Chris Horner’s “dream” to snag the Vuelta a España’s red leader’s jersey came true, on Monday, just a day later and a whole lot better than he could have expected.
The 41-year-old veteran barnstormed the Vuelta in Monday’s explosive finale, jumping clear in the final kilometer of the Cat. 3 Mirador de Lobeira to big-ring home the stage and snatch away the red jersey from overnight leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).
“Everyone was attacking in the last kilometers, and there was a little gap, and I followed it directly, and decided to go full gas,” Horner said. “I put my head down and drove it to the line. I never stopped or eased up. ‘I am going to win a stage in the Vuelta!’ How many times do you do that?”
With the victory, Horner became the oldest rider in cycling history to win a grand tour stage, supplanting Pino Cerami, who won a stage in the 1963 Tour de France. Horner, who turns 42 in October, is five months older.
The Vuelta success marks a remarkable comeback for Horner, who underwent career-threatening knee surgery this spring.
He came to Spain hot off his success at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where he won the “queen stage” and rode to second overall.
Horner was thinking big in the Vuelta’s opening stages. With the team time trial backed up by a hard summit finale, the San Diego- and Oregon-based veteran was already hatching a plan to snag the leader’s jersey in the race’s opening weekend.
A strong TTT performance, fueled by four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, put Horner in pole position, just 10 seconds behind Janez Brajkovic (Astana), but the dynamics of Sunday’s race turned against him.
Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) pulled clear with three other riders in the finale on the Cat. 1 Alto Do Monte da Groba, gobbling up the time bonuses and allowing Nibali to slip into red.
Horner, who mentioned he was feeling ill Saturday evening, got through Sunday with his options fully intact.
Monday’s final climb was hardly difficult by Vuelta standards, and the GC group seemed to hesitate when Horner attacked just under the 1km from the finish. He rode the big ring all the way to the top, catching the favorites by surprise as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) led the pack across the line three seconds in arrears.
How far can Chris Horner go?
Just how far can Horner go? Some of Horner’s biggest results have come on Spanish roads, including his victory at the 2010 Vuelta al País Vasco, considered by many to be Europe’s most difficult stage race besides the grand tours.
“For sure the objective is to place as high as possible, and try to win,” he said. “The most difficult thing for me is the chrono. Sometimes I am good, like when I won at País Vasco, and sometimes I am awful. Without a good time trial, it would be difficult to win the overall.”
Horner’s last European race was March’s Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished sixth overall. After that, his season spiraled out of control, as knee pain worsened, forcing him to abandon the Volta a Catalunya in late March.
The knee injury and subsequent surgery dashed his Tour ambitions, prompting many to speculate that Horner might be done.
Yet he bounced back with impressive style to win over Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) atop the Cat. 1 Little Cottonwood Canyon climb at the Tour of Utah earlier in August.
“The legs are good, the first day was good, the GC is good, so everything is good,” Horner said before Monday’s start. “It’s thanks to Fabian Cancellara that I am in such good position right now.”
Riding for a win and a contract
The RadioShack captain came to the Vuelta talking up his own chances, but it seemed few outside the team bus gave him much of a chance.
“I’ve already been telling you guys [VeloNews] that I am coming here to race, but no one else believes me,” Horner said. “The legs are good. My weight is the same as it’s always been. And I like long, hard climbs, and this Vuelta has a lot of them.”
Horner has another reason to post a big Vuelta performance: his job.
“[My contract] is free and open,” is how Horner described it.
At nearly 42 and coming off injury, Horner’s contract is up at the end of the season with RadioShack. The team continues next year, with Trek stepping up as the main sponsor, and Horner hopes to be part of it.
“I had a rider come up to me, saying he was tired of racing and wanted to become a director,” he said. “I thought, ‘man, he’s crazy, how can you be tired of bike racing?’ I love this sport, and I want to continue as long as possible.”
For Horner, it’s about savoring the moment, and relishing every last drop out of the job he loves and has been passionate about for two decades.
“At my age, you can appreciate how difficult it can be to win,” he said. “I understand, at my age, that every day I race, it could be my last. I could have a crash, and never race again. Every day on the bike is important. It’s very easy to stay focused and motivated.”
Horner will start Tuesday’s hilly, technical fourth stage to Fisterre with the jersey on his back and he can probably carry it all the way to Andalucía, where the Vuelta’s first big climbs are looming next weekend.
If he can go that far, who knows what could happen.