BECERRIL DE LA SIERRA, Spain (Reuters) – Colombian Sergio Higuita earned his first professional victory by winning stage 18 in the Vuelta a Espana on Thursday as Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic closed in on the title by increasing his overall advantage to two minutes and 50 seconds.
Higuita, 22, formed part of an early breakaway group of six riders but used his skills as a time trialist to surge off on his own on a descent with 46km to go of the 177.5km mountain ride from Colmenar Viejo to Becerril de la Sierra.
The group of general classification contenders containing Roglic slowly closed the gap on Higuita but the Colombian held his own on the final descent and comfortably took the stage win with a gap of 15 seconds over Roglic.
Roglic beat Alejandro Valverde in the sprint to take the runners-up spot and although the Spaniard recovered second place overall from Nairo Quintana, who suffered in the mountains after his superb performance the previous day on the flat stage.
Quintana’s exploits on Wednesday’s wind-hit stage had trimmed the gap behind Roglic to two minutes and 25 seconds and given him a fighting chance of a repeat of his 2016 victory but those hopes are fading fast.
The Colombian failed to keep up with the overall contenders and finished eighth in the stage, one minute one second behind Roglic and Valverde.
Quintana is now three minutes 31 seconds adrift of the Slovenian and 41 seconds behind Valverde with effectively only two stages left to make a difference.
Roglic will expect to maintain his gap over Valverde in Friday’s flat 165.2km stage from Avila to Toledo, with only one mountain stage remaining on Saturday before Sunday’s procession to Madrid.
Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by Ken Ferris