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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) looked as cool as a cucumber ahead of the start of Thursday’s opening salvo of three decisive days at the Vuelta a España.
Horner leaned casually against his bike as riders waited for the start of the decisive 18th stage ending atop the short but very steep Peña Cabarga. Right next to him was RadioShack teammate Markel Irizar, ready to fight to the end with everything in play for the Vuelta.
“Chris believes he’s going to win this Vuelta,” Irizar told VeloNews. “So we believe in him, too. We’re going to ride to win these next three days.”
Horner started Thursday’s stage just 28 seconds behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and the tension couldn’t be tighter, but Irizar said you’d never know it from hanging around the 41-year-old.
“Chris is just awesome. He’s always smiling, joking. You would think he’s 35th instead of second, he is so relaxed,” Irizar said. “He’s never nervous. He never feels the pressure.”
The bulky Basque rider is often working in the trenches for Horner, providing key support before the TV cameras come on and the race hits the decisive climbing finales.
Irizar said Horner is climbing so well right now, the steeper the roads, the better.
“Chris is climbing better than Nibali, but Nibali is a big champion, so if he wins, well, all we can do is congratulate him,” Irizar said. “[Cabarga] is good for Chris. He likes it when it is very steep, so maybe we can take some more time today. I think the race will go all the way to the Anglirú [Saturday].”
The 33-year-old Irizar, who survived a bout with testicular cancer to continue racing, admitted that Horner’s performance is a bit of a surprise throughout the Vuelta.
“That Chris is strong is not a surprise, because he always gives 100 percent, but to be so close to the jersey now is not something we expected,” he said. “He serves as an example for others. Like Jens Voigt, if you take care of yourself, you can keep racing a long time.”
Irizar is already confirmed to continue with Trek into 2014 as the bike manufacturer takes over as title sponsor of the team. Irizar joined RadioShack in 2010, and said he’s content to stay with the squad.
“I think this will be future of the sport, with the major bike manufacturers all owning teams, and looking for sponsors,” he said. “It will be a bit like Formula One, with all the big bike companies racing at the top level.”