As this is going live, four guys in Spain are racing towards one of the steepest mountain roads in the world where they’ll duke it out for the overall title of the Vuelta a Espana. This three week odyssey is the least popular of the grand tours (France and Italy hold the others), even though over the last decade it’s had, by far, the most dramatic racing.
The guy who leads the race is a 41-year-old American named Chris Horner. While he’s probably the winningest cyclist in US history the non-cycling American press had completely ignored his exploits. Whether it’s fall out from the Lance affair or the fact he hasn’t had cancer, been shot, or dated any pop stars it’s mainly sad news for the public, who are missing four fantastic riders, each with a chance of victory with one day hard to go, battling it out on an iconic climb. Here are the protagonists.
Joaquim Rodriguez. Purito, as he’s called, has been hands down the best climber in cycling over the last five years. He started the race slowly and, at nearly two minutes back is probably too far off to win, but he won yesterday with a savage attack on a much easier climb. The Angliru is so hard that if he can go early and make it stick, two minutes is nothing.
Alejandro Valverde. A few years ago Chris Horner called him the most talented cyclist he’d ever seen. He can climb and sprint, meaning he’s a threat to win every single race he enters. And he wins. A lot. Practically unbeatable during his early years in Spain, he must have well over 100 wins. Despite being the most heavily marked riders for many years he still wins a number of races every year, including many classics, a slew of stage races, and one grand tour.
Vincenzo Nibali. One of the top grand tour racers in the peloton, and probably the most consistent, Nibali’s a class act with no weaknesses. He’s smart, attentive, and climbs, time trials and, most famously, descends with equal aplomb. If he finds a weakness in a rival he’ll attack, which has led to many dramatic moves on descents. Always fun to watch, he looked like the favorite to win his second grand tour of the year until the emergence of Horner.
Chris Horner. Horner spent perhaps his best years racing domestically where, like Valverde, he won every type of race imaginable. With nothing left to win he went to Europe when most riders are thinking about retiring and was an immediate factor. Also a threat to win any race, lacks of a kick like Valverde has tempered his palmares. Still, with 80 wins, he’s probably the most decorated American cyclist in history. He also raced in the shadow of Armstrong, Leipheimer et al, probably lessening his chances to shine on his own. After dropping the latter with win the Tour of California a few years back he’s been given more reign. Only couple of poorly-timed crashes in the Giro and Tour have kept us from seeing him on a grand tour podium, which seems likely to end this weekend. If he hangs on to his 3 second lead and wins the race, he’ll be the oldest grand tour winner in history. While it would be a nice cherry to top his career, Horner has no plans of retiring anytime soon.
Angliru. One of the steepest mountains ever raced, it caused a mass rider protest the first time it was added to the Vuelta for being “inhumane.” It’s also located on the Costa Verde, Spain’s green–hence rainy–coast, meaning that bad weather is a constant threat. Now a fixture, like the Ventoux or L’Alpe d’Huez, the Angliru has a history of altering the race. The video above is from the Angliru in 2002, one of the most brutal days of bike racing I’ve ever seen. The last time it was used, Bradley Wiggins lost his lead and the race on its final slopes.