After writing plenty about the Giro and then providing blanket coverage on Le Tour, I had plans to do something similar with the Vuelta, but as time is apt to do, it got in the way and I never really got the chance. Thankfully through I still got the chance to watch the majority of it and thank goodness for that, because what a Vuelta it was.
To be fair, I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a bad Grand Tour. Yes I know sometimes an overall battle may be without intrigue and people are quick to label it a dull race, but the reality is that far too much goes on between individual stage races, various jersey competitions and much more for the entire thing to be dull. It’s just maybe that we’ve seen some epic Grand Tours in recent years from the 2011 Tour to the 2012 Giro to this 2013 Vuelta that we’re quick to dismiss any that don’t measure up.
You know you’ve been spoiled when there’s a lead change on the second to last stage and that the swing in time for that lead change is a mere six seconds. Vincenzo Nibali, clearly beginning to look fatigued from the efforts of his Giro win some months before seen his lead whittled down to just three seconds before he lost it to the the 41 year old — yes, forty-one — Chris Horner by three seconds. Horner didn’t look back and cemented his first Grand Tour win a day later to become the oldest man in history to win a Grand Tour. His superb ride on that 20th stage seen him take the overall victory over Nibali by just 37 seconds.
It was remarkable stuff to watch on a savage route. It seemed that every evening I turned on the TV to watch my recording of the days stage they were talking about a summit finish. Not every summit was high mountains, but they were at the top of hills none the less and it created some epic drama as time was gained and lost on a daily basis.
Irishman Nicholas Roche won a stage and had the best GC finish (fifth) by an Irishman at a Grand Tour since Sean Kelly won this race in 1988. Horner took the red jersey for single stages early in the race but nobody thought the old man’s legs could hold up to the full three weeks of racing as it had never happened before. And so, when Nibali seized the red jersey following the only individual time-trial on stage 11 we thought the lead had changed for good. Nibali would do what he did in the Giro and build on that lead.
But while Nibali is more an all round rider who can climb and time-trial, Horner is a pure climber with little else to his game. If ever a Grand Tour was going to suit a pure climber then it was this one with those eleven summit finishes and mere 38.8 kilometres against the clock.
Horner’s legs didn’t fail him and it left people scrambling for his birth certificate to see if he had been lying about his age and that he was actually 31, not 41, but such speculation was crushed when we were reminded that Horner turned professional way back 1995, when Oasis released “What’s the Story Morning Glory”, when Goldeneye hit the big screen, when Miguel Indurain won the Tour de France for the fifth time, and when Laurent Jalabert won that years Vuelta.
And it was Horner’s age as well as him being of ‘that era’ that led to a lot of speculation and skepticism by those watching. No way this could be legit, they said, nobody has won a GT at this age and for good reason. This is the man that defended Armstrong until his final days and a man who has claimed he never seen drugs during his career — a career that overlapped the sports darkest days with drug use.
But let’s consider a few things before simply throwing Horner under the bus because we don’t believe what he did to be possible:
Firstly, his defense of Armstrong might make him naive, even foolish, and his silence on drug use in the sport might make him someone controversially not wanting to indulge in controversy, but it doesn’t make him a cheat.
Secondly, Horner has never been embroiled in a doping scandal and he’s never failed a test, so while the sport has had more than its fair share of doping problems, it is also now the best tested sport on the planet, and thus he deserves some benefit of the doubt until we see otherwise. There’s talk he was one of the redacted names from the USADA report into Armstrong’s drug use, but that’s never been proven.
Thirdly, there’s an argument to be made that Horner is clean and it goes as follows: If he was doping we surely would have seen results like this ten years ago when he was in his prime. Indeed, Horner did not ride a Grand Tour until 2005 — Armstrong’s final year — when he was 33 years of age because he was unable to land a contract with an elite team in the years before this. His best result prior to this Vuelta was a ninth place finish in the 2010 Tour. It’s hard to fathom that he rode clean for so many years of his prime only to turn to performance enhancing drug use into his 40’s.
And that potential scenario bodes well for the place the sport is currently in. The only sad part is that Horner’s prime years may have been robbed from him because of how dirty the sport was at that time.
Even the worst case scenario paints a decent picture for the sport in general because even if Horner is using PED’s, either as a first time user or as part of a career of use — in which the later would make you think he didn’t use them very well in his early days — it would show the rest of the peloton as clean. Why? Well, if elite professionals in their 20’s and early 30’s couldn’t beat a 41-year old Horner then they must be clean regardless of whether Horner used drugs or not.
But I don’t want to overshadow what was a fantastic race by merely speculating over whether someone may or may not be on drugs. I don’t know if Horner was clean or not but I’m not going to stress about it either because if he is he’ll eventually be found out; very few get away with it in the long run. Indeed it would be a shame to find out that what I watched wasn’t entirely real, but that’s why they test them and if it comes to it, I’ll judge him then. I don’t celebrate the result of a football match or a hockey game by dissecting the likelihood that the man of the match may or may not be on drugs.
What I will take from this Vuelta, isn’t anything to do with the speculation surrounding Horner, but rather all the little things that came together to make it a fantastic race. From individual stages, to endless hill-top finishes, to an extremely close fought GC battle that went right to the final climb.
Oh, and the fact a 41-year old man proved that I still have a good ten years yet to win a Grand Tour!