Sergio Higuita of EF Education First has won stage 18 of the Vuelta a Espana. The Colombian held off Primož Roglič who put more time into his overnight closest rival; Nairo Quintana and looked more assured of the overall title.
Stage 18 from Colmenar de Madrid to Becerril de la Sierra finished with a short rise after a long downhill; but it was the four category 1 climbs that struck fear into many with the shortest being 10.3km at 6.7% and the longest saved for the end up the Puerto de Cotos; 13.4km at 5%. After Remi Cavagna got the attacks going a bit of to and fro emerged at the front with Wout Poels of Team Ineos establishing a lead at the front before being joined by Geoffrey Bouchard of AG2R La Mondiale, Sergio Higuita of EF Education, the ever-trying Tao Geoghegan Hart of Team Ineos, Dimension Data’s Ben King and Louis Meintjes, Nick Schultz of Mitchelton-SCOTT andTobias Ludvigson of Groupama-FDJ. Another group then joined them in Omar Fraile of Astana, Nelson Oliveira of Movistar, Óscar Rodríguez and Jonas Koch of CCC Team. Finally Hermann Pernsteiner of Bahrain Merida also made it across to the leaders as the gap was allowed to climb to 3.30mins with 105km to go.
Jumbo-Visma once again led the way, with Robert Gesink taking charge of setting a tempo that appeared very comfortable for most of the peloton. The break’s lead continued to grow, and by the time the race had gone up over and down the first two climbs the gap was out to 5 minutes. At the feed zone the break’s lead was out to 5.20mins.
The break weren’t all willing to simply take turns together, with Jonas Koch and Louis Meintjes going on the offensive from the break and building a 32 second lead with 66km remaining once they reached the bottom of the second last climb. That lead continued to stretch towards 1 minute before the break began clawing their advantage back. Meanwhile Trek-Segafredo and then Astana took over responsibility for the chase effort; cutting a chunk of the break’s lead back to 3 minutes with 60km to go.
At the front of the race Koch was unable to keep the pace he’d set with Meintjes and he drifted back as Higuita and Poels joined the South African before a selection from the break bridged across. They couldn’t afford to get comfortable, however, as Miguel Angel Lopez attacked from the GC group and piled on the pace to shake up the GC contenders; although at this point Roglič, Valverde, Quintana, Pogačar, Majka and Carl Fredrik Hagen remained together along with Marc Soler and Sepp Kuss.
At the top of the climb Bouchard extended his lead in the KOM classification, but Lopez was not just 1.12mins behind the lead group. After cresting the summit Higuita attacked the rest of the breakaway, going on the attack and gaining a 1 minute lead with 39km to go. The red jersey and his companions patiently bided his time and rejoined Lopez. But they couldn’t quite get across to the Colombian who had a 1.13min lead around the foot of the final climb and held on for dear life, holding on to a slender 45 second lead by the time he reached the top.
Back down the road it was all change for the GC contenders as Nairo Quintana faded, losing time as Roglič, Lopez, Valverde and Majka built their advantage over the green jersey, with Pogačar also dropping back and losing a little time. Eventually the Slovenian white jersey was caught by Quintana who had Meintjes and Hagen for company. But the stage honours were hanging in the balance.
At 20km to go Higuita had a lead of just shy of 40 seconds but from there his advantage managed to stabilise on the long sweeping descent towards the final ramp up to the finish. At 6km to go the gap was still 36 seconds; only really starting to drop at 2km to go where his lead was down to 25 seconds. It would be a very close run thing for the stage and the fans were out in force to cheer him and the rest on with just over 1km to go. Under the flag his lead had dropped further to 22 seconds, but he managed to hang on for the win, pressing on all the way to the line to secure the stage by 15 seconds.
Roglič out-sprinted his companions for second place, just getting the better of Valverde, with Miguel Angel Lopez conceding 2 seconds to the red jersey. They still finished a minute ahead of Quintana, Pogačar, Hagen and Meintjes over the line.
Dion Smith was the first Kiwi home for Mitchelton-SCOTT in a large group that included George Bennett of Jumbo-Visma.