Horner makes history with stage win, lead in Vuelta a España

It’s been a while coming, but Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard) chipped out his own little notch of cycling history today (Monday) when he claimed the stage win and race lead in the Vuelta a España.

In one fell swoop, at 41 years and 307 days - he will turn 42 in October - Horner is now the oldest rider ever to lead a Grand Tour and to raise his arms as stage winner. The previous record for a Grand Tour stage victory was for Pino Cerami, the Italian-born Belgian who at 41 and change won a stage of the 1963 Tour de France. As for leading a Grand Tour, Horner comfortably outstrips Andrea Noe’s previous record, who led the Giro in 2007 as a ‘greenhorn’ 38 year old.

Small wonder that Horner eased back a little bit in the final metres of the Mirador do Lobeira climb, because as he succinctly put it, “how often do you win a first Grand Tour stage in your life?” - and indeed, at 41 going on 42, how likely is he to do it again?

Having turned pro in 1995, Horner is one of the very few still racing today who can recollect what the peloton was like before Miguel Indurain had won his fifth straight Tour, in July that year, for example.

And after such a long wait for a Grand Tour win - although he has been victorious in the Tour of the Basque Country and the Tour de Suisse and his most recent victory dates from the Tour of Utah this August where he won the toughest stage and finished second overall - Horner said he could “fully appreciate how important it is to win [a stage] and lead in a Grand Tour at my age”. And, it seems, he has no problem staying ultra-motivated and focussed even in his fifth decade when many pros are long retired.

“I love training and racing, every day I race on the bike I understand that at my age it may be the last day.”

“Take today’s stage, it was possible I could have crashed and if I’d got an injury it was possible I would never race my bike again. That makes every day on the bike important, and keeps me motivated.”

His talk of career-threatening injuries is no verbal posturing: earlier this year Horner had to spend five months out of the racing circuit because of a knee injury, and it was only at Utah that he started to come good again. And his determination to do well in the Vuelta, he said, kept him on track, whilst retiring, despite having no contract with a team for 2014, is nowhere in his thoughts.

“There was another rider in the peloton today, I won’t say his name, who said he was thinking of retiring and did I know of any directors’ jobs going. And I was thinking, man, that’s really bizarre, why would you want to stop racing?”

Having planned out the early part of the race with Fabian Cancellara, he said that a spell in the leader’s jersey had been part of the plan from the word go for RadioShack.

“We rode a strong team time trial and together with Fabian we agreed that the leader’s jersey would be an objective.”

Cancellara’s big chance was on stage one, whilst Horner looked for his on stage three’s final four kilometre ascent.

“In the last climb, everybody was attacking from the start, and when we came into the last kilometre, there were still some riders with a little gap. I followed them directly, got a bit of a gap myself, and decided to go full gas. I dropped my head and went full on for the line.”

“I never stopped to ease up right until the end, because I knew I was going to be winning a stage of the Vuelta, how many times am I going to do that?”

And if Vincenzo Nibali wants to regain the red jersey of leader, he may find he has a tough fight on his hands, to judge from Horner’s gung-ho talk of winning the race outright.

“For sure the objective I have now is to place as high as possible on gc and try to win it here.”

“The most difficult thing is the chrono, sometimes I’m not so good there, but I won Pais Vasco [in 2010] there thanks to the time trial. Normally though, I can climb well.” - and with nine summit finishes still to come, that will hardly be unimportant in this year’s Vuelta 2013.

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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.