OVIEDO, Spain (VN) — Chris Horner’s been waiting a long time to be in position to win a grand tour, so the 41-year-old didn’t panic when arch-rival Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) attacked early on the long, grueling steeps of the Anglirú.
Horner knew it was a long way to the top, both in terms of how many years he’s been waiting to be in position to fight for a grand tour, and how steep the Anglirú truly was.
Just as he has throughout his career, dating back to 1996, Horner kept plugging away. He patiently reeled in Nibali, covered a few more powerful surges from the Italian, and then dropped him for good to disappear into the fog.
On Saturday, Horner realized a career-long dream, and, barring disaster, will become the oldest rider in cycling history to win a grand tour.
“I could have only hoped that Nibali would have put in an attack, but to see him attack 10-15 times, I am sure that the fans at home were on the edge of their seats,” Horner said.
“I don’t need time for this to sink in. I’ve had a long time to think about what I’ve done, about how hard it would be. It will be something that will last a life time.”
With his spectacular climb up the legendary steeps of the Anglirú, fast becoming one of the marquee climbs of Europe, Horner makes history.
The oldest Vuelta winners were Tony Rominger in 1994, and Alexander Vinokourov in 2006. Both were 34 when they won. Horner also surpasses the previous oldest grand-tour winner, Fermin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour de France at 36.
“This is an amazing moment. Everybody got to watch a legendary moment, something that maybe no one will ever see again,” Horner said. “When Nibali attacked, I hoped all of you enjoyed it and loved every pedal stroke, loved every moment, the same way I did.”
His rivals were quick to tip their collective hats to Horner. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who ends up third overall, said Horner, “deserves to win because he was the strongest in the mountains.”
Nibali, meanwhile, went down swinging. The Italian was struggling to match Horner’s power in the mountains, and saw his once-commanding lead of 50 seconds shrink to a three-second deficit at the start of Saturday’s stage.
Already a winner of the Giro d’Italia this spring, Nibali came to this Vuelta without pressure, but once he had the jersey, he wanted to keep it. As he promised, he attacked Horner, and looked to have the veteran American gapped.
But he surged way too early on the climb. Horner patiently reeled him in, and then finished him off with a well-timed surge with about 2km to go.
The pair celebrated their Vuelta successes in a tent area atop the fog-covered Anglirú summit.
“I tried everything, but I couldn’t do it,” Nibali told the Spanish daily AS. “It was impossible to finish off Horner. I have to settle for second place, but I leave the Vuelta very content.”
Horner proved the most consistent and strongest in all the climbing stages across this very mountainous Vuelta.
“My whole career, I am used to this stuff, just not this big,” Horner told VeloNews before stage 20. “It will be a big day. It should be exciting. This stage is legendary. The legs are good. We will see how good they are.”
Five hours later, Horner finished off Nibali, and carved his name in the history books. Curiously, he said the most difficult day was the first, when he had to keep up with Fabian Cancellara in the team time trial to open the Vuelta in Galicia three weeks ago.
“I’m turning 42 next month. This is legendary. I hope the fans appreciate the work I have and the team have put into it. With the five months, with the knee injury, the surgery, coming back to be ready for Utah,” Horner said.
“The most difficult stage of the Vuelta was getting through the team time trial. Fabian is so fast, that was the most stressful day of them all. He just might ride you off, and your Vuelta could be finished the first day.”
Despite concerns about his power numbers and his consistency over three weeks, Horner insists that his Vuelta performance should not be seen as a surprise.
“Maybe I haven’t had the opportunity to show it in a grand tour before,” Horner said Friday. “I’ve always been under-rated throughout my career.
“I’ve not been given the responsibility when I think I should have. Maybe it was for my age, or that I am not forceful enough. There has always been something in my career that has made people think that I am not as good a rider as I am. I have an amazing palmares. I’ve been winning races since 1996.”
Horner hopes to keep on winning and told VeloNews he wants to race for two more seasons. Rumors are flying that he’s heading to the new project backed by Fernando Alonso. On Saturday, RadioShack-Leopard general manager Luca Guercilena confirmed to VeloNews there is still no deal with Horner for next season.
Winning the Vuelta could be the ideal way to secure his future. Horner has already made history — now he wants to keep on rewriting the books.