When the favourites moved to the fore on the toughest stage of the Vuelta a Andalucia last weekend, it was hard to miss a figure in the bright orange colours of the Equipo Euskadi squad amongst their number.
That rider was up-and-coming Colombian Sergio Higuita, who, at 21, held his own on the final ascent of Hazallanas and the long drop back to Granada in a select group of six chasers on stage 4.
Not only that, Higuita was finally second on the stage, one of the best results in his pro career, as he took the small group sprint behind solo winner Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott).
After beating WorldTour racers of the calibre of Jakob Fuglsang and Ion Izagirre (Mitchelton-Scott), Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) in the small group sprint on Saturday, Higuita then received a large hug of congratulations from the Equipo Euskadi team staff. But the 21-year-old will not be with the Continental team for much longer.
Such is his progress, Higuita tells Cyclingnews, a mid-season transfer to WorldTour level at EF Education First, initially planned for the Tour of Austria in July, has now been brought forward to May, and, he hopes, the Tour of California.
"I was feeling pretty confident that I could stay up there in the stage on the climbs over Sierra Nevada on Saturday," Higuita, who already spent three years with the Manzana-Postobon team before joining Team Euskadi in 2019, said on Sunday. "And once I’d done that, I thought maybe getting a top place in the sprint into the finish could be possible.
"I’ve always done pretty well in the high mountain stages and I’m quite fast in a small group sprint. But I had no idea what the climb itself was like. I’ve never been round here, the only thing I’d been told was that the mountains round here were really beautiful. And they’re right."
Higuita’s impressive start to the 2019 season has seen him claim sixth, fourth and 12th in three of the Mallorca Challenge races, 13th and the Best Young Rider prize in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana - largely thanks to a sixth place on its toughest ascent, to Alcossebre - and then seventh overall in Andalucia, as well as second on its hardest stage.
"Since Mallorca I’ve been up there with the favourites this year, and being able to handle such does boost my confidence a great deal, and it makes you push yourself harder to try and keep getting those good results," he observed.
Higuita will now move on with Euskadi to other Spanish and Portuguese races, amongst them the GP Miguel Indurain, Amorebieta and the Vuelta a Castille y León, where he placed ninth last year, before heading, he hopes, to the Tour of California, his first WorldTour race, with EF Education First.
"They [EF Education First] can see that I’m in good shape and I’m adapting well to this level of racing, so they want to bring the transfer forward," he told Cyclingnews. "So when the Tour of California comes up, I’ll be with them."
Although California is very likely, then, a Grand Tour is not on the cards for 2019. "The idea is to get as much experience as possible in different kinds of races," he added.
The reason for Higuita’s racing with Team Euskadi then EF Education First in the same year is to allow him to start to adapt to the higher categories of events in a smaller team, then make a move into the WorldTour. It is similar to the deal Luis Villalobos signed with EF Education First for 2019. The Mexican time trial champion, who finished eighth overall at the Tour of Utah last year, will ride with the Aevolo Continental team for the first half to the season before making an expected jump to the WorldTour in June.
"It’s a bit strange, but the thing is I’m still very young and Education were very interested in signing me," Higuita said. "So this is like an apprenticeship because if I’d gone straight into their team, the jump from one level to another could have been too great. If I’d done races like Paris-Nice or Catalunya with them, I wouldn’t have had the right kind of start to my year. Psychologically, the pressure it could have been too tough on me.
"But being here [with Euskadi] I can test myself at this level without so much pressure and that idea has been really good, because this way I am progressing well."
With a WorldTour team beckoning, Higuita’s spell in bright orange colours is set to be a short one, but he has no regrets about his choice of squad to start learning the ropes.
"My manager opted for this team out of various Continental options we had because we know they work well with young riders, they work hard together and they’ve got a great director too. I will miss them greatly when I move on to Education First."