Just two stages remain in this year's Vuelta a Espana, with American Chris Horner retaking the overall lead after Stage 19 in his bid to become the oldest winner ever of a Grand Tour at age 41. The toughest mountain stage awaits next in the form of Alto de L'Angliru, and it's there where riders will look to make their move for the overall victory.
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There's a real feeling of excitement going into the final stages of this year's tour, and the finish to Stage 19 only intensified it. Horner reclaimed the red jersey from Vincenzo Nibali with an impressive ride that saw him gain six seconds on the Italian on the Naranco climb to the finish.
Speaking to Cycling News, Horner was confident in his ability to finish the Tour strongly with a record-breaking ride:
To be in the lead of the Vuelta with two days to go, it's not the first surprise of my life, but it's a very good one.
Nibali and [Alejandro] Valverde are a big threat still. They're just seconds behind me. If I keep only three seconds lead, I'll still possible lose the jersey in Madrid and I don't want to worry about that on Sunday.
Valverde is a noted climber, so he will look to make his move from third place, one minute and six seconds behind Horner. He has proved himself over this sort of terrain countless times, and VeloNation.com reported his opinion on the importance of L’Angliru:
To me, the most important stage will be L’Angliru. Gaps are still short, and I think we can get to that day in the same situation - there, we won't save any energy, it's all or nothing. If we get to that point with these gaps, anything can happen.
I think a minute or a minute and a half might be enough for anyone getting in red to that climb, but it would be close and hard to retain the jersey if shorter.
The difference here is that Horner doesn't necessarily need to win the stage in order to take the overall prize. Valeverde needs to make a big impact and vault himself back into contention. The pressure is all on him and it could be telling.
Horner will be aware of the danger the Italian rider faces and the advantage he has over Valverde looks to be enough. As long as he stays ahead of him before the sprint, he should get home comfortably. Nibali will be unable to stay with Horner for the ascent, but one thing is certain: he's not going to give up easily.
It may be a bit of a three-horse race at this point, but the most challenging climb of the Tour awaits the riders during Stage 20. At that altitude, weather can play a factor, the late stage of the Tour means that stamina can finally break and sheer mental fortitude could prove to be the difference in the end.
If you have the slightest interest in cycling, you'd be very wise to make time for the finish of this year's incredible Tour of Spain.
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