GRANADA, Spain (VN) — It’s the end of stage one of the Vuelta a España. RadioShack-Leopard came within seconds of winning the team time trial and claiming the red jersey. Despite some initial disappointment from the close call, there were smiles all around. After a strong ride, they knew they were onto something special.
“The legs are feeling good!” Chris Horner said with his trademark smile. “Let’s see if we can’t get the jersey. That’s the plan.”
Two days later, Horner proved just how good the legs were feeling, dropping everyone on a short but deceptively steep finale up to the Mirador de Lobeira. Just like that, Horner had won the first grand-tour stage of his career, becoming the oldest rider in history, at 41 years and seven months, to ever do so.
Despite losing the leader’s jersey the next day on a rather dubious call from the race jury, Horner and RadioShack have gone from strength to strength.
And they’re not just thinking of winning another stage or reclaiming the jersey temporarily. They’re quietly plotting to win this Vuelta a España.
“Chris is within the group of riders who can win this Vuelta,” RadioShack sport director José Azevedo told VeloNews. “As we move closer to the third week, that number is getting smaller and smaller. So far, Chris remains right there. He’s looking good. We’ll see what happens.”
Sunday’s explosive finale up the nearly 30 percent ramps at Valdepeñas de Jaén didn’t favor Horner, and he settled into fifth overall at 28 seconds behind new leader Dani Moreno (Katusha). Monday’s steeper, longer finale will suit him better going into the first of two rest days Tuesday.
With every stage, RadioShack is rallying around Horner, and upping its game to support the iconoclastic veteran who shows no signs of slowing down.
“The first week is going great. We will keep riding until we cannot ride anymore,” RadioShack’s Matthew Busche told VeloNews. “He believes in himself, so we believe in him. We will see what happens.”
Horner bristles somewhat at the suggestion that it seems incredible that a 41-year-old rider is contending for a three-week grand tour.
For Horner, riding to win has been part and parcel of what he’s been doing since turning pro back in 1997. The fact that he’s pedaling toward his third decade as a pro doesn’t seem so extraordinary, at least not from his perspective.
“This is always what happens. In the press, on TV, I am not a favorite. But in the race, no one lets me go anywhere,” Horner told VeloNews.
“I have a leash on me that’s as tight as any of the favorites. That’s why it’s difficult for me to win stages, to get away, to get a gap, because everyone knows that if they give me a gap, I am going to go, and then they’re going to have a problem bringing me back.”
His rivals are certainly taking him as a legitimate threat. On Saturday’s summit finish to Peñas Blancas, when RadioShack took control of the stage from the very bottom of the climb, Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was glued to his wheel.
“In some ways, it is not a surprise to see Horner going so well,” Cannondale sport director Mario Scirea told VeloNews. “He’s won the Basque Country tour, one of the hardest races in Europe, so we all know he’s a big rider. But you cannot forget his age. It is something extraordinary.”
Horner comes into this Vuelta perhaps fresher than anyone in the race. After knee pain flared up at Tirreno-Adriatico, forcing an early departure from the Volta a Catalunya, he didn’t race again until the Larry Miller Tour of Utah last month.
During those months of recovery from knee surgery, the rest of the peloton was flogging across the roads of Europe. Horner, meanwhile, comes to the Vuelta as fresh as a daisy, with only 14 race days in his legs before hitting Galicia.
For Azevedo, the fact that Horner is race ready for the Vuelta demonstrates just how much he loves racing the bike.
“To have the condition he has, with so few race days, the head is key. It shows he has a lot of motivation to train, and that requires extreme dedication,” Azevedo said. “He carries himself well. He’s a real pro, but he can suffer and work like he’s a youngster. There are not many like him.”
Horner admitted as much. Following his stage victory, he said he takes each day as if it will be his last, and savors every moment, and exploits every opening.
“At my age, you can appreciate how difficult it can be to win,” Horner said last week. “I understand at my age, that every day I race, it could be my last. I could have a crash, and never race again. Every day on the bike is important. It’s very easy to stay focused and motivated.”
Everyone within RadioShack is rolling up his sleeves to support Horner’s run for the Vuelta.
Haimar Zubeldia, the veteran Basque who remains a second GC card for the team in the top 10 overall, said Horner is an inspiration for everyone.
“Chris is a real character. At 41, he’s an example for all us. For me, he gives me motivation to keep racing,” said Zubeldia, 36. “He’s not the only one. [Jens] Voigt is there as well. It’s to tip your hat to them.”
Zubeldia said the better Horner goes, the deeper the team will work for him. It’s a circle that feeds on itself. If a team knows it has a chance to win, they will work even harder to make it happen.
“After he won the stage, he told all of us he has good legs. He hasn’t raced a lot due to his injury, so he’s fresh both mentally and physically. We’re doing all we can to support him,” Zubeldia said.
“The ambiance of the team is very good. We’ve already won a stage; we were second in the team time trial. Our principal objective is to have someone in the top 10, but who knows how far Chris can go?”
That is the magical question of this Vuelta: How far can Horner go?
So far, he seems to be holding up just fine. One question mark will be his performance in Wednesday’s lone individual time trial. By his own admission, Horner is hot and cold against the clock, but Azevedo doesn’t see it as a decisive stage.
“If it were flat, then Nibali would have an advantage, but the terrain is quite undulating, and there is a short climb, so it’s a time trial that if you lose time, you will not lose too much,” Azevedo said. “The real race will be decided in the Pyrénées and in Asturias in the final week.”
So have there been any hamburgers? Horner is known to feast on the occasional hamburger or pizza, but according to Azevedo, he has restrained himself.
“During the race, Horner is very disciplined about his diet, and what he eats,” he said. “Maybe on the rest day, but who knows? Right now, we’re all focused on the race and helping Chris.”
Azevedo said the team is not trying to get too far ahead of itself. Each stage presents a particular set of challenges and dangers that must be overcome, be it a beyond-category summit or an urban circuit packed with traffic furniture.
“We have a long way to go in this Vuelta, but if he did win, it would truly be something incredible for a rider his age. He’s older than me!” Azevedo said. “Considering his age, it’s even more impressive how he’s racing.”
There is still a long way to go, and in many ways, this Vuelta has already been a stunning success for Horner and RadioShack. But as Horner knows better than anyone — when the legs are going good, do not sit up.