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An interview with Chris Horner, July 5, 2008
Horner picks his favourites for Tour glory
A three-time veteran of the Tour de France, Chris Horner finished 15th overall last year while riding in support of team-mate Cadel Evans. Evans' eventual second place finish was in large part due to Horner's selfless riding in the mountains, with many observers speculating that the American could have cracked the top-10 if riding for himself. While his Astana squad will not be there this year, Horner allowed Bruce Hildenbrand to look into his crystal ball and see who could be at the front of the peloton come July.
The post-Lance Armstrong era combined with Jan Ullrich's unceremonious demise and Ivan Basso's doping suspension left a gaping hole in what for years was something of a closed shop in cycling. Add all that to the non-selection of Horner's Astana team and its defending champion Alberto Contador, and you have a Tour which, at least on paper, looks like the most open in almost 10 years.
"When Lance was racing he was on one page, then down at the bottom of that page, with a big gap, you had Ullrich and Basso and occasionally some guy might land on that page but not by much, somebody like [Joseba] Beloki," recalls Horner of the Armstrong years. "Then you flip over to the next page and that is where you see all these other guys. On the second page was a huge list of riders that could possibly win the Tour, something like 10 to 15 guys. Now, everyone on that first page is retired and/or gone so the second page makes the Tour look pretty exciting."
Despite the long list of contenders, Horner still has a few favourites of his own. "Cadel has to be up there with a big target on him and then [Denis] Menchov I like a lot for the overall," he says. "A few of the CSC boys might come through, Sastre will be good, that's for certain and maybe one of the two Schleck brothers. I always like [Thomas] Dekker at Rabobank, too [Dekker was not selected by his Rabobank team, but at the time of interview this was not yet known- ed]. He hasn't shown it at Grand Tours, but he has looked really good at some of the smaller stage races. He might be one of my more outside favourites."
Why does Horner feel that Menchov is such a threat, given his failure to finish last year? "Looking at him from the Vuelta last year and even how good he was in the Tour. He was having a really good Tour de France. I know he dropped out later, but he was on the front driving it for Rasmussen. He was really, really strong. I think he dropped out because he said 'what am I doing here?' after Rasmussen left. He has already won the Vuelta so it is obvious that he has all the qualities to win a three-week stage race."
Besides Contador, Astana's absence means the Tour is also missing two more serious contenders in Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Klöden. So does that place Evans, as last year's runner-up, in something of a no-win situation? "Last year won't be a fluke for him because I am sure he will have a good ride for sure," Horner responds. "Last year he was second, but the year before he was fourth or fifth depending on how you want to look at it. The year before that he was eighth.
"His placing last year won't be viewed as a fluke. The difference now is that he needs to win, now that Astana won't be there, to make it a 100 percent successful Tour. If he gets second again it won't be a big showing. That's just the way people look at it. If you take away Levi and you take away Contador and Klöden, yeah, he should win. But the other thing is that he won't have the full on mountain squad for him so if he loses he may end up blaming his team for not being strong enough. And in all honesty if he loses that's probably going to be the reason."
Obviously a rider must climb well and time trial strongly to have a chance at the Tour, but what does Horner see as the secret for Evans to win? "He needs to race incredibly smart. If the other teams race smart it makes it a very wide open Tour. The one major problem you can have at the Tour sometimes is that second place means a whole lot to people and third place means a whole lot all the way down to top-10.
"It is possible you could have a rider sitting sixth on GC just riding to protect his spot on GC. If everybody puts everything on the line to win the Tour it could be really spectacular, but if the guy in fourth place is going to ride to defend fourth then Cadel doesn't necessarily need to have that good of a team."
Horner offers an example of defensive riding from the 2003 Tour. "You can go back and look at the stage when Beloki crashed and broke his leg. He was the first one around that corner. What I am getting at is why was he on the front to begin with? Lance should have lost the jersey that day and Vino should have been wearing the leader's jersey at the end of that stage. Instead, Beloki was riding like a madman to defend second place so that Vino could not jump over him."
