What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
The absence of Chris Horner from the Vuelta start line suggests another old man of the sport could soon be following Jens Voigt into retirement.
But is the end really nigh, or does Chris Horner deserve another chance to ride at the top level?
It’s not been the best 12 months for Horner since his amazing win in the Vuelta last year; injury and illness have restricted him to a handful of races. When he has managed to pin on a number, he’s taken a while to get going.
But the signs were there that Horner was approaching the kind of form that took him to the top of last year’s Spanish Grand Tour.
A respectable 14th at the Tour of Slovenia was followed by a healthy 17th at le Tour and an encouraging second place at the Tour of Utah. He had set his sights on defending his Vuelta crown, which in the company of Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Ryder Hejesdal, Joaquim Rodriguez and Cadel Evans would be a significant achievement for an almost 43-year-old man.
But fate struck decisively in the form of a nagging chest cold, which caused Horner’s cortisol levels to drop to a point where he was unable to start the race.
Cortisol is produced by the body in times of stress and can boost performance. But when your levels are too low your body can’t respond sufficiently to medical setbacks.
For Horner’s participation in the Vuelta, this put him in a no-win situation.
Under UCI rules Horner was ok to start the race, but Lampre Merida has signed up to the MPCC – The Movement for Credible Cycling – and their rules are particularly strict on low Cortisol levels.
These rules cost Belkin’s Theo Bos a start in last year’s Vuelta, but Team Europcar decided they would still let Pierre Rolland race when his cortisol levels dropped below the minimum requirement.
No such luck for Horner though, who accepted his fate with good grace despite the potential problems it could cause him in getting another contract next year.
“Of course, I’m sad about this news”, Horner told Cycling Weekly.
“I was willing to try to defend the 2013 title, the Vuelta was my main target in the season, the team signed me with the aim of being competitive in the Spanish race, but I accept the decision linked to the MPCC’s rules.
“I could race according UCI rules, but my team is member of MPCC, I understand it and we all must accept this situation without regrets”.
He may be 43 in October, but it’s hard to argue against Chris Horner getting another contract.
Due to allegations he is ‘Rider 15’ in the USADA’s heavily redacted Reasoned Decision and of course his perceived support for the disgraced Lance Armstrong, some people will be happy to see the back of Chris Horner.
But not me.
I got to observe Chris Horner up close at the Tour and was impressed by his positive demeanour and relaxed attitude.
He gave time to the media who asked for it and on the road was animated, even if he didn’t have the form to push hard for a top position on the parcours that suited him.
Not that Horner was expecting huge results in July. This year was all about the Vuelta. He wanted to wear red again, and become the oldest winner of a Grand Tour. Again.
The bronchitis put paid to that and ultimately even his revised top five target, but there seems genuine optimism that Chris Horner will still be a pro rider next year.
And if he does, Horner will have Baden Cooke to thank for that. The 2003 green jersey winner at the Tour de France is Horner’s agent and managed to hook him up with Lampre-Merida when all other avenues were exhausted.
As Cooke told Cyclingnews he doesn’t see why Horner can’t get another pro contract.
“The thing is he’s not getting any slower. He’s going as strong as ever. We just have to lock a team in for next year and I think he’ll be just as good next year in terms of form and fitness. He just needs some better luck, which we all hope is just around the corner.”
It’s a view seemingly shared by Lampre team manger Brent Copeland.
“Chris has been a great addition to the team this year. He is not only always ready to race, but he brings a good attitude to everyone on the team,” Copeland told Cycling Weekly.
“We invested a lot in Chris to bring him here this season. We will be talking about trying to work something out.”
I hope they do because as someone who is old enough to be Chris Horner’s older brother, I want him to prove the age doubters wrong.
As much as sport is about celebrating the rise of the young challenger like Michael Matthews who came out of nowhere in the final 500m to win Stage 2 of the Vuelta, it’s also about enjoying the “oldies.”
Jens Voigt entertained us right to the very last and Chris Horner was planning to do the same.
I hope he gets another chance.