Sergio Higuita: Straight outta Medellín

From a neighbourhood riddled with gunfire and ruled by drug gang lords to a WorldTour star – Sergio Higuita's irresistible rise to the top

I have dreamed about this since I was small.” It is Valentine's Day 2020 and Sergio Andrés Higuita has just outsprinted Egan Bernal and Julian Alaphilippe to win stage four of the Tour Colombia.

“Just being in the peloton alongside Julian, Alejandro [Valverde], Nairo [Quintana], Simon,” – he nods at the rider sitting next to him, his Swiss friend Simon Pellaud, wearing the mountains jersey, and everyone laughs – “is a dream. I savour each race as if I was the same little boy who used to take the chain off his bike and ride in front of the TV,” Higuita says.

There is no feeling his way, no riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas: more zest for life, glazed in generosity, and gift-wrapped in evocative personal detail.

Sergio Higuita training at home in 2021 (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

“I see the dreams in the eyes of small children today, and they are the same dreams I had. I know exactly how they feel, and because of that, I help out lots of kids.”

As recently as spring 2019, Sergio Higuita was riding for Mikel Landa's development team in the Basque Country, the Fundación Euskadi. The fate of a pair of cycling shoes days before he left Colombia speaks volumes for him. “Before I went to Euskadi, I rode for Manzana Postobón,” he says. “I had two pairs of cycling shoes: I used one for training and a bit of racing, and the other was in much better shape.

“When I was doing pre-season conditioning in Colombia, I visited my childhood team, Club Nueva Generación, and I saw a kid wearing a battered helmet, a ragged old uniform and worn-out shoes. I saw how enthusiastic he was and how happy he was to meet me, and it brought back my childhood. 

“I set off home, and when I was nearly there, I spotted him again, in the street. I prayed, ‘Lord, is this because you want me to give him something?’ I said, ‘Come to my house, it’s just here.’ I gave him my good shoes and kept the old ones.”

“When I joined Euskadi, someone looked at them and said, ‘Didn’t they give you shoes at your previous team?’ I had to explain. An embroidered version of the story made the press. What do you call that type of journalism? Hyperbole?”

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A few months later, on his next trip home to Medellín, he took 15 full Euskadi kits and gave them away to young riders. 

“They were going to need them more than I did, and I knew it would make them happy. That's what life is for – giving, more than receiving. That came from my mother. She's very generous. She taught me to be humble and to believe in God. My father is a battler, a warrior. He has always had two jobs, one in a factory from 6am until 2pm; another at home, making aluminium window frames until ten at night. You have to be a warrior to be a cyclist, and you have to be humble. I learned both from my parents.”

Image: Getty

Some athletes shed their former selves like Saturn rockets jettisoning stages. Sergio is fully present in the world that produced him. It keeps him quick and sparkling. 

Club Nueva Generación

One day in 2008, when he was 11, Sergio was waiting for the bus with his bike and his father Leonardo at the foot of Las Palmas, the climb out of Medellín. The buses slowed as if to stop, but picked up speed when the drivers saw the bike. They were getting nowhere.

Then a minibus pulled up, bursting with children in cycling uniforms. The door slid open and Amparo Gaviria Pérez - “Señorita Amparo” – appeared. Behind them, her husband, Fernando de Jesús Saldarriaga – Don Efe – driving a car with a professional bike rack, came to a halt.

In 2000, Señorita Amparo and Don Efe had founded Club Nueva Generación. More than just a cycling club, it was a remarkable sporting project that takes in disadvantaged kids, some of them with childhoods devastated by poverty and violence, and, through friendship, support and coaching, arms them for life with self-respect, discipline and, in some cases, careers as professional cyclists. 

Sergio fills in the details as an act of generosity towards Señorita Amparo and Don Efe. It clearly matters to him that the story is told right and that he can prove he remembers everything.

Higuita's home town of Medellín (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

“I had a school friend called Samuel Ríos who belonged to New Generation. That day, I was on my way to the village of La Unión, and I was standing there with my father when Don Efe pulled up in a vehicle belonging to the international team, Colombia Es Pasión. He pulled over to pick up a girl, and said to me and my father, ‘Are you going to the race at La Unión?’

