Morale sky-high after reducing Nibali's lead to 28 seconds
Relaxed and smiling on the Vuelta a España's second rest day, Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard) is poised for what could be the most important week of his very lengthy career, with his first ever podium finish or perhaps even a Grand Tour win in Madrid potentially to celebrate. But if his morale needed any boosting, Horner got that "lift" on Monday's stage.
Whilst Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) remains the race leader, Horner and all the other overall rivals managed to dent a hole in the Italian's advantage on the final stage of the Pyrenean leg of the Vuelta, and the 41-year-old American, previously at 50 seconds and now at 28 seconds overall, has benefited the most from Nibali's moment of weakness, the first he has had in this year's race.
"I think everybody's morale is higher than it was," Horner told Cyclingnews. "Nobody expected that, but we knew that coming down after the climb [Formigal] it was hard, but we knew that with the wind and so on it would be hard to get away.
"We were all surprised at the result, and how Nibali performed. Whether his legs just had a bad moment or if he's really weakening - we'll find out on Thursday," on the ascent to Peña Cabarga, "what's really going on."
His own condition, he says with a chuckle, "is good! I'm at 28 seconds. Clearly I'm climbing good, nobody's outclimbed me in this Tour yet and certainly Nibali and [Alejandro] Valverde (Movistar, third overall) and [Joaquim] Rodriguez (Katusha, fourth overall) are the four strongest riders in the race.
"So it's just going to take one bad moment [on Nibali's part] to make the difference. But for Joaquim to win, three guys have to have a bad moment, for Valverde two of us and for me to win - just one."
Continuing his remorseless logic, Horner argues that "the odds are what they are and the further you go down the GC, the more time you need too, the bigger that bad moment has to be, 'cause you got to make up more time."
Horner, then, could well end up being America's first ever Vuelta winner, not to mention the first on the podium since Levi Leipheimer placed second in the 2008 race. By his own calculation, making up 40 seconds would be the perfect margin to take on Nibali "just so, there's the 28 seconds for the lead and there's [no risk of losing the jersey with] a gap into Madrid. 40 seconds would nice. So we'll see how it goes."
Of the stages ahead, Thursday's to Peña Cabarga and Saturday's to the Angliru are the most difficult, whilst on Wednesday's flat run across the plains of La Rioja and Burgos in northern Spain the biggest risk coming from crosswinds splitting the pack. There does not look likely to be a dull moment, then, all the way to Madrid.
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