Sergio Higuita claimed a timely mountain stage victory for EF Education First as the young Colombian fended off some of the strongest racers in this year’s Vuelta a España to stay away alone to the finish of stage 18.
Opportunities for victories in this year’s Grand Tour are running very scant, with only four stages remaining, and EF Education First had the toughest of starts to the Vuelta, losing three riders early on, including leaders Rigoberto Uran and Tejay van Garderen, to bad crashes and injuries.
But after such a difficult beginning for his team and a very tricky day for Higuita, too, duering Wednesday's high-speed stage across eastern Spain when he lost a large chunk of his GC hopes, the Colombian bounced back with a vengeance on Thursday.
On top of that, for a rider who only joined the WorldTour earlier this year at the Tour of California, switching from the Continental Euskadi Foundation to the EF team in early May, claiming a win in his first-ever Grand Tour represented another major breakthrough.
"If they had told me that I would win a stage like this in my first year here in the WorldTour, I'd never have believed them," Higuita told reporters afterwards.
"I worked really hard in my early part of the season, in the Vuelta a Andalucia and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and when I got second in the Vuelta a Andalucia's toughest mountain stage, I knew I could do something. And I got a lot of support from the Euskadi Foundation.
"Then when I got to team EF, I have learned even more and they've always believed in me, even in the difficult moments."
One of the 22-year-old's personal low points in the Vuelta came during Wednesday's tumultuous high-speed stage, where he missed the 40-rider break of the day and slumped from 12th to 18th overall as a result.
"My team boss, Juanma [Garate] was really important in me getting over that," Higuita said. "I'd been so tired I'd fallen asleep in the bus on the way to Wednesday's start, and then things got very difficult in the stage.
"But Juanman told me to hold on, to stay calm, not to worry about not getting into the top 10 overall, and and to race as if it was a recovery stage. Because I was very tired, and so that's what I did."
"That helped me today a lot, and I felt I could win from the moment I got in the break of the day. I knew I had good legs.
"Juanma kept me fighting all the way through, too, he told me to keep going on the last climb when I was losing time on the climb and that if I had 40 seconds to a minute at the top of the final climb before that long descent to the finish I should be able to win."
The GC group behind, containing four of the top six – leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) eventually squeezed the gap to 15 seconds by the line.
But by then Higuita was home and dry for the third professional win of his career, and second this season, following a stage in the Tour of the Alentejo in Portugal this spring.
Higuita said that the team's ultra-difficult start to this year's Vuelta had acted both as inspiration and recognition "that you have to keep going, you can't ever give up." And at the finish of stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, when he crossed the line in victory, he finally reaped the rewards for his, and his team's, perseverance.