Stage 18 of the Vuelta and the summit finish to Peña Cabarga. At just 565m above sea level, this was a short and sharp finish and the kind of climb where Vincenzo Nibali might have hoped that Chris Horner’s 41 years might have cost him some of the spring in his pedalstroke. But they approached the finish it was Horner who pulled away from Nibali and this showed who was climbing better. The American narrowed the gap to just three seconds and with two mountain stages to follow, the race was his to win.
As ever it was about more than one moment. Horner lost time in the team time trial and had a deficit in the mid-race solo time trial too. The chart below shows where he took time, the positive red bars show the amount of time in seconds Horner took off Nibali on each stage, the sky-blue bars show the stages and amount where Nibali took time, for example Nibali took ten seconds in the opening team time trial and then on Stage 3 Horner finished three seconds ahead.
The simple take is that Horner was consistently out-climbing Nibali, the Italian was only in contention thanks to the time trial.
Horner and Nibali swapped the red jersey for much of the race but it took time to establish them as certain podium finishers. It was a race of surprises and action with more highlights than Pippo Pozzato’s hair:
- Take Philippe Gilbert’s win in Tarragona, the world champion finally celebrating and this after the prior duel with Zdeněk Štybar
- Michael Mørkøv’s sprint win sits in the records but at the cost of Tony Martin’s 174.9km breakaway
- The battle between Fabian Cancellara and Martin saw the Swiss rider get an advantage for once
- Daniele Ratto won the epic day in the Andorra where as others left the race with hypothermia
- The next day the sun came out to illuminate some of the finest scenery in the Pyrenees
A lot of the excitement came because the sprinters were scared away by the big climbs, we had a race where breakaways could succeed because there was no team willing or able to control it and even on the days when it looked like a sprint finish was coming a late attack could change the scenario.
Debate rages about Horner’s age and his ability. As I’ve said before, take a view based but this is a hypothesis that you cannot test. But it speaks to the challenge facing pro cycling that race-winning performances are subject to plenty of scepticism. Perhaps his team have a role to play in getting his power data out? Either way the past still casts a dark shadow over the sport and remember it turns out Horner is now the first American to win a grand tour since Greg LeMond in 1990.
Horner’s still without a contract for 2014 but it’s reported there is interest from the Alonso-Euskaltel team plus I gather Trek are interested too. He’ll be 42 in 2014 and his age has to factor into negotiations; it seems likely teams would prefer to offer a one year contract.
Horner’s age is so advanced that we forget the others. Nibali (28) is his prime but the likes of Alejandro Valverde (33) and Joaquim Rodriguez (34) are unlikely to get any quicker. In fact look around and it’s hard to spot the youner Spaniards. Samuel Sanchez (35) and even Alberto Contador and Igor Antón are the wrong side of 30 now. Scanning the overall classification is Daniel Moreno (32) and it’s José Herrada at 12th overall as the first Spaniard under 30. Mikel Landa is 23 but he looks set to be a pure climber. The Vuelta has no best young rider competition.
France vs Colombia
By contrast we saw the success of several young French riders with Warren Barguil in particular taking two stage wins whilst Thibaut Pinot rode to seventh place overall, a comforting result and he seemed at ease on some of the descents. By contrast the Colombians were absent: Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur were obvious picks before the race. Henao apparently got a hunger flat on the first climb but he was starved of success for the rest of the race; he’ll be back and the same is true for Uran and Betancur. Note the diversity of winning nations for each stage, in total riders from 12 different nations won a stage.
The Vuelta gets used a training event for the World Championships. It might sound disrespectful but looks good on TV. Tony Martin’s solo breakaway and Philippe Gilbert’s repetitions brought spice to the race. Meanwhile Diego Ulissi sems to have gone up a gear and of course you can go through the top-10 overall and see obvious candidates for medals in Firenze.
Vincenzo Nibali might have led the race for a long time but he was just keeping the jersey for Chris Horner. The American proved the strongest in the race with a consistency on the climbs that allowed him to overcome a significant loss in the time trial. But the “winner’s curse” compounded by his age and a relative lack of prior results mean there’s some debate and until this stops, no matter who wins the sport loses.
It’s lucky there’s no need to chose between each of the grand tours because each has been special in a different way. Coming towards the end of this year the Vuelta offered immediate variety and surprise to counter any fatigue and antipathy. It now sets up the final stretch of the season with the Worlds and Il Lombardia to follow.
Longer term it’ll be interesting to see what format Unipublic take with the race. Unlike the Tour de France which can only find challenging mountains on its borders, Spain has a series of small but taxing mountain ranges dotted around the country. But how much these are used and whether the 2014 race returns with a wild number of summit finishes remains to be seen, is the Vuelta a festival for the climbers or will it be open for others?