Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard) says he is surprised to be back in the top spot overall but if the American had any objections to regaining the overall lead of the Vuelta a España for a third time, he certainly didn't show them in his leader's press conference.
The 41-year-old is - once again - the oldest rider ever to lead a Grand Tour by far, given the previous record was held by Andrea Noe when the Italian was a comparatively baby-faced 38 in the 2007 Giro. However, Horner criticized unspecified media outlets who had allegedly said that his 2013 Vuelta form was exceptional, and he argued instead that this was a return to the same kind of condition he has had in other top races.
Now leading by three seconds after making up six on Nibali on the Naranco climb at the finish of stage 19, Horner said, "It's always nice to have the red [leader's jersey], I didn't think it was coming today. It's a big surprise because that last climb was hard, not really hard."
He explained that when Rodriguez attacked he had let the Spaniard go without trying to follow him because "today it was a game of tactics. I was never in the red in the last climb. I didn't want to go for the time bonus because of [Alejandro] Valverde being likely to win."
"It was better for me to let [Joaquim] Rodriguez go, watch Valverde and drop [Vincenzo] Nibali off. I was disappointed to lose the red jersey and I can imagine how disappointed Nibali is now."
His racing legs, he said after briefly switching into Spanish, are "fantastico. If I have the same kind of legs tomorrow, I should have the jersey in Madrid."
Not knowing the Angliru may be seen as a disadvantage by some riders, but not Horner. "If I turn left, it's steep, if I turn right, it's steep. I'll watch it tonight on TV and see what it's like."
At his age, he admitted, he preferred warm weather to dry, but if it does rain - as has been forecast, although late Friday evening the forecast had to switched to being for a dry day Saturday - "It doesn't change much. If it rains, I'll wear more clothes."
Staying optimistic seems to be Horner's default position and he is looking very positively at tomorrow's last ascent. "Honestly, my legs feel fantastic, I'm looking forward to the Angliru, I have been since three or four months ago."
"Would I like to win the stage? Absolutely. Do I need to? No. It would be better for me is somebody else did rather than wait for a sprint and then maybe lose time to Valverde or Nibali who are faster than me. Would I like it though? Sure."
Other race leaders might feel nervous with such a tenuous advantage when it comes to leading a Grand Tour and with only two days left to go, but Horner refuses to be intimidated by it. Having experienced triumphs and defeats on many occasions before, he is willing to take his chance.
"I didn't lose any sleep last night about being three seconds behind, so I'm not gonna lose any sleep tonight about being three seconds ahead," he reasoned. "At my age, I'm used to winning and 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."
But Horner appears to be anything but complacent, saying "Nibali and Valverde are a big threat still. They're just seconds behind me. If I keep only three seconds lead, I'll still possible lose the jersey in Madrid and I don't want to worry about that on Sunday."
Another concern is the way his performance is being viewed outside the race, with Horner firmly rejecting suggestions that his racing in the Vuelta is unusual for him.
"The press has said this is ‘the best form of my life', but it's not." Horner insisted before saying "When I won Pais Vasco [in 2010] I had this form, in California I had this form."
In a long answer, Horner then cited several other occasions - the 2011 Tour de France, the 2010 Tour, the 2009 Giro and Vuelta - when he had had "amazing form" but either crashes and injuries or team responsibilities had curbed his chances of shining as well as he would have liked.
"The press has been irresponsible even to print that this is my best form, it's not my best form, this is just one moment when my best form has arrived at a fantastic moment," Horner argued.
"I've always been under-rated or not quite given the leadership when I think I should have had it for different reasons," he said in another answer. "Maybe [because of] my age, or maybe I'm not brass enough. But there's always something in my career that made people think I'm not as good as I am."
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