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It was no surprise to see an EF Education First rider climbing through the mist in a tight battle with wunderkind Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Team Emirates) on Mt. Baldy last Friday. After all, EF’s Tejay van Garderen started the day leading the Amgen Tour of California, with former Tour de France runner-up Rigoberto Urán in the squad’s line-up for the race as well.
But it wasn’t Urán or van Garderen that rode to an impressive second place at the chilly stage 6 finish line. It was 21-year-old Sergio Higuita, who’d decided that the steep Southern California climb would be a great place to put on a show.
“I wanted to go on the attack, to give people some aggressive racing,” Higuita told CyclingTips the next day. “People like to see a battle.”
Higuita, who was not even a teenager yet when Urán and van Garderen turned pro, finished second overall in California. Not bad for his first-ever WorldTour race. Higuita has been a WorldTour rider for less than a month but his impressive performance in California suggests EF director Jonathan Vaughters might have found himself a steal in signing the largely unheralded Colombian.
Hailing from Medellín, Higuita got his start racing at age six, taking part in local events along with his younger sister. He was hooked in no time. He told CyclingTips he traded his childhood mountain bike for a road bike from a neighborhood junkyard a few years later. As he rose through the junior ranks, he also found success on the track.
In his late teens, Higuita got into the pipeline of the Manzana Postobón team, signing with the then-Continental squad for 2016. He stayed with Manzana Postbón as the team jumped up to the Pro Continental level for 2017 and 2018.
“He was brought to my attention by his agent in May last year, maybe even a little bit earlier,” Vaughters said. “I asked Rigo about him, ‘Do you know this Sergio Higuita kid?’ and he’s like, ‘I’ve never heard of him.'”
With Manzana Postobón, Higuita had a chance to ride against tougher competition in Europe. He had not enjoyed the same kind of success in developmental races as compatriots like Egan Bernal and Ivan Sosa — both of whom are now with Ineos — but Vaughters nevertheless kept an eye on Higuita as he impressed in a variety of low- and mid-level events throughout 2018.
“He had this really funny fall schedule with these races in China that were pan flat, but he was still winning little bonus sprints and still chipping around in the top 10, getting the KOMs,” Vaughters said.
Higuita is a born climber, as he showed on Mt. Baldy, but it wasn’t just his watts-per-kilogram that really caught Vaughters’ eye.
“My tendency is to try to go for riders that are really explosive when they’re young,” Vaughters said. “That five-minute power is very genetic. One-hour power can be trained.”
Higuita combines that punchiness when going up with a knack for going down.
“People when I went down to Colombia would tell me he’s the best descender in Colombia,” Vaughters said. “There are a lot of Colombians that have big VO2maxes, they can go up hills well, but downhill not so good, and they can’t really handle themselves in the peloton.
“He was racing on the track as a junior. He’s got that massive explosive power, and he’s a bike handler.”
As Vaughters began talking to Higuita, he got a better sense of his personality. The kid had manners too.
“He never refers to me as anything other than ‘señor’. Very formal,” Vaughters said. “He’s like, ‘What would you like me to do today, señor?’ ‘How much food should I eat today, señor?’ ‘How much training should I do today, señor?’ He’s old-school with a lot of respect for old grumpy bastards like myself.”
His interest piqued, Vaughters decided to bring Higuita on for 2019. The arrangement was an unusual one, although not unheard of. EF brass wanted Higuita to get a bit more seasoning in Europe, so an agreement was made for Higuita to start the year with the Continental Fundación Euskadi team, with a plan of bringing up him to the big leagues mid-season.
Higuita’s success in the first few months of the year sped up the process. He finished in the top 10 in four one-day races and two stage races at the UCI level, including the Volta ao Alentejo, where he won a stage.
“He was killing it,” Vaughters said. “So it was like, he was ready. Let’s get this going.”
The step up to the WorldTour may have been a daunting one for such a young rider, but Higuita is happy to learn on the job. Things have sure gone well so far.
“I learned a lot in [California],” he said. “I learned how to have responsibility in a big team. It’s hard making decisions, where to attack.”
His racing instincts looked sharp already on Baldy. Higuita says van Garderen had told the team he wasn’t feeling great on the tough finishing climb, giving Higuita the green light to go on the attack. He did just that, and he plans to keep doing it as he continues to develop as a rider.
“I grew up watching [Alberto] Contador,” Higuita said, noting that he tries to emulate the Spaniard’s “particular riding style: attacking.”
Higuita also grew up watching compatriots like Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán whose various successes over the past few years have ushered in a new age of Colombian cycling.
“When I first started in cycling, I told my mom, ‘I want to be like them. I want to be there,'” he said.
Now, he gets to ride with Urán at the sport’s highest level, and he’s loving it so far. Meanwhile, Urán says he is happy to have a mentee.
“He is a good guy,” Urán said of his new teammate after arriving at the Mt. Baldy finish on Friday. “He is really young, and has a lot to learn. But he has a teacher, and a team, to help him.”
Should he continue to develop and learn as his team hopes, Higuita could form part of the next generation of stage racers leading the way for EF in future seasons, along with other youngsters like fellow Colombian Daniel Martínez.
There are a lot of ifs and maybes on that road from promising up-and-comer to consistent team leader, but things are off to a fine start so far, and people have quickly taken notice. The crowd of Colombians gathered outside of the EF bus after the Tour of California finale in Pasadena was buzzing with excitement for the newcomer.
“A second Rigo,” said one especially optimistic fan.
Higuita is trying to take it in his stride.
“You have to enjoy it, because it’s beautiful feeling the support of all the people,” he said. “But I have to keep training and growing for the next several years in my career.”