If you placed a bet on a rider in his 40s to win a Grand Tour, the bookmakers would probably look at you with shock and incredulityand be very happy to take your money. After all, the oldest man to win any Grand Tour to date is Belgian Firmin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour de France at age 36. Chris Horner is five years older than that, and of the seven Grand Tours he has finished his highest place was ninth at the 2010 Tour (at age 38). But with more than half of this 2013 Vuelta a Espaa completed, Horner of RadioShack-Leopard-Trek is lying in fourth place only 46 seconds behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali of Team Astanawho has two Grand Tours to his name.
That gap doesnt appear to be so great when you note that last Monday on a stiff mountaintop finish in the Sierra Nevada mountains of southern Spain, Horner simply rode away from all the Vueltas main contenders and took 48 seconds out of runner-up Nibali. It was Horners second stage win of the race and the second time he took the leaders red jersey. And still to come are three more stage finishes as gnarly as that one on the Alto de Hazallanas peak, along with three lesser summit finishes; and Horner, on the form of his life, is betting on repeat performances on the toughest climbs to come.
Admittedly, Nibali took the jersey back on Wednesday in a 39-kilometer time trial (the only individual TT of the race), but that didnt greatly upset the veteran Californian. Really for me, the time trial doesnt play as important a role as it would for some of the other guys, Horner told me in a phone interview. I dont need to hold the jersey, and even if I won the time trial Id not be overly excited or talking about winning the Vuelta. Everything for me is going to depend on what I do in the mountain stages coming upuntil the last mountain stage is over.
Besides conceding time to Nibali in the TT, Horner also lost ground on the surprising Irish challenger Nicolas Roche of Saxo-Tinkoff, who moved into second overall (only half a minute back) and the Spanish favorite Alejandro Valverde of Movistar (equal on time with Horner overall). Spains other pre-race tip, climber Joaquim Purito Rodriguez of Katusha Team, lost even more time than Horner and has a deficit of two-and-a-half minutes to make up on the race leader.
What was surprising after the TT was the statement by Nibali (who won the Vuelta in 2010): I know that Valverde could produce a good time trial, and that was the case. Purito found it tougher, but they remain my main rivals. No mention from the Italian of runner-up Roche (who has shown the most signs of weakness on the steepest climbs) or Horner (who is determined to continue surprising the cycling world in the upcoming week).?
Nibali, Rodriguez and Valverde were as shocked as anyone when Horner rode away from them on the double-digit grades that challenged all of them last Monday in the final 5 kilometers of the Hazallanas climb. I put it down as the best win of my career, Horner said. When I suggested that this stage victory was similar to the one he took on Sierra Road at San Jose to win the 2011 Amgen Tour of California, he agreed immediately.
Yeah. Thats what I thought too, he said. While I was going up the climbthe power files and stuff made it seem to be about the same. So as soon as I got the gap I was thinking the same thing: This is Sierra Road, man. Just hold it to the line, watch the power meter, keep it near the red but not in the redand lets wrap this thing up and go home.
One thing that was apparent about Horners climbing style on the Hazallanas was the length of time his was standing on his pedalsfar more than his rivals. I always climb out of the saddle, Horner said. I dont think that was more than normal; it was just the steepness of the climb. I usually do most of the big climbs about 50 percent of the time out the saddle, if not more. Clearly, when its that steep, Im out the saddle 80 to 90 percent of the time. Its a bit easier for me to survive out of the saddle.
As for his gearing on the Hazallanas climb, Horner was a less clear. Check with the mechanic, he said, but we had a compact on for sure. I think we had a 27, but I didnt actually ask him. It was only on the inside of the tight turns that I was maxed out on the gears, probably 36×23 or 25, something like that. At certain points it leveled offand you could get in the big chainring for the finish.
His 48-second winning margin there compared with the three seconds he gained with his winning uphill attack in the final kilometer on the Vueltas third day. Winning stage 3 was something special, he admitted, because there was a lot of stress in there after I came into the Vuelta having missed most of the season.
The recurrence of a knee injury that needed a couple of surgeries stopped Horner racing in March after he placed sixth behind winner Nibali in Tirreno-Adriatico, his first race of the season. Horner didnt compete for five months until the Tour of Utahwhere he surprised even himself by winning a mountain stage and placing second overall to Tom Danielson. But then, again, Horner has frequently come back from injuries with great successand he believes that part of his longevity as an elite racer is due to the number of crashes hes had, along with his European career not truly getting underway until he followed up five seasons of great success in the domestic peloton by joining Spanish team Saunier-Duval in 2005, when he was already 33.
