This year's Vuelta a Espana has been throwing up surprises ever since it kicked off with the stage 1 team time trial. One of the race's biggest surprises has been the form of Chris Horner, the 41 year old American who going into the final stage is race leader, an unprecedented achievement for a man of his age.
This, unsurprisingly, sent the internet forums crazy with comments on Horner's performance, many of which were commenting on the lack of faith they had in Horner, his age, and the fact he is from the lost generation of riders, seemingly the biggest marks against his card in terms of his cleanliness as a rider.
This article is not designed to accuse Horner, it is simply stating the points that both sides are using for their argument. The sceptics in the cycling world say the fact that Horner is doping is not an issue up for debate, it is simply a matter of fact. The first point I have seen quoted on many forums is that a man of his age should simply not be able to out-climb some of the best climbers in the world.
Vincenzo Nibali is over ten years younger than Horner, and this seems to be the sceptic's primary problem. Should a man of 41, with his best achievement being the Tour of California in 2011, be taking the race lead off of this year's Giro d'Italia champion, and Tour de France podium finisher from 2012?
They also point out that Horner's past teams do not exactly scream anti-doping. He has spent years under Johan Bruyneel, the orchestrator behind Lance Armstrong's Tour de France domination, riding for Astana and Team RadioShack. Before this, he rode for the shamed Saunier-Duval Prodir team, so the speculation is, Horner has the necessary contacts for the relevant "equipment" needed. He also has no contract for next year, so has nothing to lose.
Countering these arguments, are the people determined that Horner is clean, and that cycling has turned a corner. They say (correctly) that Horner has never failed a test for doping, and has never behaved remotely suspiciously. They put his performance in this year's Vuelta as finally being team leader, rather than having to work for the likes of Andy Schleck, or Lance Armstrong before him.
They also point out that the lack of results on Horner's palmares before the last few years could be down to the fact that before he was riding against juiced riders, men who had an unnatural advantage over him. Now the peloton is cleaner, Horner's hard work and natural talent can shine through. They also use the point that riding with the knowledge that unless you get a good result, this could be one of your last races, can put a great amount of motivation and pressure on a rider, and it is this that has finally led to Horner breaking through and winning the big time.
In my opinion, unless Horner fails a test, we cannot point any fingers at the American. Even though it's hard to have faith in cycling's unlikely champions considering what has happened in the last couple of years, we must keep the faith in Horner. Innocent until proven guilty is an important mantra not only in law but in doping in sport too. Horner will go down as winner in this year's Vuelta, and we just have to hope that years down the line, he's still in the same history books.