Not LeMond. Not Hampsten. The one and only Chris Horner
Posted On 21 Sep 2013
Assuming that the World Anti-Doping Agency, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the Union Cycliste Internationale do not restore the seven Tour de France wins by Lance Armstrong to cyclings history books, the United States now has just three Grand Tour champions: Greg LeMond, the 1986, 89 and 90 Tours de France; Andy Hampsten, the 1988 Giro dItalia; and, since last Sunday, Chris Horner, the 2013 Vuelta a Espaa.
Theyre three very different athletes.
LeMond was the natural. He was a world champion as a junior. He likely would have been an Olympic gold medalist as an amateur (but the States boycotted the Moscow Games). And he was twice the supreme world road champion as a professional (at ages 22 and 28). And if he hadnt been accidentally shot the year after he won his first Tour, he would likely have been a five-time Tour champ.
Hampsten was a pure climber. Besides his heroic Giro victory at age 26, he twice won the Tour of Switzerland (not a flat country!), he won the Tour de Romandie (another Swiss race), and his only Tour de France stage win came at LAlpe dHuez. And had the EPO era not started when he was at the top of his career, he would likely have won many more races.
But what about Horner? Hes both a natural and a climber, but most of all hes a different kind of bike racer. A one-off. Anyone who can win the Vuelta at an age more than five years older than any previous Grand Tour champion has to have something very different in his genes. But those who have closely followed his career have always known that the Americans got talent, and that such an epic victory was always a possibility.
To Europeans, Horners talent was hidden for many years and they couldnt really understand why he didnt start to prove himself as a rider capable of matching the worlds best stage racers until his late-30s. And when he did emerge at the upper levels of the sport, his talent was largely dismissed because those skeptics believed that a rider of that age should have already retired.
So this week theyve been asking: How can a man who will be 42 next month not only repel the strongest attacks of a Giro and Vuelta champion whos 14 years younger, but then leave Vincenzo Nibali behind on the steepest, gnarliest climb in pro cycling, the Alto de LAngliru? They point to his age, and they point to a near-20-year pro career that straddles the EPO era that ensnared so many of his contemporaries in a web of doping scandals. Now they ask: How can Horner be for real?
To fully understand Chris Horner, his longevity and his unprecedented Vuelta victory, its necessary to follow the chronology of his career. He was just getting into the sport in America when EPO use was believed rampant in Europe because there was no drug test for it. Horner turned pro in 1995 with NutraFig, a low-profile domestic team, and he scored his first significant victory, a stage of the Tour DuPont, in 1996. He scored seven other wins that season and his obvious potential earned him a pro contract with a top French team, La Franaise des Jeux.
That should have seen Horners career take off, but he wasnt happy in France. I still remember doing a phone interview with him that year after he and his partner moved into an apartment in the South of France. With their young baby crying in the background and his voice hoarse with a virus, Horner said he was homesick living in France.
In the three years he spent with Marc Madiots FDJ squad, Horner was often injured or ill, and he obtained only one interesting result: third in the 1997 GP Ouest France at Plouay. In that challenging French classic (now part of the UCI WorldTour), the then 25-year-old American made it into the winning four-man breakaway, but he was beaten to the line by two Italian ridersincluding Sergio Barbero, who later was one of the first cyclists to test positive for EPO after a first valid test for the blood-boosting drug was introduced in 2001.
Horner returned to the U.S. in 2000, when he was already 28, and joined the ambitious Mercury team, which was eager to establish itself as a force in Europe as well as in the U.S. Horner quickly showed himself as a leader that first season by winning the Tour de Langkawi in Malaysia and the Redlands Classic in California, both of which had hard climbing stages. But the Mercury team ran out of sponsors before the end of 2001, and Horner moved on to teams with purely domestic agendas.
In three seasons on three different teamsPrime Alliance, Saturn and WebcorHorner dominated American racing, winning 34 times. These included no less than 11 overall stage race titles and a solo victory in the extremely hilly San Francisco Grand Prix. One reason for Horners domination of the U.S. scene was that he wasnt homesick; he was happy. He wasnt rich or a celebrity, but he had a typical American middle-class life: three kids, nice home, pick-up truck and fast-food restaurants.
By the end of 2004, he was already 33, but he wanted more as a cyclist. He returned to Europe that fall with the promise of a one-year contract on the Spanish team, Saunier Duval. Most U.S. race followers saw it as a swansong for Horner, while European fans had never heard of this American veteran.
But insiders took notice when Horner made it into the elite 10-man group that sprinted for the rainbow jersey at the 2004 worlds in Verona, with the American taking eighth placeright behind Alejandro Valverde and Michael Boogerd, and right in front of Damiano Cunego and Frnk Schleck. Some considered it a lucky result, but two weeks later, Horner was up with the best once more in the years last monumental classic, the Giro di Lombardia, which Cunego won ahead of Boogerd, with Horner in 11th.
The 2005 season looked promising for Horner, and he did show his still-latent potential with Saunier Duval by winning a mountain stage of the Tour de Suisse (and dropping a certain Vincenzo Nibali on his way to that mountaintop won in Arosa) before placing fifth overall. But he wasnt happy living in a rented apartment in the north of Spain, and at years end gratefully accepted a contract offer from the Belgian team, Davitamon-Lotto, as a support rider for Tour de France contender Cadel Evans.
