Headed to Utah and the Vuelta, Horner searches for lost time

After missing five months of racing, Chris Horner is heading to the Vuelta with confidence in his ability to win his first grand tour

Photo: Watson

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This has been a long time coming for Chris Horner.

It’s been months in the making, what could happen next for the American. First, he’ll race the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, but then he’s headed to the Vuelta a España, in search of lost time — in search of a result in a year muted by the din of injury.

“Oh, I’ve been thinking about it. About every day. Every day since I knew I wasn’t making the Tour de France I’ve been thinking about the Tour of Spain,” he told VeloNews. “I’m looking forward to going to the Vuelta, and I think it could be a lot of vindication for me after sitting at home for the last five months.”

At 42, Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is known as one of the peloton’s straightest shooters and most gifted climbers. It’s a contract year for him, and his RadioShack team is undergoing an ownership transition before 2014, but he hasn’t been able to show his abilities this season, at least since splitting the field at Tirreno-Adriatico but busting himself up in the process. What’s a realistic goal now for the Vuelta? Horner only has one.

“I only have one ambition when I show up at the bike race,” Horner said. “So I’m planning to go good.”

An unwanted vacation for Chris Horner

Horner hasn’t raced since this spring, suffering IT band issues that led to knee problems. He was over-geared in a wet Tirreno-Adriatico stage, and that spelled trouble on the wet steeps. Horner was sixth in the brutish sixth stage, which featured three climbs of the 27-percent, 375-meter Sant’Elpidio a Mare ramp. RCS Sport director Michele Acquarone said afterward that the stage was “too much.”

“We ran the gearing too big,” Horner said. “And then when it started to rain, the climbs were literally so steep that I had to shift my weight. I had to stand up … and I had to shift my weight way behind the saddle, on the hips. And of course that’s not a position I’d trained in before… this was of course 40, 45 degrees out, raining, we’re doing one of the hardest stages with one of the best fields in the world.”

Horner raced the Volta a Catalunya afterward, but could hardly drive himself home, saying the mistake to race there was “catastrophic.” He tried to get back for the Amgen Tour of California, “which was another mistake,” he said. One thing led to another, which eventually led to surgery, and five months off racing, including a month on the couch watching the Tour de France pass him by.

“The toughest part is when you’re sitting at home the whole time, watching races go by that you can get results at. You have to remember, ‘The last race I was at … [excluding Catalunya, where he was injured] I was at I was with the best riders in the world. And not behind them, literally with them. Clearly the last stage at Tirreno-Adriatico — it wasn’t [Vincenzo] Nibali that split the group on that climb, it was me that split the group on that climb. Ok? So clearly my level of fitness is with the best riders in the world,” Horner said.

“So when I’m sitting at home and it’s a contract year, and I want to continue racing my bike, and I also know I’m 42 years of age this year, so clearly I want to be on the bike racing. I want to do multiple more years of racing. And it’s very difficult to be on the couch when you know people are wondering, ‘oh, he’s getting old, that’s why he has the injury,’ not, ‘they were racing in 40-degree weather going up a 30-percent climb with the wrong gear.’ You know?”

But at 42, the California- and Oregon-based Horner is an elder statesmen in the pro peloton. And asked if he feels that, Horner said that he did, just not when he was pedaling a bike. And that, he said, was the important part.

“I still feel fast. And that’s all that matters. Do I get out of bed sore? Of course I do. But that’s irrelevant. All that matters is when you’re on the bike, you feel good. And in all honestly, the bike is the only place I do feel good. It’s the only place where I’m actually comfortable and at home and in a relaxed place mentally and physically,” Horner said. “The rest of the day, you’re always going to have a sore back that you’re dealing with different times during the year, a sore knee. … You always have those kind of things, but when I’m on the bike it’s where I feel the most comfortable and at ease, mentally and physically. So I’m not looking to leave the sport any time soon.”

Of course, as conversation does with anyone from the generation of professionals from which Horner hails, conversation turned to the Lance Armstrong investigation. Horner — a teammate of Armstrong’s during his 2009-10 comeback — hasn’t been named by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and has steered clear of much of the controversy hanging over the Texan and many of his former teammates. He told VeloNews late last year that he never saw any doping practices while riding for Johan Bruyneel at Astana and RadioShack. When asked about the aftermath of the USADA investigation on Tuesday, Horner directed those questions to RadioShack staff.

Skipping Colorado for the Vuelta

As noted, Horner will race in Utah, and then head to Spain, skipping the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado.

“It’s not hilly enough. It’s a beautiful race, but it’s not … heck, we’re going up those climbs at 45K an hour. They’re not steep,” said Horner. “Are they long and stuff? Yeah, sure, they’re long climbs. But they’re not steep. You’re dealing with altitude … but no matter how you look at it, when we get to the top of the climb, there’s 100, 120 guys still there. So, it’s not a climb. By the time we get to the finish of the race, there’s nothing I can do. There’s no place where everyone’s tired and worn out. … I come in at 140 pounds. The only advantage I really have over guys is when we get into steep climbs. And you’re at 4.5, 5-percent climbs, everyone in the world can climb those.”

He pointed to last year’s stage from Golden to Boulder, which ended halfway up Flagstaff Mountain as evidence.

“The only hard climb we had was the finishing climb there, and then it’s literally, like, everybody’s still fresh,” he said. “And so there’s no place where I can get an advantage on anyone. I don’t want to be misunderstood. It’s a beautiful race. It really is. It’s got good crowds. It’s well put on. But it’s not a race for me, so I don’t want to be there. It’s equivalent to taking a sprinter to a mountain stage race. That doesn’t mean the race isn’t good, it just means the race isn’t good for him. It just means that taking me there doesn’t make any sense.”

All bets on the Vuelta

This Tour of Spain has 13 mountain stages, six flat days, one individual time trial, and one team time trial. There are a total of 41 mountain passes and hills. It’s made for a climber like Horner; damage in time trials will be limited, and the team time trial is an enormous opportunity for a GC rider who isn’t normally strong in time trials to gain time on rivals. Horner’s had plenty of time to think about it.

“You look at the field that’s going there. Everybody’s coming out of the Tour, some guys are coming out of it tired. I thought the most competition I’d get was coming from Nibali, because he’d come fresh, and skipped the Tour, so I see that,” Horner said. “We start with a team time trial, which is good for my team. So I think that can put me in a really good position. In all honesty, I think I can be wearing the jersey after the first mountain stage. If I can hold it after that, we’ll see. Clearly I think I can climb with the best.”

Asked if he was “skinny,” Horner laughed.

“Am I what? Yes. I’m fit,” he said. And asked if there was anything else he’d like to add? “I think I’ll share everything when we get to Tour of Spain.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.