And even when I signed with Saunier-Duval, even that year I broke my leg at the beginning of the season, he said. I think I probably only did 50 races that year. And never in my career, even when I didnt get injured, I didnt do more than 100 races in the year. Most of the time, Ive only done 60, maybe 70 races a year. That definitely helps.
Clearly, this year, I had the knee injury. Last year, I had a bunch of injuries and stuff, a lot of frustration. In 2009, I broke eight different bones in four crashes, so I didnt race much in 09. In 05, I broke my leg so missed a portion of that one. And from 2000 to 04 I was racing in the U.S. so wasnt over here at all. That definitely helps in taking the miles off your legs.
I dont know if thats the reason Im still riding at 41, or not, but clearly you see where the whole peloton is older now than it was in 05, and guys arent retiring until laterits 36, 37 years old. And you look at guys like Jens [Voigt]; hes a month older than me and still winning bike races, so honestly the whole field in general seems to be older in that way.
With the amount of racing he has missed in the past nine years, along with years spent in the less-stressful North American racing environment, Horner is probably at a freshness level thats equivalent to the much younger men he is now racing againstand sometimes beating. Whereas the American has completed only seven Grand Tours in his career, Nibali, 28, and Valverde, 33, have both done 10, while Rodriguez, 34, has ridden 16 Grand Tours.
Horner pointed out that one reason for his tackling fewer Grand Tours, besides all the injuries, has been his need to support races in North America. It helps that Ive always been traveling back to the U.S. and doing the California, Georgia, and Utah races. When the others are doing the Giro here, Im doing California, and when theyre at the Vuelta, I was in Colorado last year. It certainly does help: less miles, less wear and tear on the body.
The American also agreed that he has remained fresher psychologically by choosing to live at homein Bend, Oregon, and San Diegorather than basing himself in Europe. Yes, thats helped. Absolutely. Without a doubt, he said, adding that being with family has been a huge boost to his current relaxed and confident attitude toward life. Horner, who has two teenage daughters, Aarika and Kali, and a son Garrett, 11, married his second wife, former bike racer Megan Elliott, two years ago.
Asked what his kids thought of him doing so well right now, he said, Dad is always Dad, sowhen they caught the end of my stage win [on TV], they just said, Good job, Dad! Now, when Im home with the kids, Im not leading the life of a bike racer. In fact most of the time when Im home its usually the wintertime or Ive got an injury, so Im not riding much anyway. They see the bikes because theyre all over the house (there are said to be more than 20!), but they dont actually see me at the same intensity level I would normally be if Im down in San Diego training, or over in Europe, when Im on the bike for six hours each day. Clearly, theyve seen that from time to time, but a little bit less when half my season is family time, not riding time.
No doubt, his family and friends will be rooting for Horner in the upcoming mountain stages (see details below). Hell be largely racing into the unknown, not only as a leading contender in the final week of a Grand Tour, but also in terrain that hes not that familiar withespecially the legendary Alto di Angliru, the final climb of the Vuelta, 24 hours before the finish in Madrid. That one I havent done, he said. But maybe Ive done some of the climbs in Andorra (this Saturday). I dont remember the names of climbs Ive done in the past. Its only when we enter the climb, that I might do.
Luckily, RadioShacks Portuguese sports director Jos Azevedo is there to help Horner out with upcoming stages. Yes, he knows those stages really well, Horner said. All the climbs and the courses. Hes been fantastic in the car, guiding me on every route that were doing. He goes out and drives some of the courses. Its a big help.
Horner has also had huge assistance from his teammates, especially Wednesdays TT stage winner Fabian Cancellarathough there are concerns that the three RadioShack men (climbers Matthew Busche and Haimar Zubeldia, and all-rounder Robert Kiserlovski) involved in a bad crash on Monday will be at their best for the final week.
Theyre all beaten up from the crash of course, so well see how they are, Horner said. Haimar says he took a pretty good hit, and he already has a plate on his collarbone and he seemed to hit that. Hopefully, hes okay. We have a lot of sickness and injuries, so were down to like half a team at the moment.
