Late call up for Horner earns combination jersey in grand tour debut
Lampre-Merida's Vuelta a España could hardly have started any worse than having defending champion Chris Horner withdraw on the eve of the race due to low cortisol levels.
The 42-year-old was to line up in Jerez with the number one bib on his back but in his place was 21-year-old Valerio Conti. The Italian took the place of his teammate in Lampre's nine-man team and with it, the number one dossard.
Conti was quick to prove his place in the team by making his way into the breakaway on stage 2 and was the race leader on the road for several hours. It wasn't just a TV appearance though as Conti did enough to earn himself the combination jersey and make a visit to the podium after his first road stage of a grand tour.
The day-long break was reeled in some 16 kilometres from the line before the sprinters teams upped the pace still further to ensure there were no last-minute attacks. In the bunch sprint finish, Roberto Ferrari capped off a good day for Lampre by taking third behind Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb.
Conti explained after the stage that it was plan concocted by the team which gave him the freedom to try and get into the breakaway which he successfully did.
"I only did what the directeurs sportifs told me to do," said Conti after he finished in 142nd place. "I made the first breakaway of the Vuelta. It wasn't an easy one to make as it was an uphill start. We rode well together until the peloton caught us with 20km to go. They caught us when they wanted to."
Having competed at the Tour of Utah, Conti explained that he expected a small period of rest before the last-minute call up saw him join the team in Spain.
"Two or three days before the start of the Vuelta, I was maybe going to be a starter," he said. "Only the day before, on Friday morning, I was told to pack my bag and come to Spain but my bag was already ready. It's better to start my first Grand Tour in those conditions, with no pressure. I ride with the race number 1 on my back but I'm not the great champion that Chris Horner is."
Having started his his season in March and raced in Italy, Turkey, Japan, France, Italy again and America, Conti added that while he would like to finish the race, he will take it day-by-day.
"For sure, I won't win the Vuelta, at least not this year. I'm only 21. I'd like to finish the three-week race but I don't know how my physique will react."
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