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Photographs: James Startt
Everyone knew that stage two of this year’s Paris-Nice was going to be a complicated one. Winds splintered the peloton on stage one, a short stage that looped around the countryside west of Paris. And with strong crosswinds forecast on stage two, a stage that headed due-south, it was clear that the pack would once again finish in pieces. And as the rain jackets came off, and the pack splintered in the final kilometers, no one was surprised to see the world champions like Peter Sagan or Mads Pederson driving the pace at the front. Few were surprised to see experienced champions like Vincenzo Nibali making the final splits as well. But no one, it is safe to say, expected to see the yellow jersey of the diminutive Colombian national champion Sergio Higuita in the mix. And no one expected to see the diminutive rider contesting the final sprint with established sprinters, and classics riders.
“Il a été impressionant,” he was impressive, was the word of order among journalists in the press room, at a dinner table after the stage.
Ever since graduating to the WorldTour in 2019, the 22-year-old has done nothing but impress. Higuita was impressive when he finished second in the 2019 Tour of California, his first WorldTour race. He was even more impressive soloing to victory in the Vuelta a España, his first grand tour, at the end of the season. And the success only continued in 2020, as Higuita won both the Tour of Colombia and the Colombian national road title at the beginning of the year, in front of established stars like Nairo Quintana and Tour de France champion Egan Bernal.
But while those results were all impressive, his ride at Paris-Nice — where he eventually finished third — demonstrated that Higuita is much more than a punchy climber.
“He is just good bike rider. He’s the complete package,” team director Andreas Klier said mid-way through this year’s race. “I am as impressed as anyone here. This is the first race I have ever done with him. I’ve never met him before. I have only worked three days with him. But he is really complete, uphills, downhills, flats, just everything.”
Klier admits that the opening stages, marked by strong winds and rain, were filled with stress as he rode in the EF Pro Cycling team car behind the race. “Every day I was worried about him, But every day he impressed,” Klier said. “I am as impressed as everyone here.”
Certainly Higuita’s performance was due as much to the team’s ability to ride at the front and protect their leader, and classics specialists like Sep Vanmarcke played a key role in positioning. Even hardened Flandriens, like Vanmarcke, were more than convinced with Higuita’s bike-handling skills. “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. “The last couple of days in these conditions you can feel that everyone is nervous and stressed. Every position counts. You can’t see it so much on TV, but everyone is riding three centimeters away from each other and holding their position.”
Making it through the most complicated stages early in the race, Higuita only seemed to come into his own as the race moved towards the hilly Mediterranean coast. Although he traded in his yellow national champion’s jersey for the white jersey awarded to the best young rider, Higuita could consistently be spotted at the front. While the final climbing stage of this year’s race was cancelled due to the growing coronavirus crisis, Higuita could be seen leading the chase behind countryman Nairo Quitana on the final stage that finished on the summit on La Colmiane. It was a performance that solidified his podium spot.
In many ways Paris-Nice serves as the early-season reference point for the world’s top stage race riders. Many Tour de France contenders will make it the focus of their early-season campaign. Lessons are learned, and lines are drawn as stage-race riders estimate their early performances. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, many riders scheduled a break after Paris-Nice before building towards later objectives.
While no one knows when the next bike race in 2020 will be, it is clear that Higuita was one of the real revelations of the early season. Perhaps only countryman Nairo Quintana, who won the Tour de la Provence and Haut Var, as well as the final stage of Paris-Nice, performed on par with the sensational second-year professional bike racer.
“I had already been second in California, and fourth in Poland, so being on a podium in a WorldTour is not something that did not enter my head. However, I recognize that Paris-Nice is a race with great rivals and stages that did not seem the best for me, so it was very difficult to think that I could be on the podium,” Higuita said, reflecting on the race afterwards. “The sensations in the nationals and in the Tour Colombia had been very good, and on that side, I was sure that I was in a great moment of form. But the great key was the support of the team,” Higuita insisted. “Seeing how my colleagues went out of their way to support me in those [early] stages was really motivating. They were giving everything, and I could not fail them.”
Higuita is taking his latest string of success in stride, but he admits that road to the top of the sport has been nothing short of sensational. “My first bike was a Christmas present when I was four. It was green and was very, very small, but that memory has been burned in my head forever,” he remembers. “I have always wanted to be a cyclist. I has been a dream for me, and it still is.”
Perhaps the one person the least surprised by Higuita’s success is Juan Manuel Garate, another sports director on EF Education First. Although Garate was not on hand at Paris-Nice, he has followed Colombia’s most recent prodigy closer than anyone. “I told him at the end of last year, that  was going to be his year. You could just feel it,” says Garate. “He is just so professional. This guy is really a young kid. He’s 22 years old, but he is on top of every detail and he is really focused to do everything he can to be one of the best professional riders in the world.”
Garate, who as a longtime professional won stages in all of the grand tours, says he sees a little bit of Alejandro Valverde in Higuita. “He is just so fast for his size. He will be there in the grand tours, but he could also win races like Liège-Bastogne-Liège.”
While his debut in the great Ardennes classics will now have to wait, EF Pro Cycling has already penned him to start the Tour de France along with team leaders and fellow Colombians Rigoberto Uran, and Dani Martinez. If and when the Tour de France happens in 2020 is still a great unknown, but even before the coronavirus brought much of the world to a standstill, Higuita’s Tour debut was a part of the team program. “It’s a good opportunity for him to see what he can do without really, really high expectations,” Garate said. “It’s like Paris-Nice,” says Garate. “We knew he could be fighting for the win, but we didn’t put pressure on him.”
“I just want to keep chasing my dreams,” Higuita says about the Tour de France. “I remember very blurred television images [of the Tour] on Señal Colombia, which is a television network in my country, from my earliest childhood.”
Like many professionals, Higuita still holds out hope that there will be a Tour de France and admits that the 2020 route plays to his strengths. But he also understands that there are too many unknowns for the moment, firstly whether this year’s race will even begin, and secondly what his own chances are in his rookie outing. “What happens will happen,” he says simply. And no one can argue with that!