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In Vuelta’s final week, how far can Horner go?

GRAUS, Spain (VN) — Two weeks into the 68th Vuelta a España, Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) continues to amaze and impress his rivals in the peloton.

Positioned second overall at just 50 seconds off the red leader’s jersey, the 41-year-old has already shattered the record books, becoming the oldest rider to win stages and lead a grand tour in cycling’s century-long history.

And as the Vuelta turns into the decisive final week, packed with four decisive uphill climbing stages over the last six days of racing, the question begs: just how far can Chris Horner go?

“The form is good. I am happy, the legs are going good,” Horner said Sunday after riding yet again superbly in the mountains. “We have to play it out, mountain stage by mountain stage. It’s still a long way to go.”

So far, with the lone exception of Wednesday’s individual time trial when he ceded the leader’s jersey to arch rival Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Horner has been without peer in the mountains.

Even Nibali, who was eager to slam the door on Horner this weekend across the Pyrénées, has been unable to shake the stubborn American.

The Giro d’Italia winner came into this Vuelta looking to build his condition over three weeks, with one eye on the Vuelta and the other on the world championships.

So far, he’s been able to manhandle all his rivals, except Horner.

The gains made in the time trial are proving decisive and could well be the winning difference for Nibali, who is looking to win the third grand tour of his career.

On Sunday, Nibali sounded confident but also admitted things are from over.

“The effort and fatigue of the many days are adding up. We’ll see [Monday], and with the uphill finishes at Peña Cabarga and Anglirú next week,” Nibali said. “Anything could happen.”

Instead of racing defensively to protect his podium place, it’s been Horner who’s been turning the screws.

Horner set a blistering pace in the cold and wet up Collada de Gallina on Saturday in Andorra. Against headwinds and on a relatively easier finale Sunday, despite the long distance, all the favorites rode in together.

Giuseppe Martinelli, the veteran sport director at Astana, said he’s been impressed and surprised with Horner, telling VeloNews it’s clear who his young Italian mentor has to watch.

“Horner is the most dangerous rider to us right now,” Martinelli told VeloNews in a parking lot in Andorra before the start of Sunday’s epic climbing stage. “[Saturday] Horner was very strong. Vincenzo told me later he had to really push it to stay with him. He couldn’t attack because Horner was so strong.”

The fight for the final Vuelta podium is now hitting its crux moment.

Weather, crashes, bad luck, and poor form have whittled down the real podium favorites to just four names.

Joining Nibali and Horner in the battle to the end are third-place Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), at 1:42 back, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), fourth at 2:57 back.

Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale), fifth at 3:43 back, and Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), sixth at 3:49 back, are still within podium range, but based on the strength of the respective teams and the favorites’ palmares, the Vuelta looks to be a four-horse race.

“There are four big favorites now, but there are only three places for the podium,” Martinelli continued. “The time trial was a big moment for Vincenzo. Now we can race more defensively to cover the moves to defend the lead. We hope to finish on top.”

Horner will now have a delicate balancing act as he turns into the final week.

He will want to continue to push Nibali, but he doesn’t want to risk going into the red in all-out bid to win the Vuelta and risk blowing, losing a chance for a career-making grand tour podium.

Horner is legendary for managing his efforts, and he has a solid support crew of teammates and sport directors to hash out tactical scenarios before and during the stages.

But does he still dream of winning the Vuelta? He knows he will need Nibali to suffer a crisis to have a chance of victory.

“The podium is doable for sure,” Horner said Sunday. “I need to continue with regular form and not have a bad moment. I am still hoping that someone else has a bad moment, and not me. I would like to go back to the warm weather again. It was cold again today, but not as bad as yesterday.”

Regardless of his tactical acumen and experience, Horner is entering new territory. Though he’s won big races in the past, including the Amgen Tour of California and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), he’s never been so deep into a grand tour so high on GC.

This is Horner’s 11th career grand tour start, although his first wasn’t until the 2005 Tour. And his career-best was a ninth-place result in the 2010 Tour.

As even he explained, Horner has never truly had the chance to show his capabilities over three weeks, something that’s caused some to question how a 41-year-old could be doing so well in such a hard and demanding race.

Suffering a knee injury and subsequent surgery this spring, Horner entered the Vuelta with less than three weeks of racing all season long.

One of the big questions is how long can Horner hold out? He seemed unfazed so far by the mountains, the cold, the rain, and Nibali’s intimidating presence, but could his engine unexpectedly run out of gas?

RadioShack general manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews that even the team doesn’t know how far Horner can go.

“We do not know. Because of his injury, we were not able to make the ideal training to prepare for a three-week tour,” Guercilena said. “We all know Chris is a big champion. He has experience and he is very calm in the race. He never makes a mistake. We hope he can stay in the same condition for one more week. A podium would be a very important result for both Chris and the team.”

So far, Horner looks rock solid, but on Sunday, he had his left knee that was operated on earlier this summer wrapped in athletic tape. Team officials confirmed to VeloNews that was only precautionary due to the cold and wet weather, and that there is no strain or discomfort on his knee.

For Martinelli, Nibali and Horner share one advantage over the others that could prove crucial.

“Nibali didn’t race the Tour. Valverde and Purito did, and I think we are seeing that fatigue during this Vuelta,” Martinelli said. “The question mark is Horner. He did not race the Tour, so he’s fresh, but we do not know how strong he will be in the final week.”

That seems to be the big question going into the Vuelta’s final week. Martinelli said he hopes Nibali has the answer.

“Horner is setting an example for the others,” Martinelli continued. “It’s a surprise for sure, but he is also very professional. He is a funny guy, but you know he works. Almost 42, I hope he makes the podium. Of course, I just hope it’s behind us!”

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