SEVILLA, Spain (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) expects fireworks over the next three stages in the Vuelta a España, and he promises to be the man to light the fuse.
The 41-year-old Horner said a trio of looming mountain stages will be a major proving ground for the candidates looking to win this 68th edition of the Vuelta.
“What do you think? I am sitting second in the Vuelta, I’ve won a stage, and I’ve worn the leader’s jersey,” Horner told VeloNews. “I expect to put on a show.”
Horner has performed exquisitely over the opening week of the Vuelta, winning stage 3, wearing the red leader’s jersey, and otherwise avoiding trouble through some tricky days of racing across the hills of Galicia and now the heat of Andalucía.
“Considering what I am made for, I’m doing pretty good, but I am hurting,” he said with a laugh at the finish line Friday.
Positioned in second at three seconds back, Horner isn’t just thinking stage wins or a good GC position; he’s plotting to win this Vuelta.
With three challenging uphill finales stacked up over the weekend going into Tuesday’s first of two rest days, Horner expects to have his GC options fully intact.
“Everybody is going to be tired going into these climbing stages,” Horner continued. “You have to remember that we’re not doing eight, nine stages [before the first rest day], which is normal in a grand tour, we’re already doing 10. We’ve had seven hard days in a row, now we have three big mountain stages.”
The Vuelta continues Saturday with the Peñas Blancas summit high above the Costa del Sol. The lower ramps are very steep ahead of a shoulder that leads to the final steep punch to the summit.
Sunday’s stage returns to Valdepeñas de Jaén, a short, but very steep climb with ramps at nearly 30 percent right through the heart of a Spanish village.
The last of the trio comes Monday, with the never-before-climb at the Alto Hazallanas in the Sierra Nevada range, the hardest of the three upcoming climbs.
Horner, who lost the leader’s jersey in a controversial decision Tuesday when the race jury ruled a six-second gap as the front pack roared into Finsterre, said he’s not obsessing with retaking the red jersey, at least not right now.
The steep, explosive climbs will present a challenge for Horner to control the likes of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who will be racing for the stage wins and the valuable time bonuses waiting at the finish line.
Horner knows the trio of stages presents a chance for him to consolidate his GC credentials as a rider who can challenge for the overall title all the way to Madrid.
“Of course it’s going to be decisive, because it will be a small group. I don’t know if it will decide who will win the Vuelta, it’s going to have some kind of effect,” he concluded. “It’s always nice to have [the jersey] back, but I want to win it, so I want to get it later.
The other top favorites, meanwhile, having been doing their best to avoid trouble and conserve their energy over the past several days coming into the next decisive moment of the Vuelta.
As Horner suggested, the three climbing stages likely will not crown the overall winner, but they will likely eliminate a few GC contenders.
Right now, there are 18 riders within one minute of leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana). The Italian will be riding to defend his position.
“They are hard stages, but not decisive,” Nibali said. “The most important thing is to not lose time. I will be watching Purito and Valverde. If someone else takes the jersey, that’s not so important right now.”
Valverde, who has used some time bonuses to chip away at Nibali’s lead to pull to fifth at 21 seconds back, echoed the sentiment that the stages are to survive, but not necessarily critical to overall victory.
“The next difficult day will be Estepona,” Valverde said. “It’s a hard climb, especially with the team. We hope to arrive in good position.”
Indeed, the next three stages are ideal for Valverde and Rodríguez, who pack the finish line punch, and can use the finish-line time bonuses to gain advantage.
“These finales are very interesting,” Rodríguez said. “We’re all feeling good, and anxious to get to the stage of Peñas Blancas. It will put things more in order.”
Or, if Horner has his way, things could explode.