Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is reaching new limits at the Vuelta a España. If he keeps riding like he did yesterday, when he reportedly set a new VAM record, the 41-year-old will become the oldest grand tour winner in cycling history.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), 13 years younger, kept the red leader’s jersey on Thursday but went into the red zone going up the fan-lined Peña Cabarga climb. Nibali told Italy’s La Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper, “I can’t climb at 500 watts. I was going at 430 watts and that guy accelerated. What could I do?”
When the dust settled, Horner ate 25 seconds into Nibali’s lead, which was only three seconds before Friday’s stage 19. And then on Friday, the American claimed the red jersey and now holds a three-second advantage over Nibali with two days of racing left.
A Bend, Oregon native, Horner blasted up the 5.9-kilometer Peña Cabarga climb in record time on Thursday. His time on the ascent, which went from 20 to 565 meters above sea level, ranged from 16:40 to 16:44, depending on who you ask. The VAM, or meters climbing per hour, calculates to somewhere between 1,961 to 1,972 — again, according to different sources.
La Gazzetta dello Sport ran with the headline, “Esagerato! Un Horner mai visto.” That translates to, “Exaggerated! A Horner like never before.” The paper reported that his VAM broke all records at 2,034. According to the Italian daily, he would have averaged 437 watts or around 6.83 watts/kg.
In comparison, Alberto Contador rode up the 8.5km Verbier climb at the 2009 Tour de France with a VAM of 1,864. Chris Froome (Sky) is said to have recorded a 1,722 VAM on Mont Ventoux at the Tour this year.
Sky principal Dave Brailsford told VeloNews in July that one must take into consideration a range of numbers to calculate a rider’s performance, and one cannot judge a rider based solely on a watt or VAM reading.
“Add temperature, wind, road conditions, normalized VAM, normalized power; we know aerodynamic drags of our riders, and even with that it’s hard,” Brailsford said. “So when people start saying, we’ll just assume this and that, come on, guys, if you have to have true scientific rigor, you would know what you’re doing is not scientifically.”
Horner beat the former Peña Cabarga record of 17:11 that Joaquím Rodríguez (Katusha) set in 2010. The times were faster overall yesterday. Rodriguez went 11 seconds faster than 2010 and Nibali registered a 17:05, 26 seconds faster than his 2010 time.
If he keeps going as he is, he will become the oldest grand tour winner at 41 years old. Belgian Firmin Lambot currently holds the record, winning the 1922 Tour de France at 36. When he won at Mirador de Lobeira two weeks ago, Horner became the oldest grand tour stage winner.
“I know that when I am almost 42, I still won’t be racing,” Nibali said Thursday. “Horner is demonstrating that he has great condition. He hasn’t raced many days and he’s coming here fresher than all of us. He’s been climbing better than anyone. If he doesn’t have a crisis or a bad moment, it will be hard to beat him.”
Horner has to survive one more mountain day, tomorrow’s stage 20 that summits on L’Angliru, to establish yet another record before Sunday’s finale in Madrid.