Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is still in red by a mere three seconds. The almost 42 year old Chris Horner, smiling instead of grimacing, attacked in the final kilometer to gain back 25 seconds on the Italian. If there had been a time bonus for 6th place, Horner would be the king of the Vuelta.
“I can’t stress on three seconds right now,” said Horner. “I made up a lot of time today and the gap is smaller; that’s what is important to me. The team is fantastic, I just can’t thank them enough.”
On what the Eurosport announcer called a “desperate, awful climb” Horner again showed he is the strongest climber in the Vuelta. Using his old diesel engine, he slowly pulled away from Nibali.
The action was fast and furious on the Peña Cabarga with the final gradient hitting 20%. It didn’t seem to bother Horner. Even when Joaquim Rodriquez hit the gas, Horner simply upped the pace until he pulled him back and then passed him by.
‘I never rode up this climb so I didn’t know it too well. But it was so steep it didn’t matter much. I let my legs recover on the one section that isn’t so steep, maybe that is where I lost three seconds,” said Horner. “I’m at my best when the climb is the steepest and there is no draft so I can just go my hardest.”
All the favorites made the front group and it was Spaniard Alejandro Valverde who dropped first. He’d fight his way back and even pass Nibali in the final 500 meters.
Nibali’s manager Giuseppe Martelli admitted a few days ago that his rider has 15-20 watts less than when he won this year’s Giro d’Italia. The Italian also said on the second rest day that the obligations of the red jersey were compromising his recovery. Even with the helicopter rides off the mountain — a Valverde complaint — Nibali has media sickness.
The lack of wattage and incremental fatigue both showed on the fearsome grades of the Peña Cabarga. There was even a hint of desperation as Nibali banged elbows with Valverde as both fought for the inside position on a left turn as they tried to chase Rodriquez.
Tactically, it may be an ideal scenario for Horner that his rival Nibali still has the jersey for another day or two. It just means more post-stage work for the Italian — the multiple interviews and obligations that have already taken a toll. That three seconds means Horner can chill while Nibali faces the media to explain his difficulties.
Horner can also bask in the knowledge that his performances in the Vuelta — two stages wins, two red jerseys and the strong possibility of winning the entire Spanish grand tour — guarantee him a fat new contract. The Smiler has a mucho grande grin.
His RadioShack squad has rallied behind him and Horner has them dreaming the crazy dream. “Chris believes he’s going to win this Vuelta,” Markel Irizar told VeloNews. “So we believe in him, too. We’re going to ride to win these next three days.”
The worst news for Nibali is that Horner is now 100% sure he’s stronger and has better odds than the Italian on winning the Vuelta. The Alto Naranco awaits on Friday and then the torturous Angliru on Sunday and who do you think is more excited about that pain?
“Saturday’s climb is the better day for me, but when you are going against the best guys in the world, you have to pay attention on every stage. Tomorrow could be a game of tactics. I thought I could take the jersey today but I was three seconds off,” said Horner. “I felt confident today and very fresh from the hard work Cancellara did yesterday. But today Gregy and Popo and then Busche and Robert lit it up.”
In terms of motivation, Horner is sky high while Nibali is now in damage control just trying to hold it together until Madrid. In psychological terms, Horner is already in red.
“It was a good day, I enjoyed it. I just need to keep my form for another few days to get the red jersey and take it to Madrid,” said Horner. Yeah, Madrid sounds like his party town.