SAINT JULIA DE LORIA, Andorra (VN) — Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is slowly riding away with the 68th Vuelta a España, and only Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is keeping it close.
The race leader rode Horner’s wake up the final Cat. 1 summit in a brutally cold, rainy 14th stage in the first of three decisive climbing stages across the Pyrénées.
Only the 41-year-old Horner, who climbed from fourth to second at 50 seconds back, remains within one minute of the durable Italian, who seems immune to the misery that enveloped the Vuelta after near two weeks of summer-like swelter.
“I tried to get rid of Nibali today,” Horner said. “I tried as hard as I could, but the boy is good.
“I had a great team. Gregory Rast helped me come back on the descent, then Roberto Kiserlovski, he is the golden egg today for the team. He destroyed everyone, and it was just Nibali and I. Then my decision was very easy, and I went 100 percent to the line. Nibali was very, very good. Without Robert and Gregory, I would be nowhere today.”
RadioShack’s strong ride, with Kiserlovski ripping a hole in the peloton, leaving only Horner and Nibali to ride through, made things even easier for the Italian.
Nibali marked Horner’s wheel, then pipped him at the line for the second-place time bonus to widen his lead to 50 seconds over Horner, and eliminate GC threats from Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), who fell from second to sixth, and Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who abandoned.
“Today I made another step forward,” Nibali said. “Horner is still there, at only 50 seconds back. He set a very strong rhythm. It was too high of a rhythm to try to attack. I preferred to stay on his wheel, because there are still some hard stages ahead of us.”
The terrible weather took its toll on the peloton. Podium challenger Basso abandoned after suffering symptoms of hypothermia while Roche tumbled out of the top three, from second to sixth, after suffering in the cold. In all, 16 either abandoned or did not start on Saturday.
“I was even cold climbing, so you can imagine what it was like descending,” said Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who remained third, but lost nearly a minute to Nibali.
“To win this Vuelta looks difficult. I am still there in the fight. Nibali does better than me in the cold, but we’re still pretty close. We’re still third, there’s still a lot to play for.”
In fact, Valverde is the only other rider within two minutes of Nibali. Behind him, the gaps widen dramatically.
Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), who lives and trains in Andorra, crossed the line fourth at 4:11 back of winner Daniele Ratto (Cannondale) to climb to fourth overall at 2:57 back. Nibali seems too far out of range for “Purito,” so the focus will turn to the podium.
Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) climbed to fifth, now 3:43 back, with Roche, sixth at 4:06, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), seventh at 4:34 back, staying within podium range.
Nibali, however, cautioned that the Vuelta is far from over. Of the seven remaining stages, five feature uphill finales.
“I feel sorry for Basso, because it was truly very hard today. Today we made some advances, but Valverde and Rodríguez are still there, too,” Nibali said.
“Tomorrow is another hard stage. The next week is full of hard stages, like Anglirú. I believe this Vuelta is still open; it’s not over yet. Anything could happen, with this cold, these climbs. Nothing’s finished yet.”
That’s certainly what Horner is hoping for. With his strong climbing legs, the veteran American will surely give it all to try to take down Nibali. So far, it seems he’s the only one who has what it takes.