Higuita takes first pro win as Roglic moves closer to Vuelta glory
Colombia’s Sergio Higuita held on to win Stage 18 of La Vuelta in Becerril de la Sierra ahead of a chasing quartet led home by Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic, who strengthened his grip on the red jersey with three days of the race remaining.
Higuita, the 22-year-old climber making his Grand Tour debut for EF Education First, was the last man standing of a strong 13-man break which animated the 177.5km stage through the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range north of Madrid.
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Jumbo-Visma’s Roglic out-kicked world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) to finish runner-up, 15 seconds in arrears, and pocket extra bonus seconds over the Spanish veteran, who moved back above Colombian teammate Nairo Quintana into second place in the general classification.
Also present in the chasing quartet were Poland’s Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the animated Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana, who rose to fourth place on GC and took back the white jersey from Slovenia’s Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates).
Double stage winner Pogacar finished in a second chase group, a further minute in arrears, alongside Quintana, the impressive Norwegian debutant Carl Fredrik Hagen (Lotto Soudal) and South Africa’s Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data).
With just one mountain stage of the race remaining, Roglic now leads Valverde by 2’50” with Quintana at 3’31”. Lopez is 4’17” down and Pogacar at 4’49”.
Having risen up the standings after Wednesday’s crosswind split, Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and Briton James Knox (Deceuninck-QuickStep) struggled to keep up with the race favourites on the fourth and final climb, both slipping one place to seventh and ninth respectively.
Roglic’s second place saw the 29-year-old also extend his lead in the green jersey points classification, while Lopez now leads Pogacar by 32 seconds in the youth classification.
Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) starred in the day’s break, cresting two summits in pole position to extend his lead in the polka dot jersey king of the mountains competition.
But the spoils of the day undeniably went to the pint-sized tyro Higuita, who secured the first professional win of his career and gave his EF Education First team a welcome boost following the earlier withdrawals of Rigoberto Uran, Hugh Carthy and Tejay van Garderen.
Higuita’s victory was the 85th for Colombia in Grand Tours, the 20th in La Vuelta, and the second of this race following Quintana’s Stage 2 triumph.
Stage 18: Colmenar Viejo to Becerril de la Sierra - how it happened
With Wednesday’s crosswind carnage still fresh in the mind - and legs - it was no surprise to see big Tony Martin on the front of the peloton patrolling the early moves for Jumbo-Visma leader Roglic. And if the sight of a Deceuninck-QuickStep rider going clear could have sent shivers through the German’s spine, the fact that it was Remi Cavagna probably put his mind at ease.
The Frenchman never opened up much more than an advantage of 20 seconds and Cavagna was swept up by the time the peloton hit the first of four first-category climbs, the Puerto de Navacerrada (11.8km at 6.3%).
Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) led the chase but a constant flurry of movement on the front of the pack on the long but relatively gentle climb neutralised all the moves and kept the Dutchman’s lead down to a minimum.
It was Bouchard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) who zipped clear of the pack to take second place on the climb to consolidate his lead in the polka dot jersey standings. And after a rolling plateau following the summit, it was the plucky Frenchman who featured in a chase group 20 seconds behind Poels.
Struggling out on his own, Poels would have been pleased to welcome the Bouchard-powered reinforcements, which also included his Ineos teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart.
Third and second in the previous two summit finishes, youngster Geoghegan Hart had an eye on going one better and saving his - and Ineos’ - race after a disappointing opening week saw both him and co-leader Poels plummet out of contention.
Tobias Ludvigson (Groupama-FDJ), Nick Schultz (Mitchelton-Scott), Meintjes and Higuita completed the group, which was soon bolstered further by the arrival of Nelson Oliveira (Movistar Team), Omar Fraile (Astana Pro Team), Jonas Koch (CCC Team), Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) and Óscar Rodríguez (Euskadi-Murias).
With all of the race favourites boasting a teammate in the break, the gap was allowed to grow as Jumbo-Visma took control of the tempo through the dependable Robert Gesink, George Bennett, Sepp Kuss and Leonard Hofstede.
Austria’s Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain-Merida), who had been involved in the earlier chase with De Gendt, was rewarded for his persistence when he managed to bridge over on the Puerto de la Morcuera (13.2km at 5%) and make it a baker’s dozen out ahead.
Bouchard’s polka-dot push was fuelled by the maximum 10pts over the top of the climb ahead of Geoghegan Hart and Poels as the gap grew to five minutes.
On the rolling loop back to the foot of the same climb - which was to be tackled from the opposite direction - South Africa’s Meintjes and the German Koch rode clear of the pack. Their foray off the front did not last long - but Meintjes was soon part of the new lead group when the break fragmented on the second ascent of the Morcuera (10.4km at 6.7%).
Bouchard was again the driving force - and it was the Frenchman who led Rodriguez, Mientjes, Pernsteiner, Higuita, Powless and Poels over the top, further strengthening his grip on the king of the mountains competition.
Behind, it all kicked off when the Astana team of Lopez threw down the hammer on the climb, tearing up the main pack and paving the way for an attack from the diminutive Colombian.
By the time the attack came, the red jersey group had been whittled down to fewer than 10 riders - with the likes of Knox (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) all distanced.
Lopez opened up a gap and soon bridged over to his Astana relay man, Fraile. This duo went over the top with the remnants of the break - including Geoghegen Hart - and were able to rejoin the rest of the break after the descent.
The rest of the break, minus Higuita - for the pint-sized Colombian had attacked on the downhill to establish a 50-second gap when rolling through the intermediate sprint at Rascafria.
Meanwhile, the red jersey group - which contained Roglic, Quintana, Valverde, Pogacar, Majka, Hagen, Marc Soler and Sepp Kuss - joined Lopez and the remnants of the break ahead of the final climb of the day.
Lone leader Higuita started the Cat.1 Puerto de Cotos (13.9km at 4.8%) - the opposite side of the opening climb - with one minute to play with over the strong 22-man chasing group.
With all the race favourites in his wake, the 22-year-old Grand Tour debutant had his work cut out. And yet Higuita benefitted from a lull behind to extend his lead over the opening half of the ascent.
A series of attacks saw Lopez eventually ride clear with Valverde and Roglic, with Majka bridging over once he managed to ditch the ailing Quintana and Pogacar.
Higuita’s lead came down to 45 seconds over the summit - and then 40 seconds after a testing false-flat plateau. But smooth roads, a welcome decline and few tight bends played into Higuita’s hands on the descent, the lack of technical difficulties making it easy for him to hold the gap on the chasers.
Pogacar, too, was unable to close the gap on his GC rivals, riding as he was in a group containing a knackered Quintana, a Meintjes weakened by the break, and the inexperienced Hagen.
Despite a gradual uphill rise towards the finish over the last 4km, Higuita held on to open up his Grand Tour stage account, with Roglic sticking the knife in behind by pipping Valverde for second place with Lopez in their wake.
With just one more summit finish remaining, Roglic took a huge step in winning a maiden Grand Tour - both for him and his Jumbo-Visma team.
Coming up: Stage 19 - Avila to Toledo
With just the one early categorised climb, this 165.2km ride looks like it could suit the sprinters. But with some rolling roads and possible crosswinds, a repeat of Wednesday’s chaos cannot be ruled out. So, while Ireland’s Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) will eye a third sprint scalp, Jumbo-Visma and Roglic will be on red alert for a potential ambush.