We said, ‘Yes.’ 

He said, ‘If you want, we can take the bike, you take the bus and we'll see you there.’ And that's what happened.”

He adds, showing off slightly: “The race was the La Unión Cycling Club Classic. I punctured, but still finished fourth. I told Don Fernando and Doña Amparo that I liked their club and I wanted to ride for them the following year.”

Sergio Higuita training at home in 2021 (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

Sergio had been riding for another club, his first – Club Moncada por la Paz – for some weeks, but Club Nueva Generación quickly became a second family to him. Smitten with Señorita Amparo, he was soon training most mornings with Don Fernando at the Aeroparque near the airport, or on the roads around the city.

Talented, restless, inquisitive and apparently ubiquitous, Sergio was soon christened “El Ratón”, the rat, by Don Fernando. Everyone else called him René, due to the surname he shares with the goalkeeper René Higuita, no relation, remembered for his hair, scorpion kick and friendship with Pablo Escobar. Both sporting Higuitas hail from a sector of inner-city Medellín called Castilla, notorious for gangs with names like La Cuarenta, Mondonguero, La Leche – the Forty, the Soup, the Cream – in permanent turf wars for control of the local economy in drugs and protection. 

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A history in Castilla

Sergio's family has been here since the 1950s when, deep in the mountains outside Medellin, his great-grandmother died. Her widower remarried, left the countryside and settled opposite the church in a section of Castilla known as La Unión. This is where Sergio's father Leonardo grew up, leaving only for 18 nightmarish months of military service, when, as an under-equipped and lamentably trained paratrooper, he fought subversives in a violent gold-mining area called El Bagre, 300km north-east of Medellín. Brothers-in-arms lost limbs and a fellow platoon was massacred. Leonardo suffered myiasis (a tropical illness brought on by insect eggs laid beneath the skin) and, as demobilisation approached, malaria.

“If I'd told anyone about the malaria, I would have spent two months in hospital. I just wanted to leave, so I kept quiet,” he says.

Castilla (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

Leonardo went back to Castilla when Pablo Escobar's goons were waging his war against the state. Escobar flooded Medellín with arms and put a bounty on every policeman's head, the irony being that most of those slaughtered by his bombs were not high-ranking government officials, but poor working families and their sons, for whom joining the police or the army were among the few available options for a livelihood. Escobar’s legacy on his death in December 1993, was a city of no-go areas ruled by armed teenage gangs. Castilla, dangerous by day, was impassable in the hours of darkness. 

Leonardo tells me, “Every small business paid protection money. There was gunfire at night.”

He followed his father into Inca Metal, a manufacturer of cutlery, hinges, screws and other small implements, founded by German immigrants. In 1996, Leonardo was working full-time while building a house for his mother in the evenings, when his wife, Marleny García Echeverry – from Jericó, one of Colombia's most beautiful villages – became pregnant. As Sergio grew inside her, Marleny ran up and down Castilla's steep slopes to and from her job at a cake shop, graduating from saleswoman to cash register to manager.

“Sergio was running with me," she says. “He was hyperactive, even in the womb. I spent his pregnancy riding a motorbike.”

The first chapter

Sergio Andrés Higuita was born in August 1997. A large and healthy baby, there were no childhood illnesses to speak of, other than the asthma he suffered from infancy. When he was 14 he suffered a bout so serious that he was rushed to hospital.

When he was four, his parents gave him a tiny tricycle and watched over him as he rode in the street. “He had no brakes and absolutely no fear,” his father Leonardo remembers. “He loved speed and he rode like a lunatic.”

From the age of six, Sergio's favourite game was bikebound follow-my-leader with the other boys on the block. “If the one in front jumped the kerb, you jumped the kerb,” Sergio says. “If he went across the grass, you went across the grass. We rode single file through each others' houses, and took turns performing tricks so crazy that the boys behind wouldn't even try.” Their games led to costly collisions. On one, Sergio rode into a parked taxi and scratched the paintwork. 