In his two season riding for Evans, Horner completed all four Grand Tours he started, including 15th place in the 2007 Tour de France (while helping Evans finish runner-up to Alberto Contador). And in the 2006 Tour de Romandie that Evans won, Horner won a stage and finished seventh overall. Despite being 36 at the end of those two seasons, Horner was considered such a great team worker that he was hired away to race for Contador and Levi Leipheimer at Astana in 2008.
Horner was the perfect teammate. He helped Leipheimer win the Tour of California (placing seventh himself) but didnt ride any of the Grand Tours because of injuries. By now, he was based back in the States, splitting his time between a house in San Diego and a rental property in Bend, Oregon, where he lived with his girlfriend, while his children stayed with their mother across town when Horner was racing in Europe or training in California.
The 2009 season was going to be a big one, he hoped, partly due to Armstrong making a comeback and expecting Horner to support him (and Leipheimer) at the Tour of California, Giro dItalia and Tour de France. In a quest to be a more effective climber, Horner changed his diet and focused on healthy foods and more disciplined mealtimes, which saw his weight drop from its previous 154 pounds to around 140 (very light for a racer whos 6-foot-1). But his year was wrecked by crashes: a severely bruised knee at the Tour of California, a fractured shoulder and ribs at the Tour of the Basque Country, and a broken leg at the Giro (when he was lying in 11th overall). He would miss the 2009 Tour and crashed out of the Vuelta in the opening days.
Horner has lost countless months of racing because of his many crashes, though he shrugs off all the pain and willpower it takes to come back to full health. Its worth noting some of the injuries he has sustained over the years: a three-time broken clavicle, more than 10 fractured ribs, a twice-broken left leg, a fractured wrist, numerous concussions, sever knee strains, and untold stitches and road rash.
It would have been easy for Horner to slip out of racing, but because he spent those less-stressful years racing domestically, didnt begin racing Grand Tours until he was 33 and then missed scores of races because of all those injuries, he was still felt fresh at age 37 when he lost all that weight. I think a lot of people retire a little bit before they need to, Horner said in 2009. Most people retire more because where theyre at mentally than where theyre at physically.
With that year a wash, and still riding as a support man in 2010 for Armstrong and Leipheimer, the lighter-weight Horner could at last show his true talent. He started the season by placing second overall at the Tour of Sardinia; he came back from an injury to win the WorldTours Tour of the Basque Country (including winning the hilly time trial); he did great in the Ardennes classics (seventh at the Flche Wallonne and eighth at Lige-Bastogne-Lige); and then in support of others he finished fourth at the Tour of California, ninth at the Critrium du Dauphin and ninth at the Tour de France.
With Armstrong finally retired, but still riding for Leipheimer at RadioShack in 2011, Horner began the year brilliantly. In two early-season WorldTour stage races he finished third at the Volta a Catalunya and second (to teammate Andreas Klden) in the Basque Country, and then stunned everyone (except himself) by riding away from Leipheimer to win the Sierra Road stage finish at the Tour of California and go on to win the overall title. That was as good as the year would get because Horner was involved in the huge stage 7 pileup at the Tour that put Brad Wiggins out of the race and ended Horners season with a concussion, cracked ribs, broken nose, and a lung embolism.
He returned to racing eight months later at Italys Tirreno-Adriatico, and performed outstandingly, holding the leaders jersey for three days and only losing the race to Nibali in the final time trial. Unfortunately, Horner sustained a sore tendon behind the knee, skipped the Catalunya race, showed hints of form at the Basque Country (finishing ninth), but then fought through back pain at the Tour of California (where he was eighth). The rest of his 2013 season was affected by that back injury, and though he finished 13th at the Tour with no races beforehand, he was below par for the later American stage races.
Starting this year at age 41, few people would have predicted a stellar season for Horner. But it again began well at Tirreno-Adriatico. On both the summit finishes, he finished in the elite group with Chris Froome, Nibali and Contador, and finished sixth overall. But he sustained a knee injury on the final hilly road stage in cold, wet weather and raced only one stage at Catalunya before pulling out. That was his last day of racing until August because the injury proved far more serious than expected, and Horner needed a radical surgery to correct a problem with his iliotibial band.
By winning the fifth stage of his comeback race, the Tour of Utah, atop the Snowbird ski resort, and placing second overall, Horner knew hed be ready for the Vuelta start two weeks later. Just how good, and consistently good, hed be in Spain was somewhat a surprise even for the confident Horner. But when one considers all the different factors in his life and careerthe late start, his time away from Europe when EPO and blood doping was rampant, his many missed months of racing because of injuries, his years of riding for others and not himself, and his unpretentious lifestyle and close-knit familyhis joining LeMond and Hampsten as one of Americas only Grand Tour winners is no surprise at all.
And now that Horner is preparing seriously for a shot at next weeks world road race championship in Tuscany, maybe the European media and fans will have to start shaking their heads in astonishment once more.
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