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American Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) said it’s not a surprise to him that he’s leading a grand tour at the age of 41, but he can understand why it might seem like one to everyone else.
Horner has been smashing records just as fast as he’s been smashing the competition at the Vuelta a España, but with that extraordinary performance comes a fair dose of skepticism.
Twitter and online forums are alight with questions about Horner, and how a rider of his age could possibly be leading one of the calendar’s hardest races.
“There’s no way to answer that,” Horner told VeloNews. “There’s nothing I can say or do to satisfy everyone. I’m not even going to try. At 41, I know people will have their doubts. There’s no way to convince everyone. I’m 41 years old, I’m leading the Vuelta, people can believe it or not.”
In the first season following USADA’s damning reasoned decision last October, riders who have posted extraordinary performances have been placed under the microscope. Just as Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) did en route to his Giro d’Italia victory, Chris Froome (Sky) took heat from the media this summer as he stampeded toward his Tour de France win.
Last October, following the USADA report, Horner told VeloNews that he’d never seen doping or doping-related activity on any of the Johan Bruyneel-piloted teams he’d ridden for, from Astana to RadioShack. “Never seen it on the team. Never heard about it. Never seen it,” Horner said last fall. “It’s just disappointing, everything you see, everything you read.”
Prior to USADA’s detailed report, Horner had said he didn’t believe that Lance Armstrong cheated, though in 2007 he hinted that there was more to Armstrong’s team’s dominance than just bread and water, wondering just how a team could finish mountain stages with a cadre of riders around its leader.
“It is impossible to ride the front with your whole team and get to the final climb with most of your team still on the front — and be ready to come back and do it day-in and day-out,” Horner told Cyclingnews.com in 2007.
So far in this Vuelta, Horner’s performances have seen more like a novelty, especially in the first week, when he won stage 3 to become the oldest rider in cycling history to win a grand tour stage and to wear a leader’s jersey in a three-week tour.
Following Monday’s dominant performance, however, when Horner dropped Nibali and the other GC favorites to win a summit finish and carry a comfortable cushion into Wednesday’s time trial, the spotlight will inevitably shine brightest on the RadioShack rider.
Questions surround Horner’s performances — his age, his lack of racing this season, and his search for a contract for 2014.
Speaking with VeloNews by telephone during a break on Tuesday’s rest day, Horner said he’s “not afraid” of the questions.
“I’ve read the web pages and I’m aware of that. I’m not afraid of it. It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I think it’s a fair question. Everyone is going to ask that question. There’s nothing you can do to avoid that. Cycling’s in a very good place right now.”
Just as much as Horner can appreciate that people might be surprised and even astounded by his Vuelta performance so far, he insists that he’s never had the chance to show his true potential in grand tours. He’s won weeklong stage races — País Vasco, in 2010; the Amgen Tour of California, in 2011 — but never put it together over three weeks.
In previous grand tours, Horner has either been in the support role, or when he was given outright captain status, he was inevitably overcome with bad luck and crashes. His top Tour de France finish came in 2010, when he finished 10th after spending the first half of the race riding in support of Armstrong.
“I’ve had exceptional form before. The team has seen it, I knew I had it, but for a variety of reasons, the fans never saw it,” he said. “In 2011, when I crashed out of the Tour with the concussion, I had exceptional form. The year  I rode the Giro and crashed out with a broken leg, I was climbing extraordinarily. Even last year in the Tour, we were racing for team GC, and I was covering 20 moves on the climbs, and still finished 13th. Something’s always come up in the past. It’s just that I never got a spot to where the fans could see it.”
Right now in this Vuelta, everyone is seeing it clear as day.
Horner is a step ahead of everyone else. So far in the two hard climbing stages, at Peñas Blancas on Saturday and Sierra Nevada on Monday, Horner has been the superior climber.
After undergoing mid-season knee surgery that kept him sidelined for five months, limiting his race days to less than two weeks coming into the Vuelta, Horner isn’t worried that the tank is going to run empty.
“That’s always a possibility, but I have huge experience coming into a race without many race days,” Horner said, pointing out results, such as second overall to Nibali at the 2012 Tirreno-Adriatico, in his first race of the season. “I know how to train, and come into a bike race, that’s not a problem.”
The Vuelta has already been such a success that Horner said the only disappointment would be crashing out or falling ill, and not having the chance to take the fight all the way to Madrid.
“It’s been history making, no doubt about it,” he said. “I made history once, and then I broke my own record [as oldest grand tour stage-winner]. I didn’t expect to be this good. I expected to be solid. I expected to have a good shot at the jersey, and to win a stage. I didn’t expect to be where I am at right now. I have the red jersey now. I would really like to leave with it.”
For Wednesday, Horner expects to be on “damage control” in the 38.8km time trial. He acknowledged that he may lose the jersey, but said the real battle will come in the Vuelta’s final week in the Pyrénées and in Asturias.
For Horner, it’s all about trying to win the race.
“It’s the same situation I’ve been in the past. Of course, the quality of the field and the importance of the race isn’t the same, but for me, it’s the same scenario of trying to win Redlands in 1996,” he said. “At that moment, I wasn’t thinking about one day trying to win the Vuelta. I was thinking about how cool it would be to win Redlands. The goal is the same; ‘let’s win this thing.'”
It’s extraordinary that Horner has spanned nearly two decades in this sport and is still winning at the highest level. And, like it or not, now that he’s leading a grand tour, he’s going to face questions, about the sport’s history, and his unique position as the oldest-ever grand tour leader.