SAINT JULIA DE LORIA, Andorra (VN) — The Vuelta a España went from beach holiday to mountain extreme in a span of little more than 24 hours.
Rain, wind and winter-like temperatures wrought havoc on the peloton, prompting 14 riders to abandon in what many agreed was a brutal day of racing.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) might be the “abuelo” of the Vuelta, but he knows how to handle inclement weather.
The 41-year-old wrapped himself up in arm warmers, leg warmers, and raincoats to keep his core warm as the thermometer dropped more than 50F overnight going from the Mediterranean coast into Andorra for the first of decisive three climbing stages across the Pyrénées.
His caution paid off, and Horner weathered the storm, climbing into second overall, now 50 seconds behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
“Pure misery. It was absolutely so cold and freezing. After the first climb, everyone was freezing,” Horner said. “I had leg warmers, arm warmer, rain jackets, a vest, shoe covers, thermal gloves, and I was still cold.
“I could barely see straight. I was shaking so much, the bike was all over the place. It was difficult to slow down. Luckily, I had a great team around me. Gregory Rast helped me get back on to the front group before the final climb.”
Horner said Katusha was going for broke on the 25km Envalira descent, driving the group at 100kph down the twisting, diving road.
“It was an incredibly dangerous descent. There were metal manhole covers everywhere. Katusha knew the descent, they were trying to kill the bunch. It was just survival,” Horner said. “Those Katusha guys, you hope they know the corners. You cross your fingers they did.”
Horner saved the day, but others were not so fortunate, or perhaps as wise.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who held out podium hopes, abandoned on the descent of the Port de Envalira climb, the highest point of this year’s Vuelta at 2,400 meters. On Twitter, the 2010 Giro d’Italia winner characterized it as “the saddest day of my career.”
The official medical communiqué stated that Luis León Sánchez and Haimar Zubeldia, a key helper for Horner, abandoned with “signs of hypothermia.” One RadioShack official said Zubeldia was so cold he was “still shaking wildly a half hour later.”
In all, 16 riders took an early exit. Among other top names were Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff), Nick Nuyens and Michel Kreder (Garmin-Sharp), Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol), and Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DMC).
Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) also suffered, losing more than seven minutes, plummeting from second to sixth overall, at 4:06 back.
Temperatures went from the low 90s on the beach yesterday at Castelldefels to near-freezing on the Envalira summit by Saturday afternoon. Heavy rain and howling winds only made matters worse.
Juanma Garate, whose teammate Sánchez crashed on the Envalira descent after becoming so cold he could not brake, said it was a day for suffering.
“After so many days of heat and high temperatures, and this brusque change, our bodies are not accustomed to these extremes,” Garate said. “You’re soaking wet, then when you head back down, it’s 4C. There’s nothing else to do but suffer and shiver from the cold. Yesterday to today, we’re talking about 30C of extremes in one day. You pay for that.”
Even race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), renowned for his resistance to miserable weather, admitted it was a terrible day at the office.
“Today was very cold. Especially on the descents, you could really feel the cold cutting into your bones,” Nibali said. “I really counted a lot on my team today. From the first to the last, they all supported me. It was a truly hard stage today.”
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who never likes extreme cold, also suffered on the descent off Envalira, losing contact with the GC group by nearly one minute.
Strong cooperation from his teammates, including huge pulls from José Herrada, over the closing 10km to the final climb allowed Valverde to regain contact just as the climb hit its steepest ramps.
Valverde saved the day, limiting his damage to finish sixth on the stage, and remained third overall, now 1:42 back.
“It was inhumane. Today was one of the hardest days ever on the bike for me,” Valverde said. “If tomorrow is like this, I’m afraid for the Vuelta, because the race could end up with 50 riders. Today was just terrible. I was shaking on the bike. I almost lost it all, but my teammates helped save the day.”
The peloton is bracing for more of the same on Sunday, with rain and cool temperatures in the high 50Fs forecast for the high summits in the Vuelta’s queen stage.
Out of the Vuelta
Did not start: Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge), Sam Bewley (Orica-GreenEdge)
Did not finish: Steve Chainel (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Ramon Sinkeldam (Argos-Shimano), Luis León Sánchez (Belkin), Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Cyril Bessy (Cofidis), Michel Kreder and Nick Nuyens (Garmin-Sharp), Greg Henderson, Jurgen Van de Walle, Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol), Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Leopard), Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff), Wouter Pouls and Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DMC)