Sergio Higuita (EF Education First) went solo in the final 50km of stage 18 of the Vuelta a España to take victory. Overall leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) held on to the overall lead after finishing in the second group on the road 15 seconds behind Higuita.
Roglič took second place on the stage ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Miguel Ángel López (Astana).
Higuita had been part of the day’s early breakaway on the stage, pushing on alone on the descent of the penultimate climb of the Puerto de la Morcuera as the GC riders not far behind began to attack each other.
The Colombian was the only member of the original break to resist being pulled in by riders from behind, and was able to extend his gap out to 1-30 heading on to the last climb.
López was the rider most keen to try and break clear on the final climb of Puerto de Cotos, but he couldn’t shake Roglič or Valverde, with Majka managing to ride up to them before the descent.
They couldn’t work together well enough to pull Higuita back, with López doing much of the work. That allowed Higuita to head into the final few kilometres with over 30 seconds in hand, safely cruising to his first Grand Tour stage win.
The biggest change on GC saw Nairo Quintana drop to third behind team-mate Valverde after finishing a minute back on the red jersey group. Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) also drops one place to fifth behind López after finishing alongside Quintana.
How it happened
The riders faced the penultimate mountain stage of the 2019 Vuelta a España on stage 18, with four big mountain passes to tackle before a short final climb to the the finish in Becerril de la Sierra after 177.5km.
Team Ineos’ Wout Poels was the first rider to instigate the breakaway of the day on the first climb of the Puerto de Navacerrada which he rode alone, and was joined by 12 other riders on the day’s second climb, including: Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R La Mondiale), Omar Fraile (Astana), Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain-Merida), Jonas Koch (CCC Team), Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), Tobias Ludvigson (Groupama-FDJ), Nick Shultz (Mitchelton-Scott), Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data), Tao Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos), Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) and Óscar RodrÍguez (Euskadi-Murias).
They were handed a maximum gap of almost six minutes, but that was gradually cut down by the peloton heading into the penultimate climb of the day.
It was here that the break really began to fall apart having lost a number of riders already and with the peloton just over a minute behind with around 60km remaining.
Astana had driven the pace into the climb of Puerto de la Morcuera for Miguel Ángel López, who then attacked on the climb.
He was able to get around a 10 second with a group of Majka, Valverde, Pogačar and Roglič chasing behind.
As the GC contenders powered up the climb and López was able to link up with his team-mate Fraile in the break, only Sergio Higuita was able to hold them off on the descent.
He was able extend a gap out over a minute on the downhill and the flat run to the next climb, with Fraile and López unable to do enough to hold off Jumbo-Visma and Roglič who led a group to catch them with 38km remaining.
As the race hit the final climb, Higuita was able to extend his lead to 1-30 around halfway towards the summit. Lopez attacked again and briefly gapped the GC group, but Valverde closed him down with Roglič and the three got away from Majka, Nairo Quintana and Pogačar.
Majka was eventually able to bridge across to the Roglič group, with those attacks cutting Higuita’s advantage down to one minute with 2km to the top of the climb.
The Colombian held out over the climb, with 47 seconds in hand over the summit.
As he continued to press on, Roglič, Majka and Valverde put the onus on López to do the chasing.
In the end, they couldn’t work well enough together to close in on Higuita, who was able to hold on by 15 seconds to take his maiden Grand Tour win.
Roglič took the sprint for second ahead of Valverde to take six bonus seconds and extend his overall lead.
The Vuelta a España continues on Friday with stage 19, a 165.2km flat stage from Ávila to Toledo that should suit a bunch sprint.
Vuelta a España 2019, stage 18: Colmenar Viejo to Becerril de la Sierra (177.5km)
1. Sergio Higuita (Col) EF Education First, in 4-33-09
2. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, at 15 seconds
3. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar
4. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, all same time
5. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana, at 17 seconds
6. Carl Fredrik Hagen (Nor) Loto-Soudal, at 1-16
7. Louis Meintjes (RSA) Dimension Data
8. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar
9. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, all same time
10. Óscar Rodríguez (Esp) Euskadi-Murias, at 3-47
General classification after stage 18
1. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, in 71-16-54
2. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 2-50
3. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 3-31
4. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana, 4-17
5. Tadej Pogačar (Slo) UAE Team Emirates, at 4-49
6. Rafał Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 7-46
7. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb, at 9-46
8. Carl Fredrik Hagen (Nor) Loto-Soudal, at 11-50
9. James Knox (GBr) Deceuninck-Quick-Step, at 12-44
10. Marc Soler (Esp) Movistar, at 21-09