Sergio Higuita (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

Sergio learned early on how to get what he wanted. “When I married Leonardo, we decided we would have one child,” Marleny tells me. “But when Sergio was three or four, he was desperate for a little sibling. He used to drag me to the balcony and say, ‘Look, mamá, that woman is pregnant and you're not!’" 

Laura, conceived at Sergio's insistence, is five years his junior.  But, as Sergio explains, his real goal was not a sister but a gift: “All my nursery school friends were having little brothers and sisters, and they came to school with presents. So I wanted a little sister because I wanted one. So I said to my mother, ‘Let's have a little sister,’ and when Laura arrived I got a toy car, red, very big, very nice! 

“My sister has been making me give her presents ever since. So that red car was a very expensive gift!”

Since 1991, the Medellín newspaper El Mundo has sponsored an annual cycling festival for the children of that sprawling, sometimes violent metropolis. Huge pelotons of kids aged between three and 14 take part, and they are asked, each year, to keep a social value in their thoughts. One year it was charity, another, love, then, year by year, honesty, tolerance, perseverance, responsibility, freedom, non-violence and so on. So, when Sergio, aged six, arrived home after school with a form for his parents to sign, allowing him to take part, they did. 

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Leonardo and Marleny are big on values. His mother tells me: “Schools are good for academic subjects, but values come from families. We have always insisted on ours.”

Castilla (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

His father duly took him, and the race became an annual family outing. Each year the children brought home a medal embossed with that year's value.

Sergio recalls, “I fell in love with cycling, and then I began to see my friend Samuel Ríos win. He had a racing bike and it made a deep impression on me. Then, when I went to the El Mundo Classic, I saw other kids on racing bikes and they went really fast, and, one day, I said, 'I want to go fast too.'"

In 2007 he announced to his parents, in the matter-of-fact tone of a ten-year-old child smitten by a dream, what he was going to do with his life. His mother mimics the relentless staccato of his voice, and his exact words: “I'm not going to study because I'm going to be like my friend Samuel who races and gets paid for it. I'm going to be a professional cyclist.”

Higuita's family (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

At the 2010 El Mundo Classic, Sergio finished third in his category. In 2015, his sister Laura outdid him by winning hers. But the reality, for a poor urban family, is that women's cycling does not offer the same opportunities for a good living as the men’s sport. The Higuitas could only afford one cyclist, and Sergio got there first. 

Anyway, says Sergio, “She had the talent, but not the passion for cycling. She preferred in-line skating, and basketball, and now she does karate. And she's good!”

It was around this time that, returning home from the gym, Sergio saw a group of friends across the street who belonged to the local gang. His mother had taught her children not to attract attention by shunning the gangs. Her homespun Highway Code was “greet, chat, and move on.”

Sergio recalls, “I went over, said hello, talked for a while, then went home, just as my mother ordered. My front door was about 30 metres away. As the door closed behind me, I heard a burst of gunfire. Three of the boys were killed, one of them 14 years old. He put himself between the gunmen and a five-year-old boy, and took a bullet in the heart. If I had been one minute later I would have died that day.

“The gangs held all-night street parties,” he says. “When you become a professional cyclist, you are like a monk. You need peace, quiet, rest, focus.”

Going at it alone

So, aged 16, Sergio left home. He spent several months in the village of San Pedro de los Milagros, 40 kilometres north of Medellín, 2468 metres above sea level. Then he moved to El Carmen del Viboral, the same distance south-east of the city, and then to Santa Elena, midway between the city and its international airport.

    In 2008, Don Fernando sent the talented Higuita to the Medellín velodrome for coaching under two inspirational men. One was the former track sprinter, Efraín Domínguez, who had set three world sprint records in November 1985, and five more in 1986. The other was Domínguez's best pupil, Don Efe's son Luís Fernando Saldarriaga, the head coach of the under-23 team Colombia Es Pasión, whose pupils included the 2008 road world under-23 champion Fabio Duarte, Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves. Through Saldarriaga, Sergio Andrés met the stars of Colombia Es Pasión. 

