Grand Old Men of the Grand Tours – AKA The Chris Horner problem

“Chris Horner’s recent victory at La Vuelta has made him the oldest winner of a Grand Tour stage ever. At 41 years and 307 days he eclipsed the previous record by some margin to win Stage 3. Horner is one of a few Grand Old Men still riding hard in the hardest of races at what should be long past the dusk of their careers.”

I wrote these words a couple of weeks ago on holiday thinking that I could return home and finish it off to create a piece about the wonderful remarkableness of a couple of older guys winning the odd stage in Grand Tours. The trouble is Horner has kept winning and at this moment – the morning of the last real racing day of La Vuelta – he leads by 3 seconds having distanced his younger rivals on a number of occasions to claw back the time he lost in the Individual Time Trial. Eyebrows are being raised so far they are falling off the back of some correspondents heads, and tongues are wagging so furiously that they are danger of giving their owners whiplash. Whatever the truth is about how Horner is managing such a performance, the cycling community seems desperate to avoid looking naive again.

“This years Tour de France”, I wrote “was illuminated on multiple occasions by Jens Voigt attacking from the get-go and then attacking the break again in an age-defying attempt to solo to a victory. One month older than Horner he fell just short of a win in France although he did manage a solo victory in the Tour of California earlier in the year. So what are Horner and Voigt doing still riding off the front at the wrong side of 40? What on earth keeps them going? And at what cost?”

Each day that has passed has made the implied assumption that Horner would fade and fall down the GC as the race progressed more ridiculous. But what else would have been a reasonable assumption to have made? I wrote elsewhere that Horner’s “few days in red” at the beginning of the race might even complicate his team leader Cancellara’s plans.. I did not contemplate for a second that we would still be writing about him now.

“Whilst Grand Tour cycling is not particularly a young man’s game, there is an obviousness that the ability to compete will diminish with age. Robert Millar has suggested that a ‘good’ tour will take a year off your life, and that a ‘bad’ tour will cost you five years down the line. The window of competitiveness looks to be pretty much locked into the decade between 25 and 35. Multiple Tour winners Anquetil, Hinault and Indurain all had most of their wins under their belts by the time they were 30. As did Armstrong. And whilst winning the overall is a different thing to claiming a stage win, the age principle still holds relatively true.”

Hmmm. ‘Not any more’, we are being asked to believe. Nevemind stage wins, age is no longer to be a bar to a Grand Tour General Classification win. Horner’s supporters point to the relative lack of racing in his legs – this is his 7th completed GT whilst Nibali (aged 28) is already on 10 – and only his 17th day racing this year, and also to his ‘low stress’ years away from the European pro circuit. ‘He has the legs of someone 6 years his junior’ is the underlying justification. I’m reminded of Indiana Jones’ line in the original Raider’s movie, “It’s not the age, honey, it’s the mileage.” Fine, but there would still be questions about a 35 year old with a limited palmares such as his performing the way Horner is right now. Add in the age and the doubters have a strong case to be concerned.

“The very early days of the Grand Tours favoured men of incredible stamina and resourcefulness. The epic distances and hardships involved required something more than just raw power, which could not be sustained over the very many hours and days. Typically, riders were from peasant stock – used to labouring long and hard – but still young enough not yet to have been ravaged by time. Maurice Garin was 32 when he won the inaugural Tour in 1903.”

“Advancements in training, recovery and diet have no doubt prolonged the careers of today’s more venerable rouleurs but by the same token they will also have strengthened the younger riders whom they are competing against, making the wins no less compelling as a result. Charly Wegelius noted in his recent book that rooming and training with a new team mate who was young enough to be his son reignited his waning passion for the sport. The grand old men – racing on out of the dark clouds of the doping era – are finding new leases of life.”

But those dark clouds refuse to roll away completely. Whilst Horner’s first win in La Vuelta was greeted with enjoyable surprise, his repetition of the feat 7 days later had eyebrows raising across the onlooking galleries. For a forty-one year old to ride away from some of the top climbers of effectively the next generation was okay in an early stage where the stakes were low but to do it again and put a minute and more into Nibali & co got people asking how is it possible? With each passing day, each win and each jersey, the storm clouds have multiplied and are now sitting over the Vuelta and Chris Horner like a medieval rendering of an impending biblical apocalypse. But should we be being so relentlessly cynical? Isn’t there some little space for faith in the face of a miracle?

“A couple of days before his win in California, and moments after another solo break had fallen short by a few hundred metres, Jens was asked what on earth was he thinking of making such moves at his age. The response was a classic of the highest order. Momentarily eclipsing his already near-immortal rallying call of “Shut Up Legs”, he came back with a pithier response, forged deep in the fires of self-belief that still rage in his soul. “Why? Because I’m motherfucking Jens Voigt.”

I fervently hope that it’s that kind of attitude (rather than anything more sinister) that keep him, Horner and any other Grand Old Men rolling and winning. We’ve all been through a lot with cycling in the last decade or two and, for many, the well of belief will simply have run dry.

What about me? I still want to believe now. In that respect my reserves appear as limitless as Horner’s. I can only hope his are as pure.

UPDATE: Sunday 15th Sep 2013:
Horner again left Nibali and his other younger rivals behind on the final climb of the day to extend his lead and all but guarantee his victory. On one of the most brutal slopes on the calendar – the Alto de L’Angliru – he withstood multiple attacks from a determined Nibali before distancing his exhausted foe in the final 2k to put 37 seconds between them.
Horner came second on the stage. The only man who beat him, Kenny Elissonde, is 20 years his junior.

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