduardo Florez, 2 minutes and 46 seconds slower than Lopez’ time.
Despite blowing himself up, Evenepoel was 1:40 min faster this year than in 2020, however this time he had perfect conditions. In 2022 the Belgian also struggled in the early season races, such as Valenciana where he was dropped by Vlasov, but for his main goals in the second part of the season he was dominant.