    (Image: Fabio Cuttica)

    “I met Nairo in 2011 at the Clásico El Colombiano [a public event organised by another Medellín newspaper] and it was like meeting a hero. It was the same when I got to know Chaves, Jarlinson Pantano, Sergio Luís Henao. Every time I went to ride in the Aeropark I pretended to be one of them. ‘This is how Nairo Quintana pedals. Come on, Sergio!’”

    “I did that all the time, until I was 19. Not so much now, but until I was a junior. And when I was climbing: I pretended I was Contador.”

    In 2013, Saldarriaga offered three talented young Club Nueva Generación riders – Higuita, Wilmar Paredes and Ivan Sosa's cousin Jhojan García – bikes, uniforms, coaching, massage, a mechanic, medical and nutritional help. He told Higuita, “Don't worry about winning. Spend this year working on your physiology.”

    His father Leonardo scrimped, saved and bought him a power meter. Each year, one of them moved up to Manzana Postobón: Paredes in 2015, Higuita in 2016, and García in 2017. “Sergio was still very small, but I had his power numbers and I knew he had what it takes to compete in Europe,” Saldarriaga says.

    EF-Education First

    The apprenticeship that followed was so meticulous and successful that, in 2019, Education First did not know what a jewel they had signed. Unsure whether to place full trust in their new young Colombian, they farmed him out to the Fundación Euskadi. In the races of the Challenge Mallorca, he immediately finished fourth, sixth and twelfth. In February's Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, he finished sixth in two stages, mixing it in one with powerhouses like Greg Van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin, and in the other with climbers like Adam Yates, Alejandro Valverde, and Dan Martin.  

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    By stage four of the Ruta del Sol, he was finishing second to the other Yates twin, Simon. The inevitable first stage win came in March at the Volta ao Alentejo, by which time Education First had realised he was ready. 

    He proved this at the first WorldTour race of his career, the 2019 Tour of California, where his impact was immediate. On Mount Baldy, Tadej Pogačar and Sergio Andrés Higuita finished first and second, in the same time. They finished first and second on the final podium, too, although there were 16 seconds between them. 

    In Medellín, everyone imagined Sergio Andrés a millionaire. The truth is that he ended his first season with EF-Education First as the rider with the third-highest tally of UCI points, but nearly the lowest wage. His stage win at Becerril de la Sierra in stage 18 of the 2019 Vuelta a España, which brought him to the attention of the global cycling public, also led to a publicity contract with a Medellín real estate company called Bienes y Vienes, and it was this that turned his family's life around. 

    Victory in the 2020 Tour of Colombia – when he chastened Julian Alaphilippe in the sprint finish at Santa Rosa de Viterbo – and third place in Paris-Nice proved his consistency. His fifth place in Nice at the end of stage two of the Tour de France, as he sprinted against Van Avermaet two seconds behind the stage winner Alaphilippe, was very nearly the perfect start to only his second Grand Tour, which ended during stage 15, when he crossed wheels with Bob Jungels, and hit the deck at 60kph. 

    Not yet in orbit, then, but approaching escape velocity, and the journey has only just begun. 

    In December 2019, Sergio Higutita was able to fulfil a lifelong ambition by buying his parents a house. He took them out of Castilla and installed them in a pleasant apartment in the far more salubrious suburb of San Juan. The escape from the tough end of town seemed complete – although, at the kitchen table in the flat Sergio bought her, his mother Marleny tells me: “When we moved in, the doorman downstairs said, ‘Everything has changed for you overnight.’ But we have worked hard for this all our lives. In any case, I love Castilla. I loved the life we had there. If it was up to me, I'd go back.”

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    It is worth remembering that, if Castilla consisted of nothing but violence, no one would live there. Sergio is well aware that his story tends to get written up as an escape from the wrong side of the tracks. He insists that the truth is more nuanced: “When all is said and done, I love my barrio. Cycling wasn't my way out of Castilla: Castilla was my way into cycling.”

    As the expectation builds around him, Sergio Higuita's deep connection to his family and the world of his childhood may be the anchor that keeps him connected and safeguards his very special talent.

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