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When Juan Pedro López started the Giro d’Italia in Hungary last Friday, he was not expected to lead the race. He wasn’t even Trek-Segafredo’s team leader. Yet ten days later, the Spaniard is heading into the second week of his first Giro wearing the pink jersey. The chances of him winning the race remain slim to none, but his fight to keep hold of the jersey he never expected to wear has been one of the most interesting storylines of the first week of racing.
24-year-old Juan Pedro López came to this race as one of Trek-Segafredo’s climbing domestiques. It is his third grand tour — his first Giro after starting two Vueltas, finishing one — and as a young climber, he would be here to support the likes of Giulio Ciccone and Bauke Mollema in their hunts for stages and a good general classification placing, with possibly some chances to go in the breakaway himself. Like the vast majority of riders on the start list, he was not expected to leave a great mark on the race. Before the 2022 Giro, he’d never won a race as a professional — and he still hasn’t. But thanks to a breakaway effort on Mount Etna on stage 4 and a week of defending his lead, the pink jersey will be on Juan Pedro López’s shoulders when week two gets underway on Tuesday.
Most of López’s time in pink during week one carried with it the caveat that he would probably lose it when the race hit Blockhaus on Sunday’s stage. The ‘real’ general classification riders would have their day on stage 9, making the stage too hard for López and battling it out between themselves to see who would take the race lead. Except, as we know, that’s not what happened. The GC riders took a hold of the stage, yes, but the expected defeat of Juan Pedro López never materialized. The pink jersey was dropped out of the elite selection, but he kept battling right to the top of the climb, losing 1’46” to Hindley — a lot, but not enough to relinquish the maglia rosa. Despite finishing 15th, the Spaniard celebrated across the line, spurred on by the motivation only the pink jersey can bring and the happiness of surviving another day in it.
Though winning is the ultimate aim, the pink jersey sometimes seems to mean more to those for whom it’s almost certainly a temporary accolade. Knowing their time may only be short, these unexpected pink jersey wearers will ride out of their skin to cling onto their lead. They’re not playing games with the general classification contenders, making calculations about how much effort they can put in today or save for tomorrow, they just want to keep that jersey for one more day. It’s the most simple form of racing, and in some ways the most charming. Watching Hindley, Carapaz and Bardet go head to head for victory on Blockhaus was thrilling, but there was something so special about watching López dig so deep for his 15th place, his joy at retaining a 12-second advantage.
The cynic would say it’s futile: he’ll surely lose it when the mountains come back bigger and scarier in the second week. But to the romantic, that futility almost makes it more poignant. He doesn’t have to battle for it, his efforts may be hopeless in the end, but still he fights. Because whenever and however you wear it, a leader’s jersey is special, and we need riders like López to remind us of this fact.
As well as the privilege of wearing the pink jersey, López has shown a maturity beyond his age and experience in taking on the responsibilities that come with leading a grand tour. His position as a leader has not always come naturally to him: on stage 5, his first in pink, there was an endearing moment where he lost contact with his team train in the bunch, and had to awkwardly sprint around the front of the peloton. It was hardly the leader’s jersey coolness we see from riders like Tadej Pogačar or Egan Bernal. But over the last week, López has grown into the role of leader with pride, exerting a command over the peloton on everything from when they can take a comfort break to hunting down moves that threaten his lead. The modern peloton has lacked a patron in recent years, but López has taken his role as leader seriously.
The pressures of his position and his determination to fight for his lead have also become too much for him at points. The revelation of this came after Sunday’s stage on Blockhaus. López had just finished, successfully clinging on to the race lead, and yet when he sat down for his post-stage interview, he looked ready to burst into tears. “Before I answer, I want to say sorry to Sam Oomen,” López said, interrupting the interviewer’s opening remarks. “Because in one moment, there was some tension, he tried to push me, and I lost my mind and threw at him a bottle. I want to say sorry.”
In a moment of frustration at being forced out of line, López threw his bidon at Jumbo Vismas’ Sam Oomen. It wasn’t picked up by commentators and viewers at the time, and you would only see it on the footage if you were looking, in an overhead shot at 17km to go where you can hardly make out if the bottle even makes contact.
He shouldn’t have done it, of course, but the fact that he did says a lot about him. Firstly, it’s an incident that shows just how high pressure the bunch can be in the middle of an important mountain stage. It’s a pressure that weighs heavily on even the best riders; it’s hard to imagine just how that feels on the shoulders of a 24-year-old leading a race for the first time. For all that López has taken on the mantle of leadership, in that moment he showed his weakness. He cracked and lashed out. But secondly, and perhaps more importantly, López’s instinct to apologise — without prompt — and in doing so admit to something hardly anyone knew he had done showed an admirable level of integrity. It was a risk to draw attention to what had happened, it could have earnt him a penalty big enough to undo the work he had just done to keep pink, but he did it anyway, because in that moment the most important thing for him was to make his apology and regret known.
López’s frustrated bottle throw was certainly not an example of the charm and nobility that a pink jersey wearer can often exude, in fact it was the distinct opposite of that. But what it was was an example of the more human side of the racers we get to see when something unexpected happens. Instead of seeing a seasoned pro enjoy their nth stint in a leader’s jersey, we’ve watched Juan Pedro López contend with the steep learning curve of leading a grand tour. He’s learnt lessons, he’s made mistakes, he’s had his lead challenged, and on every occasion he’s done it in not a perfect way, but a human way. He’s reminded us that wearing pink is special, and he’s reminded us that it is hard.
His days in the pink jersey may be numbered, but López has tried to make every one of them count. It’s been a journey with plenty of lessons learnt by young López, it’s been a pleasure to watch, and he is a maglia rosa wearer who will be missed when his lead comes to an end.