Horner closes in on Vuelta victory on the Angliru

A spectacular duel between Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) on the slopes of the Angliru ended with the American shedding the Italian star and soaring away into the mist for near-certain outright victory in the Vuelta a España.

Barring absolute disaster, by Sunday evening Horner will be America’s first-ever winner of the Vuelta, at an age, too, when all but a handful of pros have long hung up their wheels. The Vuelta’s previous oldest winner was a sprightly Tony Rominger, a mere 33 years old when he took his third Spanish title in 1994. The Giro’s previous most senior winner Fiorenzo Magni aged 35 in 1955, while the Tour’s oldest victor was Fermin Lambot 91 years ago, aged 36. Horner’s record pulverizes these previous bests by a long way.

“I don’t need any time for this to sink in, I’ve had lots of time to think about it and what this accomplishment would be like,” was how Horner described it afterwards. “I’ve had lots of time to think about how much I suffered to get here, and the feelings I have now will last a lifetime.”

Regardless of his age, Horner’s final battle against Nibali was a memorable one. Nibali shed the American early on, was caught, then tried again and again to drop his rival. Only when Nibali was utterly spent did Horner turn the tables for once and for all, powering away to cross the line in second place behind Kenny Elissonde (Fdj.fr) at 26 seconds.

With Nibali finishing fourth at 54 seconds, Horner’s lead (thanks to a final time bonus, too) stretched to 37 seconds. Not quite the 40 seconds he’d previously said he wanted to be able to savour his victory ride into Madrid, but enough.

“It is amazing to win here, with such great champions;” Horner said. “Guys like Valverde, Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, who I was team-mates with [at Saunier Duval in 2005], they are amazing. To have guys like that around me for this victory is unbelievable.”

Having Nibali attack so hard, so often - not the 10 or 15 times Horner said it was, although it may have felt like that - helped make it “epic,” the American said. “I’m sure that fans must have been on the edges of their seats.

“I loved that Nibali put up such a fight, and such a dark place I had to dig to, to win this race.”

His tactics throughout Nibali’s onslaught, he said, were to “work out what was best, I made a mistake the first time he attacked and let him recover. Instead I realised that what worked for me at the beginning was the best, to keep my power as high as possible so he couldn’t ever recover.”

“Then I finally decided to go to the front and set my own tempo.” At which point, finally, Nibali crumbled, his dream of taking two Grand Tours in a single year definitively defeated.

Horner’s delight at taking his win was reflected most strongly when he spontaneously grabbed the press conference microphone and recounted how his 11-year-old son had said he would prefer him to continue racing when Horner had had doubts because of his knee injury earlier this year.

“He told me not to retire, because right now it was cool to be able to tell his friends his dad was a professional doing the Giro and other races, and with every pedal stroke I felt that, what he’d said.

“Now he can say his dad won the first Vuelta for America, he’s the only 40-something year-old to have won a Grand Tour, and that’s something he’ll be able to enjoy for the rest of his life, to enjoy that for ever.”

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.