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Chris Horner entered the USA Cycling professional championship road race Sunday as an odds-on favorite to win his first stars and stripes jersey as a pro. The 39-year-old talked with VeloNews before the start about his best season to date and the tactics on the Greenville, South Carolina, circuit.
Horner won the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco in April, the most significant stage race win in a career that began in 1995 with U.S. domestic squad NutraFig. The affable veteran also scored top-10 finishes in the spring classics at the Amstel Gold Race and Liege-Bastogne-Liege before landing ninth in the final overall at the Dauphine Libere and tenth at the Tour de France.
“Even without the jersey, this is the best season I’ve ever had,” said Horner. “I’m 39 this year and this is the best season I’ve ever had, with or without the jersey, but boy it would be nice to go ahead and keep going.”
Horner has finished on the professional or elite nationals podium four times in his career: third in the 1996 road race; second in the 2002 time trial; second in the 2003 criterium; and third in the 2005 road race. RadioShack entered the race as one of three squads, along with BMC Racing and Garmin-Transitions, expected to direct much of the racing in the 112-mile contest. Saturday’s time trial winner Taylor Phinney and his Trek-Livestrong teammate Ben King also started the road race and Horner said the seven-rider combined squad would work together.
“It would be nice to get the jersey of course, but Taylor is a RadioShack rider, so for us yesterday was all good. We have the jersey from yesterday and if we get another one today, it’s even better,” said Horner. “We’re a solid, solid unit. I don’t have any problems at all with a young guy riding for our team winning the jersey.”
That pledge was put to the test early Sunday when King went off the front of the peloton as a member of what shook out to be a three-rider breakaway in the first lap. RadioShack director Jose Azevedo provided support King and the team sat near the front of the peloton as BMC, Garmin and Kenda-Geargrinder did the brunt of the heavy lifting over the first five laps.
The break built an eventual lead of 18 minutes before the gap began to come down on Paris Mountain in the fifth lap. Horner didn’t expect to see his team represented in the early move, but King took the opportunity when it presented itself in the opening lap.
“We can’t necessarily go on the attack all day with only five guys, but we can defend really well with five guys and then go on the attack in the finish,” said Horner. “We’ll see how the race plays out and how much work our guys have to do instead of just sitting in.”
King’s move allowed his older teammates to stay out of the wind for much of the race. As he entered the seventh lap, nearly 40 miles from the finish of the race, the gap went below 10:00 and Horner’s chance at the jersey remained open. He said before the start that a win would cap his season perfectly. “I’d love to,” he said of taking the win. “It’s something missing from my resume, so to have a championship jersey would be really nice, especially one from the road would be fantastic. It’s been a good year too, so to throw in the jersey to cap off the year, I think I could very much call it a great season with the jersey, that’s for sure.”
Stay tuned to VeloNews.com for a report, results and a Casey B. Gibson gallery from Greenville.