Just as expected, the heavyweights were at the front driving the pace and forcing echelons. Peter Sagan, check. Jasper Stuyven and Vincenzo Nibali at the front, double-check. Paris-Roubaix runner-up Nils Politt, there. Sergio Higuita, wait … what the?
The pint-sized Colombian rider at EF Pro Cycling was punching above his weight Monday to ride with some of the peloton’s strongest riders in a brutal stage that saw the pack fracture under pressure from all sides.
Higuita finished fifth, and moved into the virtual lead at Paris-Nice with the decisive mountains looming in southern France.
“The team did a great job working to help me, and in the end Sep [Vanmarcke] and Tom [Scully] really helped me in the crosswinds to make sure I didn’t lose time,” Higuita said. “I feel like I didn’t do bad with the riders who were there.”
That was the understatement of the day. The images Monday were striking as the peloton fractured into echelons under strong surges from Trek-Segafredo and Bora-Hansgrohe.
The front group kept reforming before breaking up again. Each time, the pint-sized Higuita, who was dwarfed by the larger body builds of riders like Politt and world champion Mads Pedersen, was right there.
EF’s Sep Vanmarcke, at 6-foot-2, and Tom Scully, at 6-foot-1, provided a firewall for the 5-foot-4 Colombian.
“Sergio also proved that he can fight in a peloton for position and that he’s also really good at riding in echelons and crosswinds which for his size is really impressive,” Vanmarcke said. “He did really well to hang in there with the sprinters and even get a few second gap to Nibali, so it was the best outcome we could have hoped for.”
No sé si acierto con la "banda sonora", pero el planazo que se han currado el operador de wescam+piloto de heli ha sido sublime. #ParisNice #Ciclismo (📺 @Eurosport / 🎶 Carmen) pic.twitter.com/UDBHRTJJml
— iker gallastegi (@ikguallas) March 9, 2020
Higuita comes into Paris-Nice as EF’s protected GC captain. Hot off winning the Colombian national road title and the Colombia Tour 2.1, the 22-year-old is quickly emerging as a force to contend with.
Higuita joined the WorldTour mid-season in 2019, moving across from Fundación Euskadi to EF in May. That was just in time to start what turned out to be the final edition of the Amgen Tour of California, where he finished second to Tadej Pogacar (UAE-Emirates). The remainder of the 2019 season unfolded as confirmation of his quality, with a stage win and 14th overall in his grand tour debut at the Vuelta a España.
What Higuita did in the crosswinds Monday impressed everyone inside the EF team bus.
“Racing in crosswinds is incredibly tough, you can just be two meters off the back of a group, you’re literally just within hands reach and it’s incredibly frustrating because you just can’t make it back onto the group even though they’re just right in front of you, then you run out of energy from riding so hard and then you see them ride away,” said sport director Charlie Wegelius.
Monday also saw GC threats such as Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and Nairo Quintana (Arkea-Samsic) each lose 1:25 after mishaps saw them spat out of the front group.
If Higuita can survive Tuesday’s equally daunting transition stage where more crosswinds and bad weather are forecasted, he will be in the pole position going into Wednesday’s decisive 15.1km time trial in stage 4 ahead of a string of climbing stages looming in southern France.
“In general, I’m feeling good and strong,” Higuita said Monday. “These kinds of stages are some of the most difficult for me and for me to be feeling this good gives me confidence heading into the mountains.”
Higuita keeps delivering surprises at every turn. If he keeps this up, it won’t be a surprise anymore.