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An interview with Chris Horner, December 20, 2005
No slowing down now
After a slow start, Chris Horner rose to the next level in 2005. With his first win in Europe and a breakthrough debut at the Tour de France, the man with the sunny San Diego disposition showed that he's capable of big performances at the big moments. Cyclingnews' Les Clarke spoke to Davitamon-Lotto's latest American import about the Tour de France, racing 'cross and what's in store for 2006.
Last time Cyclingnews spoke with Chris Horner, he was preparing for his first Tour de France. Given another crack at the pro European peloton, Horner was determined to make the most of his chance on cycling's biggest stage and did just that, taking two top ten stage finishes and a solid 33rd overall. His 10th place finish on stage 13 was particularly notable as the American displayed strength, maturity and poise to almost take a stage win in his debut Tour.
Horner's racing season began with a solid third place in the USPRO Championship race in Philadelphia, coming back from a broken leg to be beaten by Chris Wherry and Danny Pate over 250 kilometres. Although confident going into the final three-man sprint, Horner also knew his usual kick in such situations was lacking and hence missed out on wearing the stars and stripes jersey for the next year. "The problem I had was that [the USPRO race] was my first weekend back racing after the broken leg, and was basically the start of my racing season. It was early June and I'd had two or three days of racing during the week - then it was the USPRO championship race, which is like 250 kilometres. I knew I was very strong there, but I was missing a really good acceleration that I normally have."
It was then time for the Tour de Suisse, Horner's real comeback to the Euro pro scene. He capitalised on an abundance of good form to take a win on stage six, fifth on the final stage and fifth overall. It was after the stage to Arosa that Horner secured his ride in the Tour de France, and broke the shackles of a very difficult stint with Francaise des Jeux in 1998, which to that day had left what appeared to be an indelible mark on the 33-year-old's mind. "Well, it was a big confidence booster just to win on a mountaintop finish," says Horner, "And it was a good field - granted, not the kind of field you get at the Tour de France, but I would say one of the best fields in anything outside of the Tour. So it was definitely a confidence booster, but more than anything something to keep the motivation up."
Staying tuned at the Tour
Horner knew what he was up against in 2005, and it didn't get off to the best start - but that didn't stop him finally making his mark in Europe. "The year started off with me having a broken leg and stuff, so at the Tour de Suisse I was only into my second week of racing - I didn't know where the form was at but I just knew I wanted to get to the Tour. It was [the Tour de Suisse stage win] a big confidence boost, really." But the best was yet to come in the bigest test of all.
Horner went into the Tour de France with the wind in his sails and form in his legs - and it showed. On stage 8 he finished ninth, and had a brilliant ride until being caught over the final kilometre on stage 13, eventually finishing 10th. Having been in a break for most of the stage, Horner found himself being attacked by Cofidis rider Sylvain Chavanel. "He [Chavanel] caught the group, attacked through us and I got back on him. He attacked me about three more times - you can see it on TV if you know what you're looking for - then it was like 'hey, if you attack me again you're gonna be doing it all on your own,' and so he says 'no, no, no, I'll work.' We worked together smoothly until one kilometre to go; I pulled in just before one kilometre to go, and he pulled in at one kilometre to go," says Horner.
It was then a game of cat and mouse, with each rider tryint to outplay the other for the win. It cost both riders a top three finish, but Horner doesn't regret his decision to give up a second placing on the stage. "A lot of people ask me whether I'd have done it any other way, and I say 'No way' - I did it correct and I did 100 per cent everything I could do to have won the stage, and unfortunately it didn't go that way. I knew I had to have him lead it out. I knew if he led it out, and didn't slow down, I was going to win - but I knew that if we slowed down, played cat and mouse, we'd get pulled in. He slowed down, and it cost us both a shot at the win. I personally couldn't have done anything different - not if I'm racing for the win; if I had wanted a guaranteed second place I could've done it."
Horner is philosophical about the result of stage 13, and realises it's just part of racing. "We played cat and mouse and then they caught us, so it was nobody's fault but our own. I wasn't racing for second, and evidently Chavanel wasn't either," he says. "There's absolutely no reason, at that point, with that much work, to waste a shot at winning a stage just so I could get second. You know, they don't even put you on the podium for second - at the Tour, the podium's one spot." Horner says he felt good by the third week of the Tour, although a stomach complaint held him back while trying to ride with Cadel Evans on stage 16. "The day that Cadel Evans went up the road and stayed off the front to gain some time and move into the top ten - that stage was perfect for me to win, but I couldn't eat that day and so going over the first mountain I had a problem because I didn't eat. If you're going over a 25 kilometre climb and you haven't eaten anything, by the time you get down to the bottom and you go across the valley before the next climb..."
It's all about the confidence
It was disappointing but encouraging for Horner, as he now knew he was capable of mixing it with the Tour's best. "I started the day with plenty of form, because I went across to the break, and they had about 13 or 15 guys with a solid 20 or 25 seconds - I got across there and I had plenty of form, but I just couldn't use it. That was a stage I really thought was the best opportunity to get a win." The confidence he gained from the experience is clear, and he's happy with his performance during July in France, despite not taking a stage win. "The Tour in general I was happy with - I had a lot of personal best time, and basically everything went well - I also got as much TV time as possible for my sponsors without actually winning."
