Excited or worried by red-hot Horner?

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Chris Horner. Photo via Twitter: @hornerakg

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For someone consistently described as “evergreen” Chris Horner is spending rather a lot of time in red.

A wondrously unpredictable opening phase of the Vuelta came to a conclusion on Monday with double stage winner Horner – a rider one month younger than Lance Armstrong – returning to the top of the general classification after another rampaging solo attack on the Alto Hazallanas.

“Horner wins stage 10, never sitting down, always in his pedals for the last 4km. He should be the new leader too. Congrats!”

It was a simple, matter-of-fact tweet by the official Katusha team Twitter feed moments after Monday’s stage – but one for which the irony (however unintentional) was hard not to miss.

For Horner did indeed spend the most part of the final slog to the summit out of the saddle, turning a consistently higher gear than the chasing favourite, Vincenzo Nibali, who fast-pedalled in pursuit with a high cadence while firmly rooted to his saddle.

It could seem a bit churlish, however, to flag up Horner for the manner about which he rode back into the leader’s red jersey, especially when you consider how Chris Froome’s critics harrumphed over the Sky rider’s tendency to strike by doing the exact opposite – with high-cadence, in-the-saddle bursts of acceleration – during his decisive mountain attacks in July’s Tour de France.

But RadioShack’s Horner – a contemporary and former teammate of both Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, and whose former employees include Astana and Saunier-Duval – is almost 15 years older than Froome.

To maintain such a consistent pace, regardless of style, was an extraordinary feat.

Seeing a rider of the old guard, one who both looks and sounds like a character from The Simpsons, comprehensively bettering his considerably younger rivals does make you go ‘Hmm…’ – especially in the light of cycling’s recent woes and tainted history.

When you have a respected cycling journalist – one who is always quick to show his dismay at scattergun doping accusations – quipping online that Ivan Basso’s form looks promising and that he “has the advantage of youth over Horner” then it’s hard not to take a deep breath between the chuckles.

It doesn’t help that Horner was one of Armstrong’s main allies during the Texan’s long and protracted fall from grace – something which gives you even less reason to feel so ashamed about a knee-jerk reaction felt (presumably) by most cycling fans out there.

Then recall that Horner, in June last year, went on the record to stress that he didn’t “believe Armstrong cheated in any way to win those victories,” before adding: “in the end he’s getting prosecuted and there’s no positive test.”

Finger-pointing is a dangerous affair, however.

It’s worth pointing out that while Horner already became cycling’s oldest Grand Tour stage winner and race leader after his stage three triumph at Lobeira last week, neither victorious ride was exactly in the same bracket as Floyd Landis’s infamous stage 17 solo blitz in the 2006 Tour de France.

And while Horner’s only ever top ten finish in a Grand Tour came in the 2010 Tour de France, we should remember that we’re not even half way through this Vuelta.

At the moment, Horner’s merely excelled in an opening phase where the main favourite has done his best not to wear the leader’s jersey, where a Scottish-sponsored team have opened up their Grand Tour stage account through Leopold Konig, where – unlikelihood of unlikelihoods – Nicolas Roche has not only won a stage but also worn every classification jersey (including the red), while Roche’s Saxo-Tinkoffteammate Michael Morkov has won a mass sprint.

Look, even Sky’s Colombian duo Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao are comprehensively faltering – and aren’t they the team that have access to some kind of dastardly super drug that’s making their riders dominate every major race?

In short: Horner’s not the only oddity or anomaly in this race.

Two years ago, Dutchman Bauke Mollema went into the first rest day leading the race and ended up finishing fourth.

Such is the brutal parcours of the remaining 11 stages of the race – which includes summit finishes in Peyragudes, Pena Carbarga and the Alto de l’Angliru – I’d be highly surprised if Horner even managed to match Mollema’s Madrid finish, let alone make a sustained bid for the red jersey.

The 41-year-old American has already admitted he expects to concede the lead to Nibali after Wednesday’s 38.8km individual time trial in Tarazona.

So while it’s clearly a concern to read jokes about Horner’s performances giving hope to the shamed Riccardo Ricco, whose ban will end in April 2024 when the Italian rider is 40, such a comment should still be read for what it’s meant to be: a joke.

A man pressing 42 can perform well over 10 days. Should Horner still be up there come Madrid, that’s when the alarm bells should start ringing. Then we would have a real problem.

But by then I readily expect the likes of Nibali, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez to render this whole debate quite irrelevant. And when that happens, we’ll probably just pick another target – rightly or wrongly – and carry on.

Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.
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