This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
After nine days of nip and tuck on the long road south from Galicia, the first heavy blows of the Vuelta a España were dealt on the demanding climb to Alto de Hazallanas on stage 10, as Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) jumped away to claim stage victory and regain the overall lead, holding off the lone pursuit of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) in the finale.
With his 42nd birthday around the corner, few lent great credence to Horner’s assertion that he was aiming at overall victory when he lined up in Vilanova de Arousa last week, but the American has proven his point by delivering a series of startling performances so far at this Vuelta and he continued in the same vein with a fierce attack 4.5 kilometres from the summit of the Hazallanas.
Grinding a huge gear and making light work of a gradient that topped out at 18% and regularly hit 15%, the veteran Horner danced out of the saddle and away from a leading group that had already been pared down to just six riders and shorn of red jersey Dani Moreno (Katusha) thanks to the tempo set by Nibali and his Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang.
Although Nibali, Ivan Basso (Cannondale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) took it in turns to breathe life into the pursuit of Horner, their efforts repeatedly spluttered to a halt, mindful, perhaps, of the dangers of giving Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) an armchair ride to the final ramps of the climb.
While the chasers followed a stop-start rhythm behind, Horner was steadily adding precious seconds to his buffer at the front. On an afternoon of searing heat, Horner scarcely broke from his out-of-the-saddle position in the closing kilometres. He led by 28 seconds with 4 kilometres to, and 41 seconds a kilometre later as he edged his way towards the repossession of the red jersey.
When his gap yawned out to 50 seconds with 2.5 kilometres remaining, Nibali finally sensed the danger and he ripped clear of the chase group with apparent ease to set off in lone pursuit of Horner. There was a marked contrast in cadences between the fast-pedalling Nibali and the more leaden Horner, but impressive though the Sicilian’s acceleration was, he would make little inroads into the Horner’s lead by the summit.
Instead, Horner defended himself well as the road levelled out in the final kilometre to cross the finish line 48 seconds up on Nibali and 1:02 ahead of Valverde, who beat Basso, Rodriguez and Pinot in the sprint for third. A plucky Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) fought gamely to stay in the overall picture by finishing just behind them in 8th and the Irishman lies in 3rd place overall this evening, but it was a disappointing afternoon for Moreno, who lost over two minutes and the red jersey.
“It was a very hard stage for everybody because of the heat but in the end it went well for me because I was able to gain some important seconds on my rivals,” Nibali said. “I always hope to win but Horner was going very well and I wasn’t able to catch him, but I’m still happy.”
In the general classification, Horner has a lead of 43 seconds over Nibali, 53 seconds over Roche and 1:02 over Valverde, and Joaquim Rodriguez (5th at 1:40) succinctly summed up the danger posed by Horner. At the end of an injury-ravaged season during the extended Indian summer of his career, Horner’s surprisingly high level of performance poses something of a conundrum. “It’s not that we were slow, it’s that he was faster than us,” Rodriguez said.
How it unfolded
The first full-blown mountain stage of any grand tour is a nervy affair and the tensions was palpable as early in the neutralised zone on stage 10, as overnight leader Dani Moreno was tangled up in a crash that later saw both Guillaume Boivin (Cannondale) and Bart De Clerq (Lotto Belisol) abandon due to their injuries.
Shortly afterwards, a 21-man break sallied up the road, though a rolling afternoon in Spain’s deep south took its toll on the peloton and there were just ten survivors – with a lead of 5 minutes on the peloton – when they entered the final 45 kilometres and reached the foot of the day’s first climb, the tough Alto de Monachil.
While Thomas Marczynski (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) soon inched their way clear of the break, further down the road, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) was underling his status as one of the favourites for the world championships by whittling down the peloton with a ferocious bout of pace-making at the foot of the climb.
Cancellara swung over as the gradient stiffened to 15% near the summit, where a delegation from Movistar quickly reduced the leaders’ advantage to just over a minute and reduced the red jersey group to 20 or so riders. Movistar’s pace-making continued on the descent and on the lower slopes of the Hazallanas, but the first major move on the final climb came from Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi) with a shade under 7 kilometres to go.
Anton was reeled in by Nibali, and together with Jakob Fuglsang, the Sicilian dictated harsh terms over the next two kilometres that saw Moreno dropped, the remnants of the break caught and the leading group reduced to just a handful of riders. It appeared that the stage was set for Nibali to take control of the Vuelta, but instead it was Chris Horner who seized the initiative with his attack 4.5 kilometres from the summit.
Nibali would eventually dance clear of a chasing group where Basso, Pinot and Rodriguez broke even, and Valverde and Roche showed resiliency to stay in the hunt, but he was unable to make anything other than limit his losses to Horner, who will wear red when hostilities resume after the rest day with Wednesday’s time trial in Tarazona.