We will work for more stage winsÃ¢â¬¦ I think I can win the Vuelta.
Late Friday night, during SBS Television's live coverage of the seventh stage of the Vuelta a EspaÃ±a, when I told Cycling Central host Mike Tomalaris that other than Vincenzo Nibali, it was my belief Chris Horner would be the only legitimate contender for the overall title, he looked at me as if I'd been smoking something I shouldn't have.
"Surely, Tanny, at nearly 42 years of age, victory is beyond him," retorted Juan Mikel Tomalejo.
In May, at 36 years and a few months, Cadel Evans became the oldest rider since 1928 to stand on a Grand Tour podium when he finished third overall at the Giro d'Italia. Had he won, he would have become the oldest Giro winner bar none, but Fiorenzo Magni, who won the 1955 edition at a sprightly 34 years and 5 months, got to keep his record for at least another year.
Monday before last at the Vuelta, when Chris Horner, 41 years and 307 days young, finished first atop the category three Mirador de Lobeira, he became not just the oldest rider to win a stage in a Grand Tour, but the oldest leader of a Grand Tour, besting Pino Cerami and Andrea Noe, the former 41 years and 95 days when he won a stage at the 1963 Tour de France, while Noe was 38 when he led the 2007 Giro.
After injuring his knee at Tirreno-Adriatico early March Ã¢â¬â other than the Tour of Utah, the Vuelta being Horner's only race since then Ã¢â¬â many, myself included, questioned whether the colourful cycling identity they nickname 'The Redneck' would return, and if he did, whether he'd rediscover his best form.
I'm glad he proved us doubters wrong.
"I love racing. Everyone keeps asking me when I am going to retire, but I won't do that until I feel like I'm just suffering all day on the bike and never winning bike races. At this moment I feel like I can keep racing forever," he said on the day he carved a slice of Spanish history. The same day, I received a press release from the team that is likely to take the cream of the RadioShack-Leopard crop at mostly bargain basement prices, since the latter is discontinuing their involvement in cycling at season's end.
Headlined 'Trek builds world's premier classics team', accompanied by the sub-head 'Devolder, Irizar, Popovych, Rast, Roulston and Sergent sign on to support Cancellara', I couldn't help but notice that of the aforementioned septet, only one Ã¢â¬â 25-year-old Jesse Sergent Ã¢â¬â is under 30 years of age. Devolder, Irizar, Popovych, Rast are all 33, while Roulston and Cancellara are 32.
RadioShack was dubbed the 'Retirement Shack' when they got going Ã¢â¬â slowly Ã¢â¬â in 2010. What will they call Trek, I wonderÃ¢â¬¦
But ask any employer and the majority will tell you older people tend to be more reliable, require less maintenance, are as hard- if not harder-working, and bring a greater depth of knowledge to the workplace. Invariably, if they are overlooked in favour of a younger employee for a job, the sticking point is usually due to them being overqualified or too expensive Ã¢â¬â but in professional cycling, you can never have too much experience, and for as long as I can remember, it has always been a buyer's market. (Former RadioShack rider Linus Gerdemann is a case in point of how clean, talented riders can find themselves out of job simply because there's not enough spaces; fortunately, after a season on the sidelines, the German has found himself a home next year at MTN-Quebeka, thanks to his countryman Gerald Ciolek.)
Horner's ambitions don't end with a stage win. As early as a week ago he declared: "We will work for more stage wins Ã¢â¬â (and) I think I can win the Vuelta."
Of course, if Horner does win, he'll become not just the oldest winner of the Vuelta a EspaÃ±a but the oldest Grand Tour winner bar none.
How cool would that be?
Ten legs down and sitting pretty in the maillot rojo after his second stage win, 43 seconds ahead of second-placed Vincenzo Nibali, you'd be bonkers to say the podium is beyond him. If he had a weakness, it would be his ability to time trial relative to his Grand Tour-winning Sicilian counterpart, and, despite the promise he's shown over the years, for a multitude of reasons, he's never gone into a three-week race as an outright leader.
However, as his evergreen teammate Jens Voigt told me a few years ago, age is just a number, and, to me, RadioShack-Leopard look as strong as any other on paper: Fabian Cancellara, Markel Irizar and GrÃ©gory Rast can protect him on the flats, and Matthew Busche, Robert Kiserlovski and Haimar Zubeldia will do their thing for Horny on the plethora mountain stages to come. (That said Busche, Kiserlovski and Zubeldia all crashed on the tenth stage, victims of a mass pile-up in the neutral zone, though none appear seriously injured.) After Tuesday's first rest day there's just a 38.8 kilometre time trial that is unlikely to do major damage; anyway, it's not like Horner's rubbish against the clock, more he's not quite up there with guys like Nibali, Chris Froome and Evans.
"I don't expect to hold the jersey after the time trial Ã¢â¬â that isn't my specialty and Nibali is a very good time trialist. I have a little bit of a time cushion now but I'm sure Nibali knew he could give me some time before the time trial and not worry about it," he said after his stage win to Alto Hazallanas. "I can stay very close after that until we go to another mountain stage and that will decide this Vuelta. As you can see, every top rider is alone on the last climb, so it's going to get down to tactics every time."
After weighing up his options for next year, or perhaps, having those options decided for him, it was revealed last Friday 2011 Tour champ Evans wants to take another crack at the Giro with a view to overall victory: "There is certainly a chance that 2013 might have been my last Tour," he told the Sydney Morning Herald. "I am going to go to the Giro presentation this year to see the (2014) course. That looks like a direction to head in (Ã¢â¬¦) At this point, it looks like directing my energies towards (winning) a Grand Tour other than the Tour de France."
Along with a crack in the Ardennes Classics, good move, I say.
After all, you're only as old as you feel. Just ask Chris Horner. And, by the way, says the American, "I am at the end of contract. My contract is free and open."
Why wouldn't you hire him?