Sergio Higuita turned the fortunes of his beleaguered team around today, winning Stage 18 of the Vuelta a España with a 50-kilometer solo breakaway – his first major win – while the overall favorites battled for small change behind.
The 22-year-old Colombian, one of only five men still standing in Team EF Education First after a series of crashes in the opening week of the Vuelta, was part of a large breakaway group that stabilized after around 70 kilometers, as they took on the second of the day’s four categorized climbs. That group was a mixed salad of minor players, B-grade overall contenders (Wout Poels, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Louis Meintjes), and strategically placed teammates of race favorites. Early on, it looked as though they’d have a chance to contest the stage win, but with 63 kilometers to go, the Astana team took over the pacemaking back in the peloton, and the gap between the two groups shrunk by about two minutes in 10 kilometers.
Astana’s move began to wear out the teammates of race leader Primoz Roglic, and with just under 60 kilometers to go, Astana team leader Miguel Angel Lopez took off down the road. Teammate Omar Fraile, who had been in the breakaway, dropped back to guide Lopez down the penultimate climb, as the chasing group of overall favorites behind began to splinter. Tadej Pogacar and Nairo Quintana found it especially difficult to keep up, while James Knox, who rode into the top ten during yesterday’s crosswind raid, fell further back still.
With Lopez dragging the action ever nearer to the breakaway, Higuita made his move on the descent, leaving Poels and Oscar Rodriguez behind and quickly opening a gap of about 15 seconds.
That gap would widen to a minute-and-a-half on the final climb, as the next group on the road – which now contained Lopez, Roglic, Alejandro Valverde, and Rafal Majka – played cat-and-mouse on the final climb, awaiting each other’s next move and rubber-necking to check the progress of Pogacar and Quintana.
Approaching the top of the final climb, Higuita’s lead was down to 45 seconds. Ignoring the outstretched bottle proffered by a teammate on the roadside, he hunkered over his handlebars and charged across the agonizingly long plateau at the summit before plunging into the final descent with a likely gasp of relief, knowing the favorites would find it difficult to catch him on the downhill run.
He was right. While Lopez and company did begin to work together in the end – shaving their deficit down to just 24 seconds with a kilometer to go – Higuita had done enough on the final climb to maintain a comfortable advantage. Frothing at the mouth and riding out of the saddle for the length of the final rise to the finish line, he ended the stage just 16 seconds ahead of Roglic, who led the favorites home at a gallop.
The group of Quintana, Pogacar, Meintjes, and Carl Fredrik Hagen finished a further minute back. That puts Quintana back in third place, after surging to second yesterday, and drops Pogacar to fifth place. Lopez, for all his efforts today, moves ahead of Pogacar but still 46 seconds from the podium, with the hilly 20th stage the only real opportunity left to make up time.
Stage 19, tomorrow, features only one categorized climb but a surprisingly steep final kilometer.