Despite those concerns, Horner said the other half of the team is in great shape. First of all we have Popo [Yaroslav Popovych], and then we have Cancellara, and theyre riding fabulous. Grgory Rast is amazing, and Markel [Irizar] is pretty much cool all day long. Hes there for 95 percent of the race, and then drops off to leave Grgory to do the finishing part. Cancellara does the start of the last climb, and then Busche takes overand if he can get back to being healthy again hes gonna be phenomenal.
Whatever happens in the remaining stages of the Vuelta, Horner has already made history as the oldest stage winner and oldest race leader in any Grand Tour. Quite an accomplishment! Now hes after becoming the oldest-ever Grand Tour champion. And after that he plans to get some rest before tackling the world championships later in the month, followed by one of his favorite classics, Il Lombardia.
And he plans to go on racing for another couple of seasonsincluding at least one more Tour de France, right? Absolutely, Horner said. I want to do the best races in the world. Not only do them, but also try to win them!
SIX MORE SUMMITS
These are the six mountain stages coming up in the final days of the 2013 Vuelta:
Saturday, September 7: With 3,300 meters (11,000 feet) of climbing in the last 115 kilometers of this 14th stage, and featuring the events highest climb and a summit finish with grades as steep as 18 percent, this would be considered the etapa reina (king stage) in most Vueltas. But in this extraordinarily mountainous edition, the Andorra stage is simply one of many that merit top rating. The very long 2,410-meter (7,906-foot) Port de Envalira opens the climbing before the course loops down through a tunnel under the summit and then descends the original climb. It tackles two shorter climbs in Andorra prior to the 7.1-kilometer closing ascent up the Coll de la Gallinawhich made its Vuelta debut last year at the end of a much easier stage, with an exciting stage win going to Alejandro Valverde.
VERDICT: This is a perfect stage for Horner to make another key attack.
Sunday, September 8: The second of three days in the Pyrnes, this is the longest stage of this years Vuelta at 225 kilometers. It much resembles a stage of the 2012 Tour de France, with a couple of early climbs followed by a finale over the Port de Bals to a finish at the Peyragudes ski station after climbing the Col de Peyresourde. Its far from being the hardest summit finish, and the stage win will probably be contested by a breakaway group, but Valverde will take encouragement from having win the Tour stage at Peyragudes last year.
VERDICT: Horner will likely focus on staying with the other contenders.
Monday, September 9: This is the easiest of the three Pyrenean stages, with half of the 15.8-kilometer climb to the Aramn Formigal summit finish featuring modest grades. Only the final 3 kilometers, with 7- and 8-percent slopes, give the GC riders a chance to gain (or lose) a few seconds.
VERDICT: Again, Horner should defend his own position and let the others attack.
Thursday, September 12: The first mountain stage in the Asturias is all about the finish. The Pea Cabarga peak is only 6 kilometers long, but with grades up to 14 percent in the opening half and up to 20 percent in the finale it is ideal for Horner to repeat his wins on stages 3 and 10. Two years ago, Chris Froome scored a great stage win here over eventual Vuelta winner Juanjo Cobo, and Rodriguez took the honors in 2010.
VERDICT: A vital finish for those men, including Horner, shooting for the overall win.
Friday. September 13: This stage mostly follows the undulating coastal roads before finishing up the Category 2 Alto del Naranco, which is only 5.7 kilometers long, with an average grade of 4.2 percent.
VERDICT: A stage favorable for breakaways to take the finish-line time bonuses.
Saturday, September 14: This short stage of 142 kilometers has a massive sting in the tail. The mythical Alto de LAngliru climb is 12 kilometers long at a 10.2-percent grade, but the last 6 kilometers averages more than 13 percent, with pitches as steep as 23.5 percent! This is the sixth time the Vuelta has finished a stage on the Angliru. In 2011, Nibali was dropped and finished 15th on the stage, 2:37 behind Cobo, with Rodriguez in seventh, at 1:35. And in 2008, Valverde was second on the stage, 42 seconds behind Alberto Contador; Rodriguez came in third at 58 seconds, while Roche lost 4:44 in placing 14th on the day.
VERDICT: Horner is at an apparent disadvantage in not having raced the Anglirubut he has all the attributes of a potential winner on this awesome ascent.
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