And it's this TV time Horner cites as part of the reason Davitamon-Lotto picked him up for their squad in 2006, saying, "There's no doubt that the Davitamon job came from the Tour de Suisse and Tour de France." Horner had achieved a lot during 2005, and benefitted from a relaxed attitude going into the three weeks in France. "Honestly, I expected that if I could carry some of the form from the Tour de Suisse, have a bit of luck - get in the right break, that sort of thing - I could do alright," he says, before adding. "But I could tell at the start of the Tour that the form wasn't quite as good as it was going into the Tour de Suisse, and when we went up the first mountain stage I lost some time." Horner had to adapt to the change in form, and did so very well. "Then I realised to get top ten I'm going to have to get lucky, get in the right move, so that switched the plan and we went to plan B. Plan A was be top ten and plan B was to win a stage. So if I couldn't get in the top ten overall, I was going to push for a stage win and GC wasn't as important anymore."
With the end of the road season, most riders stay away from the bike and take a well-deserved break - Horner decided, however, to try a few cyclocross races, including the USGP of Cyclocross final weekend in southern California. Horner explains why he decided to enjoy an alternative off-season - well, part thereof. "In the winter of '03 I went down to watch a 'cross race in Portland and nationals there - one of my friends, Megan Elliot, was racing, and it just looked like a hell of a lot of fun," he says. "We went down there and everyone was having a good time; getting dirty and muddy and afterwards getting together to have a big party. I thought, 'Damn, this is a good way to spend the winter!'"
Riding 'cross and looking ahead to '06
Horner was able to arrange a ride at the USGP finals with Saunier Duval, and was satisfied with his performance. "It was hard keeping my bike up sometimes, but I ended up with 11th and 13th, so I'm pretty happy with that." And he wasn't getting an easy run, either, explaining that other riders made life a bit tougher for him. "The other problem I was having also is that guys would see it was me behind so they'd fight all the way - you know, we'd be fighting for 20th spot, and if it was someone else they would've let them pass a long time before...all of a sudden they find this motivation because they see the Saunier Duval colours," he says. He's definitely keen to launch a more serious campaign next winter, saying, "Next year I might take it a little more seriously - do some training and stuff - it'd be nice to get a sponsor to help with getting down to races, mechanicals, that sort of thing," before suggesting, "Maybe Davitamon could sponsor me for it, or Ridley with a bike or something...so I could just go there and have a really good time."
Having raced at the 'cross national championships, Horner is now focussed completely on next season and the task at hand as part of Davitamon-Lotto's squad for 2006; he's happy with his racing schedule for the year. "I have a programme already - it looks pretty good. There's enough racing to keep me occupied and busy, but not enough to really tire me out. All of the racing looks ideal for me, but I'm not too keen on the Qatar race," and adds, "But if they want me to do it, I will. I'm not going to knock it, but I'm not sure if I need to be doing a race in the middle of January in the Middle East."
It's then back to the States for the Tour of California, then Tirreno-Adriatico, Milan-San Remo, Pays Basque, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. According to Horner, "It's pretty lean after that [Liege-Bastogne-Liege] until the Dauphine and then the Tour de France - it looks pretty dialled." As well as looking forward to the racing, Horner is keen to be a part of Davitamon's squad, with Aussies and an American features of the roster. "I'm looking forward to it - I don't think it's going to be a difficult transition. First off, Fred Rodriguez is there, plus Cadel Evans, Robbie McEwen, Henk Vogels. I've been teammates with Henk Vogels before, and I've been teammates with Peter Van Petegem and [Leon] Van Bon as well, so the biggest thing is going to be just working out how things work. The soigneurs, mechanics, those sort of things. In terms of mixing with the riders...I think it'll be perfect. I'll be able to communicate with all the riders, which will be great."
At the end of an action-packed 2005, Horner looks back with fond memories of Saunier Duval, saying, "I had a great experience with those guys; any problems I did have would have stemmed from me not being able to speak Spanish better...but I don't have anything but positive stuff to say about Saunier Duval - they were fantastic." He believes he'll be working for both Cadel Evans and Robbie McEwen at Davitamon, and is relishing both roles already. "I hope Cadel Evans has some fantastic form, and I think the realistic goal would be riding for Cadel - helping him out, trying to get him a solid place on GC," he says.
Horner will probably live in the same area as Evans later in the season as both riders have similar training programmes. But his role in the team doesn't stop there. "Besides that, I can do the leadouts for Robbie [McEwen] too. I love doing that kind of work for the team - I think realistically my work would be firstly helping Robbie McEwen win stages, then looking after Cadel in the mountains." He's not ruling out a ride for himself either - form permitting, of course, which is fair, because in one year, Chris Horner's second calling in Europe has already exceeded the heights of his first stint on the continent, and it appears he won't be slowing down in a hurry.