OVIEDO, Spain (VN) — Spain’s hardest climb stands between Chris Horner and overall victory at the 68th Vuelta a España.
The 41-year-old from San Diego reclaimed the race’s red leader’s jersey Friday by three seconds, carrying a slender lead into the Vuelta’s decisive summit finale atop the grueling Anglirú summit.
“The legs are ‘fantastico,'” Horner said after taking back the leader’s jersey. “If the legs stay the way they are, I will have the jersey in Madrid.
Horner knows it won’t be a walk in the park, but rather a walk up a ladder. The Anglirú is one of cycling’s fearsome, most demanding climbs.
On paper, the Anglirú doesn’t sound too bad; 12.5km long at an average grade of 10 percent. But the climb is deceiving. It’s stair-steps up the side of a ridge, with the opening 5km at seven percent gradient. A short descent brings the pack to the final wall, with an average of 13 percent up the final 6km, and ramps at the infamous “Cuesta de las Cabras” hitting a punishing 24 percent.
For Horner — who has never ridden the Anglirú — it’s the culmination of a lifelong dream to be riding for victory in a grand tour on an iconic mountain stage.
“It’s an epic climb. It’s becoming mythical, like l’Alpe d’Huez,” Horner said. “I’m looking forward to doing a climb in these circumstances.”
The setting will certainly be epic, and the racing couldn’t be tighter.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) has been sliding backwards since the Pyrénées, yet still clings to life at three seconds back. There is a feeling, however, that the Italian will be looking behind him more than trying to stay with Horner.
The American has shown superior climbing legs throughout this Vuelta, so Nibali will be looking to defend a podium spot.
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) revived his podium hopes by sprinting to a stage victory Friday, and clawing within 1:57 of Horner, and only 51 seconds behind third-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Though Horner looks strong, Rodríguez said the Anglirú is so hard that “anything could happen.”
“The Anglirú is a special climb. It will put everyone in their place. It does not pardon,” Rodríguez said. “We are not going to throw in the towel. Maybe I can still fight for the podium, and maybe more. We can say that Horner should win, but cycling is not like math. It’s not two plus two is four. Anything can happen, especially if it rains.”
The Anglirú has notoriously bad weather, including the terrible stage in 2002 through a torrential downpour. Forecasters, however, are calling for cool, cloudy skies, and only a small chance of rain.
With the dynamics of the podium contenders, Horner can use that to his advantage. Valverde will be attacking Nibali and keeping an eye on Rodríguez, so Horner will be able to mark the moves, and defend his red jersey.
Though he has not climbed the Anglirú, Horner said he knows enough about it to expect the worst.
“Like most of the climbs in this race, I don’t know it, but you turn left, it’s steep, you turn right, it’s steep. I’m not worried about the climb,” Horner said. “Rodriguez will attack to get on to the podium. Valverde will defend his place to remain on the podium. If Nibali goes, I have to stay on his wheel and be careful of the time bonus. Nibali and Valverde are a big threat still. They’re just seconds behind me.”
Horner’s been around the block long enough to know that it isn’t over until he crosses the finish line in Madrid. With such a narrow margin to Nibali, who is a much better sprinter than Horner, he knows he cannot play any games.
“If I keep only three seconds lead, I’ll still possibly lose the jersey in Madrid and I don’t want to worry about that on Sunday,” Horner said.
What’s clear is that Horner is ecstatic to be in red once again. When he stepped on the podium, he had a big grin on his face and yelled, “It’s back!”
Now that’s it back, he wants to keep it — on his back.
Saturday’s stage could be the longest climb of Horner’s life, but it’s one he’s been savoring to get to for his entire career.
“For three weeks, my legs have been fantastic. Yesterday I rode with the best form I’ve ever had. I have an incredible team around me. It makes me confident for tomorrow,” he said. “I’m not gonna lose sleep overnight. I didn’t lose sleep last night about being three seconds behind, so I’m gonna lose sleep tonight because of being three seconds ahead. At my age, I’m used to winning and I’m used to losing. To be in the lead of the Vuelta with two days to go, it’s not the first surprise of my life, but it’s a very good one.”