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MADRID (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) relished his history-making victory at the Vuelta a Espana Sunday, soaking up the cheers from the crowd as he became the oldest cyclist in history to win a grand tour.
The 41-year-old was all smiles before the start, and crossed the line safely in the bunch in 47th to become the first American to win the Spanish tour.
“This is a lifetime of work to win this Vuelta,” Horner said. “I hope people appreciate everything I’ve done. It’s so complicated to get to this level. This is the hardest victory of my career so far.”
Twenty-four hours ago, Horner cemented his victory, riding away from Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) up the Anglirú to secure the Vuelta’s red jersey by 37 seconds in a gripping battle that went down to the wire.
On Sunday, decked out head to toe in red with a matching red Trek frame, Horner enjoyed the victory lap around central Madrid.
At nearly 42, Horner smashed the record as the oldest winner of a grand tour. The Vuelta’s previous oldest winner was Tony Rominger, who won at 34 in 1994. The oldest Tour de France winner was Fermin Lambot, who won the 1922 Tour at 36.
Before the start Sunday, Horner admitted that his Vuelta victory might seem unlikely to some, but he said it was the perfect course at the perfect time for him to win.
“This Vuelta route was ideal for me,” Horner said before the start. “This course was tailor-made for me, with the climbs, the short time trial, the team time trial. When I started, I wasn’t sure if I could win the Vuelta, but I thought I could be on the podium.”
Everything fell into place for Horner during the three-week trek across the breath of Spain.
His rivals were either coming off the Tour de France or rebuilding from the Giro d’Italia. All cited fatigue and the punishment of a long racing season.
Some pre-race favorites flamed out early, among them Sky’s Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao. Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who was on his best form in years, succumbed to the cold in Andorra. Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam of Belkin quickly settled into stage-hunting mode.
Nibali was the strongest of Horner’s most direct rivals, but even he couldn’t match Horner’s unforgiving pace every time the road went up.
“I can only congratulate Chris. He came into the Vuelta very strong,” Nibali said. “I came to this Vuelta not in the same condition I had for the Giro. I was close to victory, so I have to be happy with first in the Giro and second in the Vuelta. Horner was the strongest.”
Horner, in sharp contrast, seemed fresh as a daisy. Having raced barely two weeks all season, Horner came to Spain intent of packing a punch.
“After my knee surgery, I missed California, then I missed the Tour. I kept missing races, and I was getting worried,” Horner said. “When things looked good for the Vuelta, I worked hard to come here with the best possible legs. I came to this Vuelta super motivated.”
Things went better than expected right from the start.
RadioShack rode to second in the opening-day TTT, just 10 seconds behind Astana. Then Horner pounced to his first career grand tour stage win two days later and snagged the red leader’s jersey, making cycling history that he would continue to shatter as the Vuelta churned toward Madrid.
The first real test came in the steep climbs of southern Spain at the end of the first week. Horner rocketed up Hazallanas to win his second stage and reclaim the red jersey, putting everyone on notice he was a serious challenger for overall victory.
“Horner was unstoppable during this Vuelta,” said Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who finished third overall for his fifth career Vuelta podium. “I didn’t have the same spark as I did in July. Now we look ahead to the worlds.”
Horner’s Vuelta hopes slid backward in the race’s lone individual time trial in stage 11. Despite a hilly profile that favored Horner, he ceded the red jersey to Nibali and was parked in second at 50 seconds back.
Nibali looked solid, fending off Horner in two of three stages in the Pyrénées. But Horner kept attacking every time the road climbed, and in a Vuelta with 11 summit finishes, Nibali finally cracked on the road up Formigal.
Horner took more gains up Peña Cabarga in a performance that raised eyebrows in some quarters. While officials waged an off-the-bike PR battle, Horner kept attacking, taking red for good up the Naranco climb Friday.
It all came down to an epic showdown Saturday up the Anglirú, with Horner fending off Nibali in an exciting duel that came down to the final switchbacks.
For Horner, the Vuelta victory was a long time coming in a career that dates back nearly two decades. Crashes, bad luck, and team politics all played their role in keeping Horner from having a shot at a grand tour.
“It’s a lifetime of hard work to get here. I’ve been professional now for 20 years. The grand tour always holds a special place in every rider to show how good of a rider you are,” Horner said. “The team was fantastic. The team supported me every day.”
Horner also admitted luck was on his side. He never had a bad day, and he avoided the crashes and mishaps that seemed to plague him in earlier efforts when he had other opportunities to lead in grand tours over the past few years.
“I never got sick, I avoided crashing in the first week,” he said. “There are so many things that can happen in a grand tour. Every day something can happen. I’ve crashed out before when I’ve had great form, and could never show it. I was very lucky in this Vuelta, and I could demonstrate what I always knew I was capable of.”
Horner made a big show during this Vuelta, winning two stages and the combined jersey. He laughed his way through press conferences using “Spanglish,” and the Spanish media started calling him “abuelo.” Horner kept on smiling, no matter what his rivals or the cynics threw at him.