Team CSC has always been a factor at the Tour and Horner sees that trend continuing this year. "CSC has a fantastic lineup. If the young Andy Schleck kid comes in with some top form and Fränk Schleck comes in with top form... but the team has to race smart, though. They just can't be throwing bullets in the air. They have to pick the right stage to try to use all their bullets to win the Tour. In order to do that you have to have as many guys as you can on top-10 on GC, or close to it, so that when they attack and go up the road they can be a threat to the race lead.
"If Sastre is sitting second on GC and he has Andy or Frank in the top-10 or near the top-10, and they go with a break, then they [CSC] won't have to chase at all. The directors on the teams need to be patient and use their bullets in the right place."
Gunning for green
Horner feels that the fight for the green sprinter's jersey will be dominated by his ex-teammate Robbie McEwen, despite the Aussie pocket rocket's quiet start to the 2008 season. "I wouldn't worry about that yet," says Horner. "If he doesn't win something at the Giro or something right before the Tour then I might worry.
"Robbie is going to be coming into the Tour and racing the Tour just like Lance did. He doesn't really care what has happened before. If he can find some wins that's great but that is not really that important to him. He makes his career and he makes his salary off of winning a stage in the Tour."
For Horner, the key to winning the green jersey is to get over the mountains in one piece. "It is the same thing they always do. Hang onto the grupetto for dear life. Those poor boys. I don't care how many wins they have, they have to work through a lot of pain and suffering to get through the Tour. We all joke about it when they win that they didn't even have to touch the front once in order to win, but they ride the front the whole time in the mountain stages because everyone in the grupetto has to ride."
The mountain men
The mountains jersey is supposed to signify the best climber in the Tour, but the favourites often leave the mountain points to lesser riders. "It absolutely never occurred in my mind to go for something like that because I was always 100 percent working for Cadel," explains Horner. "And it never occurred to Cadel to get points for that because it might affect his GC one way or another."
So who will be contending for the polka dot jersey? "Anybody who can't ride top-10 in the Tour and anybody who's not there to ride for their guy who is top-10 in the Tour. Anyone who can ride top-10 in the Tour is going to have one or two guys that, if they are really doing their job well, they shouldn't be doing anything except being close to their guy at the most crucial time in the race. If they are going up the road every day trying to get mountain points that's not really helping their guy out.
"You could look at this as one of the smaller teams or a smaller team in terms of GC that has a good climber on it. For example, Quick Step has [Juan Manuel] Garate as a GC guy but he is not going to win the Tour, but he's a really good climber so he could definitely follow anybody else in the mountains and go for the mountains jersey. Maybe some of the French guys might decide to go for something like that. Of course then you have the Spaniards.
"It is going to be a team that has no GC guy and no expectations for GC so they can go away on one stage and try to win a stage and take some mountain points. It would be really rare to see a GC guy sitting top-five overall wearing the polka dot jersey."
A Tour without 'the best stage racing team in the world'
What will be the impact of not having Horner and his Astana teammates at the Tour? "You can't even argue that Astana is not the best stage racing team in the world and you just took them out," contends Horner. "In some ways it can make it even better racing but in other ways it could be worse because no matter who wins, there is no Contador, Klöden and Levi and those are the best stage racers in the world.
"You have America's best stage race rider, Spain's best stage race rider and Germany's best stage race rider not going to the Tour. No matter who wins the Tour, they are going to have to answer the question 'what if?'. They are going to have to wait 10-20 years before they can tell someone who knows cycling that they won the Tour and not get the comment that Astana wasn't there."
With the disbanding of the Discovery Channel team at the end of 2007, Garmin-Chipotle has become America's team in Europe this season. "Maybe they could shoot for stage wins somewhere," guesses Horner. "They don't have a guy for GC. They don't have a real dominant climber. They are going to have to fight to get into breakaways and go for stage wins. [David] Millar has shown that he can still win. Certainly they will give Millar every opportunity to win as well."