Chris Horner of RadioShack-Nissan is poised to become the oldest winner of one of cycling's three Grand Tours after putting half a minute into Astana's Vincenzo Nibali on the Angliru this afternoon to finish second on Stage 20 of the 2013 Vuelta behind stage winner Kenny Elissonde of FDJ.
Horner, who had started yesterday's Stage 19 just 3 seconds behind Nibali but put 6 seconds inro the Sicilian to lead the race by the same margin this morning, finished in second place, 28 seconds ahead of his rival after dropping him with a couple of kilometres remaining of the 142.2km stage form Aviles.
With tomorrow's stage into Madrid a largely ceremonial affair, Horner, who has an advantage of 37 seconds over Nibali, will become the oldest winner of a Grand Tour. He turns 42 next month.
Half a dozen times on the Angliru, considered by many to be the toughest mountain ascent in professional cycling, Nibali attacked as he sought to distance Horner to overturn that 3-second deficit and win the Vuelta for the second time.
Each time, the American responded, and when Horner himself made his move, it was decisive as he rode away in the mist towards the summit. Nibali, winner of May’s Giro d’Italia and seeking to become the first man since Alberto Contador in 2008 to win two Grand Tours in the same year, was spent.
Also struggling was Joaquin Rodriguez of Katusha, allowing another former Vuelta winner, 2009 champion Alejandro Valverde, to consolidate his third place overall. Rodriguez remains fourth, with Saxo-Tinkoff’s Nicolas Roche fifth.
Afterwards, champion-in-waiting Horner revealed that he had contemplated retirement as injury disrupted his 2013 season.
“When I was home during my knee surgery, I was never sure the knee was going to recover,” he explained.
“At one moment my 11-year old son asked me if I could keep racing my bike. I said to him: ‘I hope so, but if my knee doesn’t recover I will have to retire.’ He said to me, ‘Dad you can’t retire. It’s not cool if I’m at school and the other kids ask me what my Dad does. Right now I can say he’s a professional bike rider and he does big races like the Tour de France and the Tour of Spain. I can’t tell all my friends my Dad is an ex-bike racer.’
“I kept thinking of that with every pedal stroke, wanting for my son to be able to tell his friends at school that his dad won a grand tour, that he’s the only American to ever win the Tour of Spain and he’s the only over-40 rider to ever win a grand tour.
“Now he’ll get to say that for the rest of his life and it will be a moment he will enjoy forever.”
Horner went on: “At my age I do not need to wait until tomorrow to let this sink in. I understand how beautiful it is. I love how big a fight Nibali brought to this and how hard and to such a dark place I had to dig to win this race.”
“I had to go back to what works best for me. It took me a moment to realise as he kept attacking me that I needed to stick with what worked for me at the beginning and remind myself it would work for me again at the end.
“Finally I had to bring the power up as high as possible all the way to the end so he wouldn’t have one moment to recover. Any time he could recover even just a little bit, he had time to accelerate. I made that mistake the first few times before I went to the front and set my own tempo.
“I knew how hard today would be and how much suffering I was in for. Nibali was amazing. To win here among such great champions such as Nibali and Valverde and Rodriguez means so much to me. To have those guys around me in this victory is incredible. To see Nibali attack so many times had to be so exciting for the fans of cycling. They must have been on the edge of their seats!
“It was a legendary moment I think to see someone of my age win a Grand Tour. I hope all of you enjoyed every pedal stroke and enjoyed my suffering and love it the same way I did. For every moment I suffered, I hope the fans truly enjoyed it,” he added.
The day’s stage winner, Elissonde, had been part of a 32-man group that had got away a little under 20km into the stage, the 22-year-old former French junior road champion’s success adding to that of another young rider from Spain’s neighbour across the Pyrenees, Warren Barguil of Argos Shimano, winner of two stages.
Also in that group was Cofidis rider Nicolas Edet, who confirmed his mountains classification win, while the points jersey is destined for Valverde. Besides topping the overall standings, Horner is second in both the mountains and points classifications, and will take the combined jersey.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.