SAN VICENTE BARQUERA, Spain (VN) — The morning after critics drew their knives on social media, slicing into Chris Horner’s record-breaking performance on the Thursday’s summit finale at Peña Cabarga, questions over the American’s ride at the Vuelta a España poured over into Friday’s headlines.
There was near-universal incredulity at Horner’s record-breaking time of 16:44, some 16 seconds faster than Joaquim Rodríguez’s time of 2010. Horner was 32 seconds faster than Chris Froome and Juanjo Cobo in their epic duel up the climb to decide the 2011 Vuelta a España.
La Gazzetta dello Sport ran the leading headline, “Exaggerated,” and all but accused Horner of going too far. Antoine Vayer, the French trainer who estimated Horner’s effort at 481 watts, wrote on Twitter, “watts mutants.”
Moments after retaking the red leader’s jersey on Friday, Horner shot back at his critics.
“It’s amazing some of the things I’ve read in the press,” Horner said. “The media has been irresponsible. I keep reading that that Horner is in the best form of his career. This is not the best form of my career. There have been many previous occasions that I’ve had good form. Maybe this is the best form I’ve had at the best moment.”
Horner’s jaw-dropping performance throughout this Vuelta is increasingly drawing skepticism the closer he pulls toward overall victory.
On Friday, Horner snatched back the red jersey after taking six seconds out of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), to carry a slender, three-second lead into Saturday’s decisive penultimate stage up the Anglirú.
Unless something goes terribly wrong, the Anglirú climb Saturday should all but serve as a coronation for Horner, who is poised to become the oldest grand tour winner in cycling history.
“There is no difference [in my performance]. I have won 80 races in my career. I’ve beaten Nibali, [Alejandro] Valverde, ‘Purito’ [Joaquim Rodríguez] on many occasions. Maybe I haven’t had the opportunity to show it in a grand tour before,” said Horner, citing crashes in previous three-week races.
“I’ve always been underrated throughout my career,” he continued. “I’ve not been given the responsibility when I think I should have. Maybe it was for my age, or that I am not forceful enough. There has always been something in my career that has made people think that I am not as good a rider as I am. I have an amazing palmares. I’ve been winning races since 1996.”
Shack backs Horner
On Friday morning, RadioShack-Leopard officials staunchly defended Horner’s performance throughout this Vuelta, insisting that the 41-year-old is not doing anything that he hasn’t done before.
“For sure, Horner breaks the mold due to his age, but compared to what he’s done the past several years, there is nothing extreme in what he is doing,” RadioShack trainer Josu Larrazabal told VeloNews. “These performances are reasonable. Chris is hitting the same numbers he’s been hitting all of his career.”
RadioShack officials bristled at the suggestion that Horner’s performances might come into question.
José Azevedo, the RadioShack sport director who was once part of Lance Armstrong’s infamous “blue train” at Discovery Channel, insisted that Horner has been riding at a high level for the past several seasons.
“Despite his age, Chris has been in the elite for a long time. He’s been demonstrating that since 2010 — that he is among the best in the world. He’s won the Vuelta al País Vasco in 2010, he won the Tour of California in 2011,” Azevedo told VeloNews. “Comparing with the others who have raced all season, Chris is fresher, not only physically, but also mentally. He has the ambitions to race. Combining the freshness, and his natural level as a rider, that’s his ‘secret formula.’ There is nothing else to be suspicious about. I believe him.”
Azevedo said the team is committed to clean racing, and that Horner deserves to be given the benefit of the doubt.
“We want to win, but we want to win clean,” Azevedo said before the start of Friday’s stage. “There is always suspicion around big performances, but knowing Chris, I know he is doing things the right way, just as he always has. He is on a great moment of form right now. It’s not like Chris is five minutes ahead of Nibali. We are in second place. The race is still open.”
Team officials said Horner is not paying attention to the chorus that’s growing into a roar of doubt surrounding his performance, but is staying focused on winning the Vuelta.
Despite posting his power numbers on the SRM website for two stages he’s won so far in this Vuelta, many continue to speculate about Horner’s power throughout the race.
Horner’s numbers from Friday were not posted by press time, but there was plenty of speculation of what power he was carrying up Cabarga. Vayer calculated that Horner’s power up Cabarga was 481 watts, numbers that could have kept him up with Froome and runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar) at this year’s Tour de France.
One key element in making calculations is Horner’s weight. Officials told VeloNews that Horner is at “64-65kg (141-143 pounds).” Others, however, guess that Horner is even lighter, meaning his power-to-weight ratio could go flying off the charts.
Just as Sir Dave Brailsford said during the Tour this summer, when many were making similar speculations about Froome’s power numbers, Larrazabal said that judging the believability of Horner’s performance on raw power numbers was unfair.
“It’s hard to estimate power numbers based on guessing the factors,” he said. “Chris is strong, but the others are fatigued from a long season. His performance should be judged in the context of the race.”
In the context of this Vuelta, Larrazabal said one deciding factor shaping the race was collective fatigue. By his measure, Horner is coming into this Vuelta with fresher legs than riders who competed in the Giro or Tour.
Nibali and Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) both raced the Giro. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Friday’s stage winner Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) all raced the Tour.
Horner, in stark contrast, only raced Tirreno-Adriatico and had a five-month absence due to knee surgery before returning at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah in August.
“The riders who rode the Giro and the Tour do not have the same freshness that Horner does. Sometimes giving your body a rest can help your performance,” Larrazabal said. “This year at Tirreno-Adriatico, he was the only rider who could stay with Nibali and Froome on the climbs. He’s always at a good level.”
It’s a sign of the times that anyone who leads a grand tour and posts impressive rides is greeted with universal skepticism. That’s compounded even further when the race leader is in his early 40s. In this context, the Monday morning headlines across Europe will be interesting to read if Horner can hang on until Madrid on Sunday.