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FRAMEGATE... Or How Sergio Higuita Livened Up a Dull Winter’s News Cycle

115th Il Lombardia 2021 Photo by Sara Cavallini/Getty Images

Just when things got quiet... the cycling world sprung to life with the exciting news that a rider had been FIRED! See if you can spot the issue. Here is EF Nippo rider Sergio Higuita performing his day job in a professional manner.

85th Bretagne Classic - Ouest-France 2021 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

He rides a Cannondale. EF ride Cannondales. [And Vision wheels, the racer brand from FSA.] He’s an EF rider, which means even when he isn’t riding for EF, he’s riding Cannondales. And Visions.

Cycling - Road - Olympics: Day 1 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Until he isn’t. Here is Higuita spotted over the weekend, riding in a grand fondo sponsored by his EF mate and countryman Rigoberto Uran, which made the social media rounds as a fine example of how pro cyclists are nothing like us, even those of us who think we are pretty handy on a road bike...

Here is another fan view, or helmet cam, or whatever...

Aw, that’s a nice view of the new frame colors, kitted out for the Bora Hansgrohe team he will be joining after the holidays. Wait... WHAT?!

Yes, Higuita decided to switch bikes. From Cannondale to Specialized. This caused EF to summarily fire him from his contract with seven weeks remaining on it, basically cutting off his last few paychecks for violating essentially Rule #1. Don’t ride a completely different bike from that of our sponsors, with no attempt to even hide it. And when it comes to Cannondale (or presumably Trek too), there’s rule #1A1A1A(x a million) — don’t ride a fucking Specialized.

Cyclists getting crosswise with their sponsors is one of those endlessly fun subjects to probe. Remember this article, where the CyclingTips sleuths walked around the team cars at the Tour de France this past June spotting prototypes, unbranded wheels, and some that had been re-labeled to look like the sponsor’s wheels even though they weren’t? It was the latest in a decades-long discussion as to whether riders are actually riding what they appear to be riding.

It’s a basic dilemma in the sport: at this level, people are given their bikes and components and clothing and water bottles for free, and doesn’t that sound super awesome? Sure, to a mere mortal, but pro athletes aren’t like us, and quite a lot of them are perfectionists. From Auston Matthews choosing his stick, to Corey Seager breaking in his glove, to Marshawn Lynch picking out the candy for his post-touchdown snack, to newly-minted Yokozuna Terunofuji getting the knees wrapped juuuuust right... athletes know what makes them feel most comfortable, most primed to succeed, and won’t accept anything else as a replacement if it draws their attention away for even a moment.

And since this is cycling, you can imagine that perfectionism is taken to ridiculous extremes. We are talking about a sport with espresso machines in the team buses. These are people who are used to being pampered, albeit in between doing unthinkably hard things in terrible conditions for absurd amounts of time. So who better to look that gift horse in the mouth and say “how dare you suggest I ride those wheels?!?” They want what they want, and if the current sponsor won’t give it to them... well, there is usually an easy fix. The right stickers.

Andy Hampsten Riding
The 7-Eleven “Huffy”
Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

Riders have had their preferred gear re-labeled as the correct gear for eons. The most notable example back here in the US were the Huffy bikes ridden by team 7-Eleven back in the 80s. Huffy had no cachet in the racing world at all — they just made forgettable kids bikes here — and it seemed like a bizarre joke to watch the first American team in the Tour de France on bikes that didn’t seem to exist. Sure enough, they were custom-built Serotta frames with “Huffy” stickers slapped all over them. There are a million stories like this. Nestle into the couch at any coffee shop where some ex-World Tour riders have stopped for a break from their ride and I’m sure you can solicit all kinds of funny stories to this effect.

That’s an extreme example of a sponsor playing along with the charade, but it undoubtedly gets much dicier in the more common situation where a sponsor who actually makes World Tour-quality equipment delivers that equipment, expecting it to be ridden in the race, only to be confronted with a rider who has the inclination and the heft to say he would like to ride something else. These scenarios range from situations where the gear appears to be up to snuff but is still in some way inferior to the competition, to instances where the rider has been given exactly what he needs but just likes something else. It’s hard for me, from my comfortable distance, to say exactly what goes on behind the scenes for an equipment manager or DS to finally say “OK, FINE, goddammit... just strip off the labels and put these stickers on it!” But it happens. Even at the 2021 Tour.

All of this is essentially a Shakespearean drama playing out in miniature over and over again. Producers have their own power relationship with us, the buyers, which comes down to whether their stuff is good, or at least whether they can make us think it is. I have to have Greg LeMond’s Look Pedals! is a thing I very surely once said, and I bought them, and it did me not very much good. But they had their power over me, while LeMond had his power over Look. I wasn’t running out to buy Thierry Claveyrolat’s pedals, was I? [No, I was not.] But it’s a multi-way street, because cycling teams are notoriously shoestring operations, and that sponsor cash and gear keeps the espresso machine turned on in the team bus. They are, in effect, the fulcrum, balancing the power of their riders in exchange for sponsorship and haranguing the riders to remember who pays the bills so could they please just use the sponsors’ gear?

Nobody is saying very much, but for Higuita to be summarily fired on the spot seems like a shocking development. There may be a few things at play:

  • Higuita is leaving the team, so who cares? His power in the above equation dropped to something approximating zero once he signed with Bora. So if his contract says that he has to ride Cannondales thru December 31, 2021, then goddammit he’s riding Cannondales thru December 31, 2021.
  • Hey, boss, I just figured out how to save $75,000! [Or whatever his remaining pay is.]
  • It’s about respect. You can ride around your town on the new bike, but did you have to do it at a public event? One run under the name of Rigo Uran, who was and will continue to be EF’s biggest name rider?
  • Something happened behind the scenes that set him off. [Rubbing hands gleefully between blog sentences.] Unfortunately we have no idea what that is or if there is anything at all. But maybe!
  • The last guess I can offer is that this comes down to something along the lines of “We might have overlooked it if you borrowed your cousin’s Serotta, but a SPECIALIZED?!?!?” This feels like David Ortiz playing a spring training game in a Yankees cap. There are lines you shouldn’t cross, and then there are some lines which are guarded by armed soldiers on both sides with orders to shoot to kill anyone attempting to cross. Higuita wandered — knowingly, I am sure — into the demilitarized zone of cycling, sprinting over the 38th parallel in a show of force to those weekend warriors clinging to the Colombian hillside Sunday. That they gunned him down (contractually speaking) should be of no surprise. He gave them no choice. Specialized are in business to make bikes, not friends, as plenty of people in the bike industry will tell you. But that’s all I can say, because I don’t want to get a cease-and-desist letter. [Cannondale may have their moments too, but at least they didn’t once try to copyright the name of a town in France whose name appears on 16th century Mercator maps.]

And that’s your tempest in a teapot for today. In other news, I am informed that Adam (Right) Yates finished the Barcelona Marathon today in under three hours. Cyclists are amazing endurance athletes, but there are a limited number of muscles doing the work compared to a runner. So for Yates to do this suggests he’s just an extraordinary athlete, and that his price in next year’s FSA Directeur Sportif needs to be raised a few more points.