“This was the last opportunity to win a stage. I told them that, and I told Sergio, his life would change if he did.”
– sport director Juanma Garate
Every morning during the team meeting on the EF Education First bus, sport director Juanma Garate outlines the team plan to his depleted Vuelta a España squad. Only five riders remain from the eight starters. Hugh Carthy, Rigoberto Urán, and Tejay van Garderen were forced out of the race with injuries in the first week.
The crashes took whatever plans the team had and threw them out the window. The five riders left in the race, without their team leaders to look after, were tasked with stage hunting across Spain, Andorra and France. No small ask.
“Everybody knew that we had a really nice opportunity today, but where do you find the motivation for the guys when you are saying more or less the same thing for two weeks?” wondered Garate. “I felt that. I know they did. This was the last opportunity to win a stage. I told them that, and I told Sergio, his life would change if he did.”
Sergio HiguitaSergio Higuita. The 22-year-old neo-pro who got his WorldTour call up in May. The Vuelta is his maiden Grand Tour, and in Becerril de la Sierra on Thursday, Higuita scored his first WorldTour win.
“It’s a dream to be at the Vuelta, riding a Grand Tour,” said Higuita. “And now, winning a stage, it’s very important. It’s the biggest win of my sporting career.”
“To win one stage in a big Tour, it is really special,” Garate said. “Especially when you are 22-years-old, especially when everyone is talking about you and what you can do in the future. He’s a big guy even if he’s really small.”
The Higuita Monster, as team boss Jonathan Vaughters affectionately dubbed him during the first week of his tenure with the team, emerged victorious from the early escape on Thursday. The stage 18 177-kilometer route featured four category one climbs. Higuita forced clear on Puerto de Cotos, the second of the four climbs, with a group of six riders.
Wout Poels (Ineos) was the lone leader at the time, and, after Higuita’s group had linked up to Poels, more riders bridged across, making it a baker’s dozen up front. The group of 13 had five minutes over a reduced peloton on the third climb, the Puerto de la Morcuera.
Higuita launched his race-winning attack over the top, 52-kilometers from the finish, with Garate in his ear, urging him forward.
“I asked him to go,” said Garate. “It was the only chance we had. Go back, breathe, then go. Right after the top, he had to go. He did it. He dropped everyone. It was so cool.”
Gap gained, Higuita next had to hold off his chasers – the breakaway riders and the general contenders who were throwing attacks in his wake.
“I had to maintain a high rhythm because the big favorites were fighting behind me,” said Higuita. “My director told me I could keep an advantage over them. I had to ride with my heart until the last five kilometers, to handle the pain because this team needed this victory in this moment.”
Higuita hit the five kilometer marker with a 34-second advantage and the red jersey leading the chase. Higuita didn’t dare look over his shoulders until he had the finish line in sight, and when he saw the clear road behind him, he smiled broadly and threw his hands in the air to celebrate across the finish line.
“During this Vuelta, I learned to never give up. After the bad moments that you have during a Grand Tour, each day is a new day and any day you can finish with a victory,” Higuita added. “I showed resiliency because yesterday I had a very, very difficult day and today I won the stage. I took it as it came and turned a bad situation into a good one.”
The Vuelta has been a rough road, no doubt — but it’s in the moments when things aren’t perfect that a team finds out what it truly is, and what it can be.
“The truth behind someone never surfaces when things are good but instead when hard things hit,” said Vaughters. “Today, we saw the truth behind Sergio.”