ALTO DE L'ANGLIRU, Spain — Christopher Horner, an American cyclist who turns 42 next month, closed in on the biggest victory of his career Saturday by building his lead in the next-to-last stage of the Spanish Vuelta.
Horner, who rides for RadioShack-Leopard, increased his lead from three to 37 seconds over Italy's Vincenzo Nibali after the 20th stage. Horner shook off the Giro d'Italia winner on the final surge up the foggy peak to end the grueling, 88-mile mountainous ride.
"I don't need any time for it to sink in. I know what I've done," Horner said. "I think everybody at home that was on the couch got to watch a legendary moment that maybe they'll never see again in their entire career. Maybe never again in sports, maybe never again in cycling will you see someone of my age win a grand tour."
All that awaits Horner is Sunday's last stage and the traditional arrival in Madrid. He collapsed to the ground after pedaling across the finish line in second place, 26 seconds after winner Kenny Elissonde of France. Horner had to be helped to his feet by race officials, and Nibali understood just how good his rival was this day.
"I tried everything I could, but I couldn't do it," Nibali said. "It was impossible to shake Horner. I have to settle for second place, but I am not happy."
Elissonde finished in 3 hours, 55 minutes, 36 seconds. The route started in Aviles and covered three major summits before ending at the Alto de L'Angliru peak.
"It's L'Angliru, it's mythical," Elissonde said. "This morning if you'd have told me this I wouldn't believe it," Elissonde.
The L'Angliru summit was teeming with fans, many having camped out overnight to be there the next day to cheer the cyclists on their way up.
Horner withstood Nibali's challenges on the ascent, the narrow mountain road crowded on both sides by raucous fans and thick fog limiting visibility. When the Astana rider apparently had spent all his energy, Horner pulled away using his high-riding stance.
"That Nibali would put such an attack at the finish like that and make it so epic and unbelievable for the fans, to see him attack 10-15 times – whatever it was – I'm sure the fans must have been on the edge of their seats every moment of it, of every pedal stroke that I did on the final climb," Horner said.
Former winner Alejandro Valverde of Spain is set to finish third. The Movistar rider is 1:36 behind Horner, with Rodriguez a distant fourth at 3:22 back.
"Horner was the strongest and we have to congratulate him for the victory," Valverde said. "His performances surprised us at the beginning, but not now."