Chris Horner (Radioshack-Leopard) has won the Vuelta a Espana after finishing second to Kenny Ellisonde (FDJ) at the summit of the brutal Alto de l’Angliru on the penultimate stage.
Horner sustained a series of attacks from his closest rival for the overall victory, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), but broke the Italian with a single, decisive attack, made with 1.5km to go as the gradient passed 20 per cent.
The stage, widely regarded as one of the toughest in cycling, unfolded in dramatic style, delivering a hugely impressive victory for a 22-year-old and a first Grand Tour victory for a 41-year-old.
With just 22km remaining, the peloton chased an early breakaway onto the slopes of the penultimate climb, the Alto del Corda. Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) and Elissonde were first to crest the category one summit. Elissonde’s perilous descent proved eye catching, but was insufficient to shed Tiralongo.
The peloton crested the summit nearly five minutes later. Euskaltel-Euskadi team leader, Samuel Sanchez, gave a demonstration of his consummate descending skills, eating a gel while descending at 60kph and pulling away from his rivals. The final, daunting challenge of the 58th Spanish national tour lay ahead, however.
Astana hit the front on the lower slopes of the Angliru, reeling in and despatching Czech champion, Jan Barta (NetApp-Endura), while Horner remained in close attendance. Movistar took up the pacemaking soon afterwards, and as the red jersey group passed under the 10km to go banner, the advantage of the leading pair had been reduced to 4.23.
Katusha took a turn on the head of the elite chase group, with team leader and winner of the stage 19, Joaquim Rodriguez, riding comfortably at second wheel. The pace of the Russian team, set by stage three winner, Dani Moreno, soon created casualties in the chase group. Lampre-Merida team leader, Michele Scarponi, was among the first through the exit door.
Half-a-minute had been trimmed from the advantage of the leading duo as they passed beneath the 9km banner, reducing the gap to the elite chase group to 3.43. The flat, middle section of the final climb passed without event, but the dropping back of Robert Kiserlovski left Horner bereft of team-mates.
With 6.5km remaining, the road kicked up viciously, registering a gradient of 17.5 per cent, that almost stopped Tiralongo in his tracks, cutting their advantage to 2.34. Niabli detonated the stage with a long-range attack. Horner’s lack of response was noteworthy. Did he believe Nibali had gone to early?
Tiralongo, clearly receiving word from the team car, dropped back from Ellisonde at the head of the race to wait for Nibali, leaving the Frenchman to lead the stage alone. Horner dragged Valverde, Nicolas Roche (Saxo-TInkoff) and a host of other big name riders in pursuit of the Giro champion, but Nibali’s serene progress over gradients of 21 per cent appeared decisive.
Horner, however, would not give up. Valverde became the next of his victims, shelled from a group being slowly disintegrated by the American’s efforts. With just under 5km to go, Horner and Rodgriguez made contact with Nibali, and moments later the American attacked. Nibali, however, would not be denied, and responded immediately. Rodriguez, dropped momentarily by the metaphorical trading of blows, rode back on to the wheel of the men contesting overall victory and then moved to the front.
Just 500 metres later, Tiralongo was swept up, offering Nibali the vital lifeline of a team-mate. Jacob Fuglsang was the next to be caught, placing three Astana riders in the red jersey group, easily outnumbering Horner and Rodriguez who rode without support. Valverde somehow clawed his way back up to his rivals, while the pace was set by a grimacing Tiralongo. Horner, by contrast, looked poised.
Up ahead, Elissonde roared out in pain as he hit gradients of 22 per cent, but refused to slow, and continued to grind his way towards the summit and what he hoped would be the biggest victory of his career to date.
At the 3km to go kite, Niabli attacked again, but Horner stuck to him like a limpit and the pair raced on into the fog. Some 200 metres later, with the riders almost at a standstill, Niabli attacked again, but Horner continued unperturbed, riding in his astonishing style of unbroken out of the saddle pedalling.
Nibali attacked a third time, and finally seemed to have broken Horner, but as the Italian hit the next wicked switchback – one of 23 per cent – Horner made contact. Serge Pauwels (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), one of the few remaining members of the early breakaway, looked over his shoulder to glimpse the relentless battle of the two men fighting for title of 2013 Vuelta a Espana champion.
The GC pair rode straight past Pauwels and into a deafening tunnel of spectators, extending the gap to Valverde and Rodriguez to 18 seconds. As the Spanish duo toiled on the inhuman gradients, Valverde broke clear of ‘Purito’. Horner moved ahead of Nibali for the first time, while at the front, Elissonde grimaced his way into the final 1.5km, the gradient dropping to ‘just’ 16 per cent.
Nibali and Horner momentarily disappeared from television pictures as the camera motorbike gave up in the face of the relentless gradient. As the duo returned to screens across the world, Horner attacked again, finally breaking the Giro d’Italia champion. Almost instantly, it seemed, his advantage over Nibali extended to 12 seconds.
Horner passed beneath the flamme rouge alone and a minute behind Elissonde, who by contrast with Horner’s seemingly effortless progress rocked frantically in his saddle, urging himself onwards with every muscle.
As the road flattened, the Frenchman took a last look over his shoulder, removed his hands form the bars and burst into tears. Horner was the next man home, but Nibali, who had scooped up time bonuses on his way up the Angliru, made a final desperate bid to further his advantage, but was beaten to the line to Valverde.
An agonising wait began while the commissaires calculated the final outcome, but when the dust had settled, Horner’s advantage at the head of the general classification was confirmed at 37 seconds. Barring disaster, Horner will claim his first Grand Tour victory in Madrid tomorrow at the age of 41.
Vuelta a Espana 2013: stage 20 – report
1) Kenny Elissonde (FRA) – FDJ – 3.55.36
2) Chris Horner (USA) – Radioshack-Leopard +26″
3) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +54″
4) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana – ST
5) Andre Cardoso (POR) – Caja Rural
6) Dominik Nerz (GER) – BMC Racing +1.15
7) Jose Mendes (POR) – NetApp-Endura +1.45
8) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +1.52
9) Serge Pauwels (BEL) – Omega Pharma-QuickStep +1.59
10 Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ
1) Chris Horner (USA) – Radioshack-Leopard – 81.52.01
2) Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) – Astana +37″
3) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +1.38
4) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +3.22
5) Nicolas Roche (IRL) – Saxo-Tinkoff +7.11
6) Domencio Pozzovivo (ITA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale +8.00
7) Thibaut Pinot (FRA) – FDJ +8.41
8) Samuel Sanchez (ESP) – Euskatel-Euskadi +9.51
9) Leopold Konig (CZE) – NetApp-Endura +10.11
10) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +13.11