GRANADA, Spain (VN) — If there were any doubts about the legitimacy of Chris Horner’s GC credentials in this Vuelta a España, he emphatically erased them on Monday, high in Spain’s Sierra Nevada.
Horner delivered on his promise to light up the Vuelta, attacking with four kilometers to go in the grueling uphill finale to reclaim the leader’s jersey in dramatic fashion.
The 41-year-old Horner looked a decade younger than what his birth certificate reads, surging away from a select group of GC challengers on the upper reaches of the new Vuelta climb at Alto Hazallanas. Instead of three seconds — the gap he held after winning stage 3 — his advantage over Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at the finish was 43 very long seconds.
“The legs were very good,” Horner said in the understatement of the day. “I don’t know if they’re the strongest, but they were good today.”
When Horner jumped, everyone was frozen in their tracks. And when Nibali finally gave chase with 2.5km remaining, it was too late. Horner was gone, and so too was Daniel Moreno’s (Katusha) leader’s jersey. Moreno bled more than two minutes on the stage to sink to sixth overall.
“As I’ve been saying, today was the first true day to see who could win this Vuelta,” said Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), third on the stage. “Horner surprised us a bit, not because we didn’t think he was strong, but by the time he took on everyone. He won with a lot of authority today.”
When the dust settled, Horner had won his second stage inside a week, and recaptured the leader’s jersey, this time with a more commanding 43-second lead over Giro d’Italia champ Nibali, with the equally impressive Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) third, 53 seconds back.
“It was a very difficult stage, especially due to the heat,” Nibali said at the line. “The team worked well, with [Jakob] Fuglsang, and later I tried to get away to take some seconds on my rivals. I have to be happy. Horner was up the road very strong, and it was impossible to catch him.”
On a stage when many expected a surge from Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez, the usually punchy “Purito” was caught off guard. When Horner pounced, Rodríguez failed to react, crossing the line fifth, 1:02 back.
“It’s not that he left us behind, it’s that he was faster than any of us,” Rodríguez said at the finish line.
RadioShack was already quietly confident in Horner’s abilities. Despite sliding backward on GC in Sunday’s explosive uphill punch to Valdepeñas de Jaén, with Horner slipping from second to fifth, the team expected its veteran captain to rebound today.
And rebound he did, bolting clear of his main GC challengers with a long-distance attack. Perhaps his rivals thought he would run out of gas, but Horner kept on trucking.
“Chris is in that group of riders who can win this Vuelta,” RadioShack sport director Jose Azevedo told VeloNews. “We will see what happens. The race will be decided in the Pyrénées and Asturias.”
Horner clearly wasn’t going to wait until next weekend’s climbs to make his move. With Wednesday’s hilly time trial on tap, Horner wanted to take the initiative while he had the chance.
The hilly time trial route will be the Vuelta’s next decisive step, but by taking a good chunk of time on his rivals, Horner can ride with much more confidence knowing that even if he loses some time, he still has quite a margin to defend his lead.
“It’s been a few years since I’ve done a good time trial,” Horner said. “I could lose the jersey to Nibali. It is what it is.”
Horner has already made history as the oldest grand tour stage winner in history. And by recapturing the leader’s jersey, he betters his own mark as 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.
Could Horner now become the oldest rider to win a grand tour? Stay tuned. The Vuelta takes its first of two rest days Tuesday, with the peloton traveling overnight up to Zaragoza. The race clicks back into gear Wednesday for the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial.