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The California curse continues for EF Education First.
The American team collected its sixth runner-up title in 14 years at the Amgen Tour of California on Saturday, with Colombian climber Sergio Higuita finishing just 16 seconds behind winner Tadej Pogačar. The finish is not the slimmest margin of defeat for the team in California; in 2010, the then Garmin-Transitions squad saw David Zabriskie finish just nine seconds shy of Michael Rogers.
“Let me guess, we got second place on GC and won the team classification again,” team manager Jonathan Vaughters joked at the team bus (EF did win Team GC). “It’s bittersweet because we did a really good race this year.”
Indeed, the team led the race for five stages with Tejay van Garderen, and came just shy of taking the race’s two climbing stages. EF boasted perhaps the strongest lineup in the race, and spent much of the week dictating the pace and chasing down breakaways.
Results aside, the silver lining of the team’s defeat may prove to be the ascendance of Higuita, who proved himself against the WorldTour peloton on Friday’s summit finish to Mt. Baldy.
Higuita, just 21, came into the race as EF’s secret weapon—a Colombian climber who can sprint and launch explosive attacks on steep climbs.
“He’s a lot like [Alejandro] Valverde because he is punchy; he can sprint, he can climb, and he can hold his form forever,” Vaughters said. “He was second in a stage at Ruta del Sol in February, and here we are now and he’s still on form.”
Higuita made his Worldtour debut with the team at California after joining EF in May, having ridden the first part of the season for the Basque team Fundacion Euskadi. In 2018 he raced for Colombian Pro Continental squad Manzana Postobon.
Vaughters said the young Colombian appeared on his radar screen last spring after seeing his name on the results sheet from hard races in Europe. Vaughters then watched a YouTube clip of Higuita winning a mountain stage at the 2018 Tour of Colombia, where he also took the youth classification. Higuita’s attacking style made him an intriguing asset for the American team.
Vaughters asked his two Colombian riders, Rigoberto Uran and Daniel Martinez, if they knew about Higuita. They did not. So, he took his pursuit further, and inquired through his contacts in Colombia.
“People said this kid is the best descender in Colombian cycling and then I did my research and saw that he had been a track racer,” Vaughters said. “There are a lot of Colombian riders who have a 90 VO2 max and can go uphill fast. When you add in the bike handling, punchy power, and speed, that is what sparked my interest in him.”
Higuita was a late addition to EF’s roster, and his presence was confirmation of the squad’s intentions to win the GC. EF’s roster contained world-class in van Garderen, Lachlan Morton, Lawson Craddock, Uran and Higuita.
Higuita showed glimmers of brilliance throughout the weeklong race. He marked an attack by George Bennett late in the fifth stage into Ventura. Higuita’s big coming out party came a day later, on the steep slopes of Mt. Baldy.
Higuita attacked multiple times inside the race’s steep final 3km, and at one point appeared to have victory in his grasp. A last-ditch surge by Pogacar caught Higuita inside the final 500 meters, and the Slovenian outmaneuvered the Colombian rider in the final corner to take the stage victory and 10-second time bonus on the line.
“I’m very happy with the result and in the team,” Higuita said. “I’m learning a lot, and that’s the most important part.”
EF has yet to reveal Higuita’s racing program for the rest of 2019. Vaughters said the violent attacks on Mt. Baldy is a sign that Higuita could succeed in stage races, or in hilly classics like La Fleche Wallonne or the Tour of Lombardy. Experience, and repetition in WorldTour races, will simply decide what route Higuita pursues in the sport.
“Nobody could stay on his wheel when we went—he just didn’t quite have the follow through,” Vaughters said. “You give him three more years of this, and he will be able to do that attack and then stay away. A steady [rider] could never do that, and it’s not teachable. You either got it, or you don’t.”