SOLARES, Spain (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) continued to shock and awe his rivals at the Vuelta a España on Thursday and all but staked his claim for overall victory in the Spanish tour.
The 41-year-old Horner ripped the legs off race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), attacking on the steepest ramps of 20 percent on the 5.5km final climb up Peña Cabarga on stage 18, trimming Nibali’s lead to the slenderest of margins, pulling within three seconds.
“I had amazing legs today. I told the team today I could take the jersey, but I was just three seconds off,” Horner said at the top of the mountain. “If I can get a gap tomorrow, maybe I can get the red jersey. I was confident all day. I was never in the red, always pedaling easy. It was a big day.”
Horner confirmed yet again he is the best climber in this Vuelta. Just as he’s demonstrated every time the road has gone up, Horner has been able to put his rivals into trouble. He came up just three seconds from taking the red leader’s jersey, but Horner knows that momentum is in his corner.
“Maybe it’s better if I don’t have the red. I just have to go deep on Saturday,” Horner continued. “The most important thing is that I made up a lot of time. The gap is smaller.”
After losing time to Horner for the second consecutive summit finish, Nibali all but threw in the towel.
“Horner demonstrated again that he is a level above all of us in the climbs,” Nibali said. “The rhythm he was setting up the climb was too hard for me, so I tried to limit the damage. With tomorrow and Saturday for Anglirú, Horner is set up to win this Vuelta.”
Nibali has been slipping backward over the past two summit finales, showing cracks up Monday’s summit finish at Formigal on stage 16. When Horner surged clear, Nibali stayed with him, but ceded terrain when the slope hit 20 percent. Horner powered away, leaving the Giro d’Italia champion gasping for air.
When VeloNews asked if he could believe that a 41-year-old was out-climbing him, Nibali only laughed.
“I know that when I am almost 42, I still won’t be racing,” he said. “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.”
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) rebounded late, after he was dropped midway up the climb, to also take more time on Nibali, climbing into third at 1:09 back. But the Spaniard also lost time to Horner.
Valverde, too, shook his head in dismay after watching Horner claw away more time. Movistar took control of the stage, setting a high pace over the final hour of climbing, with José Herrada grinding up the lower flanks of the Cabarga wall.
“Horner is just so strong. Me, Purito, Nibali, we’re all about the same level, but Horner is above us all,” Valverde said. “The Anglirú is such a hard climb, nothing will be decided until we’re at the top.”
Horner was ecstatic with his performance, and pulled ever closer to realizing what seemed like an unimaginable dream of winning a grand tour.
In 2005, upon his comeback to Europe with Saunier Duval on a pauper’s salary, he lived in an apartment near Santander. He fought his way onto that year’s Tour de France squad, but no one could have imagined that eight years later he would be on the verge of becoming the first American winner of the Vuelta.
“I am happy to make up the time, and I am looking forward to win this Vuelta,” Horner said. “My team was great again today. They’ve done a super-job taking care of me this entire Vuelta. They kept me out of trouble all day, then we drilled it to the base of the climb.”
Friday’s stage in a hilly profile across the short but steep climbs into Asturias. The final summit push to Alto Naranco above Oviedo is not nearly as steep as Cabarga or Anglirú. A breakaway is sure to stay clear, likely gobbling up the finish-line bonuses, so Horner will need to turn on his turbos to take back the time.
It will likely come down to the Anglirú, the monster climb up an old goat path with ramps as steep as 24 percent.
“Maybe I can take back those three seconds tomorrow. I think it will be more of a tactics game,” he said. “I am best when the climb is the steepest and there is no draft, that allows me to go as fast as I can. Tomorrow could be a game of tactics. I don’t believe it’s so hard. Saturday will be an interesting day.”
Horner has two more stages to take back those three seconds. It seems all but inevitable, but until it happens, and until the Vuelta reaches Madrid, Horner more than anyone knows that anything can happen.
“You can look everywhere to find those three seconds,” Horner said. “Those seconds don’t matter, but if I lose this Vuelta by three seconds, then it does! Don’t forget that I lost six seconds because of a split in stage 4.”
Horner has a memory like an elephant. And it looks like he will keep stampeding all the way to Madrid.
As Nibali said, unless he suffers a crisis, this Vuelta is going to belong to a 41-year-old first-time grand tour champion.