It was meant to be this way: In the ghostly mist, a red jersey draped on his shoulders, riding away with the Vuelta victory, away from the haunting traps of the past and into the eccentricity of a late-career climax.
Chris Horner hasn’t been a prototypical cyclist, ever. To the contrary, he would win his first grand tour at 41, and finally step out of the shadows cast by the rest of his generation.
He was always the rider who could. In Spain, he finally became the rider who did.
Say what you will about Horner. He says plenty himself, and there’s much to say: about his age, about his odds-defying performance, about his penchant for bad luck, or his penchant for bad food, or what could have been, if only physiological gifts alone could win bike races.
But this year, all there really is to say about the 41-year-old is this: Vuelta a España champion, eldest grand tour winner in history, first American grand tour winner since … Greg LeMond.
“It’s a lifetime of hard work to get here. I’ve been professional now for 20 years. The grand tour always holds a special place for every rider to show how good of a rider he is,” Horner said after icing the win. “The team was fantastic. The team supported me every day.”
The affable Horner authored a tale for the cycling ages this fall. He won the Vuelta against the fierce competition of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on the hardest of courses, littered with withering climbs — there were 13 mountain stages and 41 mountain passes. It was a course that was made for a rider like Horner — steep, with few flat time trialing kilometers — but it still took enormous talent and grit to master.
Ever the tactician, Horner saw it all coming, even when no one else really did. He pegged himself as one of the favorites weeks before the rollout.
“I think I should be in very good form there. It should be a fun three weeks,” he told Velo. In hindsight, he was, of course, correct. But very few would have called him a favorite, by any measure. After all, Horner had been off the bike since spring, drained by a lingering knee injury that he sustained from running too large a gear during a laughably difficult, and very cold, stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in March.
Horner split the field that day and finished sixth, but split his season in the process. He’d race shortly after, at Volta a Catalunya, but the pain forced him out for the rest of the season and merited surgery. He showed up at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, treating it as a tune-up race, and ended up winning a stage and finishing second overall. Still, he spent most of the summer watching, and waiting.
“I only have one ambition when I show up at the bike race,” Horner told Velo prior to the Vuelta. “So I’m planning to go good.”
He was more than good; he was the best.
Horner’s bid for the red jersey began early, on stage 3 from Vigo to Villagarcia de Arosa. He attacked on the climb, and won, marking his first grand tour stage victory. He took the lead that day, too. It was a jersey that was quarreled over for the next three weeks.
Nibali, the 2010 Vuelta champion, regained the lead on stage 4, but Horner took it back once more with another stage victory in the 10th stage, from Torredelcampo to Guejar Sierra.
Nibali, though, entered the third week with 50 seconds in hand after his time trial victory, and the psychological confidence of a win at the Giro d’Italia to go along with it. Horner ate up seconds on consecutive mountain stages, and eventually took the lead back on the race’s 19th day.
There was one day to go in the general classification; Horner’s lead was just seconds as they headed up the feared Alto de L’Angliru, one of the steepest climbs in all of Spain. Horner countered a dazzling but desperate Nibali in the foggy closing kilometers, and the overall was his, by just 37 seconds.
Those years of crashed-out hopes broke open before him. Horner was, at long last, a champion.
“I have faced younger and great riders like Nibali, Valverde, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). They have had a great tour, so for me it is a legendary moment that may not be repeated,” he said. “I know I am also the first North American to win the Tour of Spain and this makes me very proud of my work and, above all that, of my teammates.”
Naturally, skepticism was rife. When drug testers got confused the morning after he won and went to the wrong hotel to test the champion — and that came across the news wires as a missed test for Horner — alarm bells sounded. A hotel mix-up was blamed and the United States Anti-Doping Agency cleared Horner of any wrongdoing. He also released his biological passport data in hopes of quelling the doubt.
“That’s the best I can do,” he told Velo. “Clearly, that will show everyone and that will satisfy all the cynics and critics and press. Really, more than anything, I want to make sure everybody understands the Vuelta, and what a beautiful race they were watching.”
Horner was the best North American cyclist of the year, easily. It may have been his turn for luck and form — though cycling doesn’t seem to care much for who’s due what — or it may have been an urgency he hadn’t shown before.
“I’m sitting at home and it’s a contract year, and I want to continue racing my bike, and I also know I’m 42 years of age this year, so clearly I want to be on the bike, racing,” he told Velo. “I want to do multiple more years of racing.”
If the Vuelta was merely the beginning, we’d like to see that, too.
Editor’s Note: Read about all of our award winners in the December 2013 issue of Velo, out now.