Chris Horner survived Friday’s wild rollercoaster across the Basque hills to set himself up for an exciting, final-day time trial showdown against Alejandro Valverde with the overall title of the grueling Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) on the line Saturday.
Joaquín Rodríguez (Katusha) nearly blew up the race in Friday’s palpitating finale over two short but steep climbs with ramps as steep as 22 percent. Rodríguez powered away to an emotional solo victory, while Horner judiciously marked the wheel of GC rival Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) to finish fourth in the stage and remain second at just 1 second back.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank) started the day tied with Horner, but flatted late in the stage and tumbled from third to eighth, now 54 seconds back and likely out of contention for the overall crown.
While there are still a half-dozen riders within a minute of the lead, the overall victory should be a thrilling showdown on a hilly, challenging TT course between the RadioShack veteran and Valverde.
And Horner — who opened his European campaign in February with second overall at the Giro di Sardegna in Italy — couldn’t be happier.
“Valverde is the No. 1 rider in the world and he wins a lot of races, but I am feeling confident for the time trial,” Horner told VeloNews. “I would give myself 50-50 odds of beating him. I’m on very good form right now.”
Back in top health following some nasty crashes in 2009, including one at last year’s Basque Country tour, Horner has been phenomenal throughout the week, opening up the race on Monday by powering easily into an elite, eight-man group in the first stage.
On Thursday, Horner nearly rode away with the stage victory atop the short but steep Cat. 1 Arrate summit, only to be foiled by Valverde and the chasing Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who won the stage to make up for the disappointment of losing options for the overall when he lost more than one minute on the first stage.
Speaking to VeloNews in Eibar before the start of the stage, Horner expanded on comments he made Thursday at the finish line at Arrate, when his frustration at just missing victory came pouring out at the heat of the moment.
“I wasn’t mad at those guys (Valverde and Sánchez). That’s just bike racing. I’ve won a lot of races just like that, too,” he said. “I was more frustrated at myself because I should have seen it coming earlier. That was a complicated finish. The legs are good, that’s the most important.”
Horner says he is familiar with Saturday’s TT course in Orio, which he raced on in 2008.
On a similar course that was 20km long, compared to the 22km distance for Saturday, Horner finished eighth on the stage at 1:17 behind eventual overall winner Alberto Contador. Valverde did not race in that year’s Basque tour.
The stakes will be much higher on Saturday, when Horner will be bucking for victory in what would be his most prestigious and important win in Europe. The Basque tour is considered by many the most demanding in Europe behind the grand tours.
“I know the course from when we did it in 2008 and the distance is good for me,” Horner said. “I know Valverde can put down a good time trial, but I am feeling confident. I am very confident for Saturday.”
There’s still a chance a rider could surge out of the top-10 with a phenomenal performance and upset Horner and Valverde.
Rodríguez climbed to third at 34 seconds back while Jean-Christophe Peraud (Omega Pharma-Lotto), who won the French national TT title last year coming off the mountain bike circuit, is fourth at 38 seconds back.
Beñat Intxausti (Euskaltel-Euskadi), a highly touted Basque all-rounder, is fifth at 38 seconds back and Marco Pinotti (HTC-Columbia), a winner of time trials at the Giro d’Italia, is lurking quietly in seventh at 54 seconds back.
A specialist, such as Bradley Wiggins (Sky) or Dave Zabriskie (Garmin-Transitions), might pop for the stage win, but the overall seems fated to a battle between Horner and Valverde.
Valverde is no slouch against the clock, especially on a hilly course similar to what he won in the 2009 Dauphiné Libéré.
Horner has one extra motivation that could make all the difference: the trademark txepela Basque beret awarded to the winner.
“I want one of those hats!” Horner said with a laugh. “I might never wear it again, but I want to wear it tomorrow.”