Chris Horner’s run in the red jersey at the Vuelta a España ended in confusion Tuesday among a frenetic dash to the finish line at Spain’s “end of the world,” Fisterra.
It initially appeared that Horner, who crossed the line 26th, had defended the red jersey that he won in spectacular fashion Monday, but the race jury saw it differently.
The peloton cracked under the pressure of Dani Moreno’s (Katusha) winning sprint, and riders came through in dribs and drabs, enough for the race jury to call a gap between Bartosz Huzarski (NetApp-Endura) and Dominik Nerz (BMC Racing), at 21st and 22nd, respectively.
Horner was on the wrong side of that gap, and the race jury judged it a six-second difference between the two groups (gaps at the finish are measured between the first rider in each group). Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) sliced across the line 16th, just a few bike lengths ahead of Horner, but it was enough to give him back the leader’s jersey by three seconds. A RadioShack spokesman confirmed to VeloNews that the team did protest the ruling. The jury did not adjust its decision.
Trading red out for his normal jersey on a contested call couldn’t stop Horner from smiling, however.
“Not to worry,” said Horner, now second, at three seconds back. “I will take back the jersey when we get to the real climbs.”
The tremendous work by RadioShack to control a high-octane stage across the hilly country of Spain’s Galicia region was all for naught. First, Shack set the pace to reel in a four-man move coming into the Cat. 3 Alto de Ézaro, hyped as Europe’s steepest climb, with ramps as steep as 30 percent.
The pack splintered, but RadioShack got five jerseys over the steep climb, and then railed it to the line to control another countermove featuring danger man Luis León Sánchez (Belkin).
And to add insult to injury, Fabian Cancellara came up short in a dash for the win, finishing a few bike lengths behind Moreno.
“It was a very hard, fast stage today, but the team rode great,” Horner said. “It was a great day to have the leader’s jersey. I hope to get it back later in the Vuelta.”
Nibali, meanwhile, didn’t seem too thrilled to get the weight of the jersey back on his shoulders.
In fact, race officials initially told the defending Giro d’Italia champion he did not have the jersey, and Nibali was already in an Astana team vehicle heading back to the team hotel when they got the call.
“We were already leaving the race and we had to come back to the podium,” Nibali said. “I wasn’t racing to regain the lead. I was just staying up front to avoid any troubles, and I was following the wheels. I feel sorry for Chris.”
Horner winning fans in the Spanish media
Horner will miss a few days in the leader’s jersey, but his confidence remains sky high as the Vuelta turns out of the hilly, challenging roads of Galicia and toward the flatter roads of the northern meseta over the next few days.
Horner has been a big hit in the Spanish media. The Spanish daily El Mundo wrote a fitting headline on Tuesday, “Un abuelo con marcha,” which roughly translates to a “grandpa with speed.”
Basque daily Deia wrote, “The oldest, the happiest,” and played up his interesting backstory of being a Japan-born son of a military mechanic who later raced in Europe in the 1990s with a long ponytail.
Spain’s biggest daily, El País, described him as a “hippy,” who rode for a neo-pro’s salary in 2005 with Saunier Duval just to have a shot at the Tour. Matxin Fernández, former sport director at Saunier Duval, said Horner quickly became a hit with his new teammates despite not speaking very much Spanish.
“One time, we all went out to eat during a race, and Chris threw a real fit when the restaurant wouldn’t give him a hamburger,” Fernández told MARCA. “He used to sneak hamburgers and pizza, and whenever I would catch him, I would take them away from him.”
Fernández recounted a story about how Horner’s former teammates called him “chiquito” after a crash early in the 2005 season.
“He crashed at [Tirreno-Adriatico] and had a small fracture on his femur, and he was really struggling with recovery. He kept saying, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’” Fernández said. “The riders were encouraging him, but were also teasing him because he looked a bit of a gimp. They started calling him ‘chiquito’ for the remainder of the season.”
Wednesday’s fifth stage turns into Castilla y León, where the roads are wider and straighter, which will give the GC riders a brief respite over the next few days. The sprinters and the stage hunters will have their chances going all the way into the weekend, where two very steep and potentially decisive stages loom in the mountains of Andalucía.
“Now we can regroup a bit after a few intense days,” Horner said. “It’s been a good start to the Vuelta. Now we can wait until the real climbs.”
While his run in red was short-lived, Horner made cycling history by becoming the oldest rider, at 41, to ever lead a grand tour. Andrea Noé was 38 when he led the 2007 Giro, and Eugene Christophe was 37 when he led the Tour de France all the way back in 1927.
“Everyone on the team was very happy,” Horner told Spanish television. “We had a big party at the team hotel [Monday night]. Cancellara and I were the animators.”
Horner clearly isn’t done yet, and he wants to take the jersey back. Imagine the party if he manages to win in Madrid?