Just a month short of 42nd birthday, American Chris Horner defied his age to win the Vuelta a Espana by 37 seconds from Italian Vincenzo Nibali. Over a demanding course featuring a considerable number of summit finishes, Horner perhaps proved that fresh legs at this stage of the professional cycling season matter more than reputations.
Without a Grand Tour victory during his long career and a ninth placing in the 2010 Tour De France being his highest finish, Horner was overlooked as a potential winner when the Spanish contest began in August.
In a race featuring 2013 Giro d’Italia winner Nibali, 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde and the ultra-consistent Joaquim Rodriguez, it was expected that the honours would be divided amongst these three great warriors. Several young contenders were also threatening to mount a challenge.
When Horner first donned the red jersey during the race, many experts forecast that it would his moment of glory as he became the oldest rider to lead either of the Tour de France, Giro or Vuelta. Yet the American remained in confident mood as the riders tackled one of the most difficult routes in years.
During the final days of the Vuelta, Horner continued to confound the critics by refusing to accept defeat and began to expose chinks in the armour of leader Nibali. The Italian lost the red jersey on the final Friday before an epic summit finish on the famed Angliru mountain during the penultimate stage confirmed that Horner was the strongest rider.
Nibali, Valverde and Rodriguez finish second, third and fourth respectively but all had competed in previous Grand Tours this season and maybe this was the deciding factor in this renewal of the Vuelta. Perhaps the three week races are becoming so challenging that it is impossible to compete to win in more than two.
A particularly difficult route was set in the Giro d’Italia, with some extreme weather added as an extra hurdle, and two ascents of Alpe d’Huez were featured in a mountainous Tour de France. The Vuelta incorporated at least 11 summit finished with some fairly steep and punishing climbs.
Chris Horner arrived at the start of the Vuelta after an early season curtailed by injury but with the benefit of having fresh legs. Such is the competition now prevalent in big races accompanied by an increasing severity of the courses that it now seems plausible that the days of winning more than two of the three week races can be ruled as virtually impossible.
Horner proved that a fresh body is a distinct advantage over battle hardened campaigners who just lack that necessary edge after a long season.