The setting was fitting: dense fog all but obscured the road up one of cycling’s steepest climbs as the sport’s titans slugged and slammed each other, battling for the overall win in the season’s final Grand Tour.
Vincenzo Nibali, at 28 in the peak of his career, who won the Giro d’Italia in May, was three seconds behind American Chris Horner at the start of the stage. Horner, a month shy of his 42nd birthday, was coming off knee surgery in June.
Nibali, an Italian leading Kazahkstan’s Astana team, had led the race for more than half its 21 stages; Horner, riding for the American RadioShack Leopard Trek team, had seized the race lead in the third stage, the tenth stage, and the 19th stage, each time with solo attacks on summit finishes.
The decisive stage would be the 20th, 142 kilometers of increasingly high mountains ending with the 12-kilometer Alto del Angliru, with an average gradient of 10.2 percent—but the average cannot convey the challenge. The second half of the climb averages 13 percent with several kilometers of 20, 22, up to 23.5 percent grades.
It was here that Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali faced each other to fight for the highest honor in cycling, a Grand Tour victory. For Nibali, it would be a welcome addition to his palmares. For Chris Horner, it would mean much more.
Horner, if he won, would be not only the oldest rider—by five years—to win a Grand Tour; he would also be the first American to win the Vuelta.
Horner entered the final stage a firm favorite: Vincenzo Nibali had repeatedly been unable to stay with the older American on steep climbs, as Horner clawed back chunks of time to finally retake the leader’s red jersey in Stage 19.
Everyone underestimated the Italian. Nibali wasn’t made leader of the Astana team in an act of charity; he didn’t win the 2010 Vuelta or the 2013 Giro because the other teams stopped trying.
A winning professional cyclist need to have exceptional lungs, amazing legs, but more than anything, an indomitable will. Vincenzo Nibali proved he had all those thing—particularly the will.
The Astana leader could have ridden Horner’s wheel to the finish, and outsprinted the RadioShack rider at the line, taking a time bonus and the race lead. Even Horner admitted that he couldn’t match the Italian in a sprint.
This was a risky course, however. If Horner attacked on the steepest pitch of the final climb and Nibali couldn’t answer, it would be Horner who won the race. Either path was a gamble.
Vincenzo Nibali chose a third course, one no one else had considered: he attacked. He attacked repeatedly. He decided to push himself and his rival to their limits, to see who had the strongest will.
Nibali rode Horner’s wheel halfway up the final climb, while everyone waited for Horner to make a move. Instead, it was Vincenzo Nibali who launched an attack, and a good one.
Horner didn’t respond immediately; he waited half a kilometer before slightly increasing his pace, very slowly reeling in his rival.
Nibali attacked again just before the five-kilometer banner; Horner covered this one immediately. As the road got steeper—19, 20, 22 percent—Nibali attacked again, and again. In all the Italian tried seven times, each time opening a small gap, only to have Horner grind his way back to Nibali’s wheel.
This is how a truly important bike race—a Grand Tour—should be decided. The two best riders in the race, all alone, head-to-head, attacking until one or the other couldn’t respond.
This time it was Vincenzo Nibali who ran out of gas. He gave his all to break his opponent, and with just under 2000 meters left to climb, his body said, “No more.”
Chris Horner, who had won the red jersey three times by attacking, tried only once on that final climb, and when he did it only triggered yet a stronger attack from his rival. Horner won the final stage by defending, by conserving his energy, by risking that Vincenzo Nibali would ride away.
Had Horner tried to immediately match Nibali on every acceleration, he might have cracked first. Instead, the seasoned veteran slowly and patiently shut down every attack.
Only a rider with great experience could be calm, seeing his rival, and possibly the race, disappear uphill into the fog. Horner, 18 seasons a pro, stayed calm. He knew the difference between a twelve or fifteen percent grade, and a 23 percent grade. He knew how much he could push, and how much the road would demand.
In the end Horner judged it perfectly. When he crossed the finish line he collapsed, totally spent, unable to stand on his sore, spent, but victorious legs.
It didn’t matter to Horner. He was quite content to sit on the damp pavement, held up by helping hands, unable even to celebrate, because he knew he had so much to celebrate.
Forty-one years, eleven months old. Serious knee surgery a few months before. No contract from his team. A career possibly over. And in the span of a few weeks, Chris Horner set several records, brought glory to himself, his team, and his nation, earned himself great bargaining power for his revitalized career, and did so in the most dramatic fashion possible.
“When I was home during my knee surgery, I was never sure the knee was going to recover,” Horner said on the team website. “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.”
Tomorrow’s final stage will be a triumphal procession. The sprinters, the younger riders, can squabble over the intermediate sprint points and the final stage win. Chris Horner won’t care. He has fulfilled the greatest dream of any cyclist, and he did it under some of the hardest circumstances imaginable.
By every imaginable measure, Chris Horner has won.