Opinion: ¡Vamos Juanpe! Juan Pedro López's spirited maglia rosa defence has been a highlight of the Giro
Few expected the fresh-faced Spaniard to still be in pink after the savage Blockhaus finish, but ‘Juanpe’ is surprising everyone, including himself
This year’s Giro d’Italia has been a rollercoaster for Juan Pedro López. While the dedicated fan may have taken note of his 13th place in the Vuelta a España last year, not many people knew the Trek-Segafredo rider's name before this week. No one expected this young man from Lebrija to be going in to the second week of the Giro in pink. His story begins on the slopes of a volcano.
It was stage four of the race, and López had put in a valiant display of strength to find himself in with a shot of winning atop Mount Etna, going to the line mano a mano with his breakaway companion Lennard Kämna. For the 24-year-old Trek Segafredo rider, it was the biggest chance of his career so far. A Grand Tour stage win for a man who had never even secured a professional victory.
But Juanpe fluffed it. Coming into the final corner, he took the wrong line and his back wheel skidded out. A gap opened to Kämna and there simply wasn’t enough road for López to squeeze past the German. Juan Pedro smacked his bars in frustration. Gutted. But there was a consolation prize waiting on the other side of the finish line.
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Thanks to consistent performances in the earlier stages of the race, López had ended up securing the pink jersey; he was the race leader. Disappointment quickly turned into pure, unadulterated joy. “I can’t believe it,” he said through tearful sobs and ragged breaths. “For me, this is a dream.”
Then came two sprint stages, relaxed days for the man in pink. Stages seven and eight were won by those in the breakaway. López's closest rival on GC, Kämna, tried a few attacks to snatch the the race lead from the Spaniard’s grasp, but López always responded, a valiant defender of his maglia rosa.
It had been five days in pink for Juan Pedro when it was time for the brutal, fearsome Blockhaus. Even the climb's name that demands respect. A stage with 5000m of altitude gain finishing on Blockhaus, which tops out at 1665m, it was a day for the GC men. The general consensus was that our protagonist would surely lose the pink jersey to one of the bigger names in the race, his inexperience in grand tours would show, and the race would disappear up the road ahead of him.
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But not on Juanpe’s watch. Resplendent in rosa, he fought valiantly to the final climb, keeping well in touch with the group of GC contenders on the lower slopes of Blockhaus. He looked composed, like he had things under control. But the rollercoaster was about to take another turn.
López touched the wheel of the rider in front of him, causing him to unclip, put his foot down and lose contact with the group of front runners. At this point, many of us thought his stint in pink was over. But the Trek-Segafredo rider valiantly battled on, his mouth ajar, sweat dripping from his furrowed brow. All the way to the line, Juanpe fought. He hung on to the pink jersey by the skin of his teeth.
It was a big moment for the 24-year-old, he’d kept the maglia rosa in one of the Giro d’Italia’s toughest stages so far this year, silencing any doubters and allowing him to live his dream a little longer.
But, a testament to his humble nature, López's emotional finish line interview wasn’t about him. Interrupting before any questions were asked, the Spanish rider said: “I want to say sorry to Sam Oomen (of team Jumbo-Visma). In one moment he tried to push me outside and I lost my mind and threw one bottle, and I’m sorry.”
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This was a moment in the race not caught on camera, not seen by the judges. López could have decided not to mention it, pretended it hadn’t happened, but his apology showed class. It revealed a person under immense pressure, who, like all of us, has emotion. He gets angry when things don’t go his way, he cries with happiness when he wins and he understands the significance of his achievements.
López's candour has given the race a human feeling that is sometimes missed in modern cycling. After the stage, he was riddled with emotion, overwhelmed, overjoyed, exhausted and empty. “I still don’t believe I'm here at the top of Blockhaus with the maglia rosa,” he continued.
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Juan Pedro’s raw vulnerability at the finish line, his fighting spirit and appreciation for the Giro and what it means has us all rooting for him. Whenever his time in pink ends, we’ll know that Juanpe would have given everything to this race, and it’s for that reason that he’ll be one of the most memorable characters in this year's Giro d'Italia.
Long may his time in pink continue. ¡Vamos Juanpe!