Chris Horner profile (flashback from 2010)
Back in May 2010, when Chris Horner had embarked on his third season in the colours of a team managed by Johan Bruyneel (RadioShack), Mark Johnson wrote a profile of a rider who was considered “old” for the pro peloton. At 38, he was something of an anomaly: strong on the climbs and loyal to his team, but it was his youthful enthusiasm that was most surprising. In September 2013, few weeks shy of his 42nd birthday, he has become the third American to win a Grand Tour. The champion of the 2013 Vuelta a España joins Greg LeMond and Andy Hampsten as winners of three-week races… and his attitude remains spritely and not indicative of his age.
Coverage of the 68th Vuelta will feature in RIDE #62 (due out in December) but, in the meantime, here is a flashback to RIDE #48… a Chris Horner profile about “doing it his way“.
Doing it his way: “It makes sense…”
This veteran of the professional scene has more enthusiasm than a lot of juniors. Chris Horner has a refreshing approach to racing and, at 38, he recognises he need not adhere to some traditions of the sport.
– By Mark Johnson
Even though Chris Horner is 38, his friend and team-mate Levi Leipheimer says “he has the enthusiasm of a 23-year-old”. Sit down with Horner and it doesn’t take long to feel the flames of that bike-racing fire. Just ask about time triallists and sprinters. Horner wastes no time pointing out that they are an affront to his primal need to ride so hard, so fast and so long that pretenders crumble like dried flowers in his wake.
During our interview Horner leans into the overhead light beaming down on the kitchen table of his home in San Diego and allows sprinters this concession: “Eh, okay – you won the sprint.” His lampooning tone seems to hold a bunch-sprint win up for consideration like an offending bit of scrap he extracted from a clogged sink. “So your nose touched the wind for maybe 250 metres. It’s impressive – but there’s still nothing quite like riding a guy off your wheel! You ride a guy off your wheel,” Horner enthuses, face alight with trademark smile, “and that dude is suffering the whole time.”
As for the race against the clock, “It’s meaningless to me. Is it nice to win a TT? Yeah, okay, I’ll take it. But for the most part it’s the most unenjoyable win you’ll ever have in your career. You suffer the whole time and you get done and you don’t even know if you won! So what’s the point? I mean, you didn’t even get to see where you crushed somebody.
“The whole part I like about bike racing,” Horner continues with a spark more befitting of a 23-year-old neo-pro just feeling his racing oats than a 15-year professional veteran, “is you like watching the guy ride off of the back of your wheel and you like beating the guy across the line. You don’t get either of that with the time trial.”
At a time when pro cyclists are more likely to twitter sanitised pap than speak their mind, Horner’s words are a refreshing brook of unguarded opinion. Heading into 2010 in support of both Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong at the new RadioShack squad, the nail-tough, 180cm, 66 kilo pro is more than happy to exceed his 140 character limit when expressing his passion for the sport that defines him.
Horner is down to earth all the way to the faded music store T-shirt adorned with a flying saucer and a Boo-Boo Records logo that hangs from his frame like a worn sheet across a lean keg of irrepressible energy. This approachability, along with his disarmingly boyish grin, make Horner one of the most liked riders in the pro peloton. The fact that he earned a spot in the pantheon of the world’s best climbers by reliably putting down the hammer in support of chiefs like Cadel Evans, Armstrong, and Leipheimer also earns him no small amount of respect.
“He’s true to himself and he always has been,” says Christian Vande Velde, a fellow American who placed fourth at the 2008 Tour de France. Vande Velde first raced with Horner in 1996, when they lived for weeks together in a German military barracks while doing pro-am races. “He’s just a good ol’ hard-nosed blue collar working guy. If he wants to go have McDonald’s, he goes and has McDonald’s. He’s a great guy.” American George Hincapie concurs, pointing out that Horner made his way in Europe through sheer force of will: “It’s very impressive that he was able to make that jump basically on his own.”
Nicknamed ‘The Redneck’ by Armstrong for his fondness for big American trucks and motocross bikes, Horner says being true to himself is essential to his success as a pro. After a 2009 season plagued by crashes and an Astana soap opera that saw his pay cheques arrive late and his Tour de France spot yanked due to team politics, Horner signed on through 2012 with RadioShack. One reason he did so is because the team gives him room to be Chris Horner, American.
Unlike the Australians and Americans padding full-time nests in Girona and Monaco, Horner has zero interest in making a life for himself in Europe. He has two homes and three children in the western United States, and when he is not racing, that is where he wants to be. His converted garage apartment in Spain is little more than a storage unit.
Horner came to the realisation that he performs best when his home is in the States during the first of his three years as a Euro pro with Française des Jeux in 1996. Struggling with language barriers and isolation, Horner discovered that long stints in Europe didn’t jive with a guy who was raised on the sunny beaches of Southern California. “It was a mistake in the younger days to try to live over there and to try to adapt – to try to become European, because I’m not,” he recalls. “I don’t have that ability in me.”
He cites Paris-Nice as an example of a schedule that has him commuting between Europe and the US west coast some six times each season. “Typically, I fly from the States and I arrive the day before Paris-Nice. And if I have a three-week window after Paris-Nice I would fly back to the States. I’d rather spend my rest day on the plane all day and be back home training in the States. It just makes sense.”
Back in the US, along with his house in San Diego – where he lives with his girlfriend, retired Saturn pro rider Megan Elliot – he spends time at a home in Bend, Oregon. This is a high-altitude, bike-friendly town where his children, aged 12, 10 and seven, also live with their mum, an ex-girlfriend.
With a contract that has him racing full gas until he’s 40, Horner knows where he needs to live to race at the top level and, once again, he’s not afraid to tell it like he sees it. “When I say know your limitations,” Horner explains, “it’s know your limitations everywhere when it comes to the bike. Not just how to train right, not how to eat right, not how to rest right. If you are not happy, it ain’t gonna work.”
Today Horner’s ability to stick to his limits is delivering the same sort of results that put him on the Europeans’ radar when he won a stage of the 1996 Tour DuPont. The northern hemisphere winter is a rest period for Horner, which means in December and January he is an approachable fixture on several weekly San Diego group rides. If it weren’t for the fact that he’s hardly breathing when the local heroes are blowing the lids off their power meters, on these training outings you’d be forgiven for assuming Horner is just another friendly bloke in a store-bought ProTour kit. He fits San Diego’s relaxed surfer vibe, the same beach-lined city where he grew up working in a bike shop and beat Lance Armstrong in a race in 1991.
“I can’t complain,” Horner says contentedly of his situation. “I have houses in two of the best towns in the world.”
For a laid-back guy, Horner gets considerable satisfaction out of violently turning the screws on competitors. Asked what makes these thrashings so enjoyable, Horner responds quickly: “Because you are a male. It’s something you are born with. It’s no different than in the old days when you had gladiators and stuff and you went to battle in other ways. Nothing has changed in the world. It’s just that how you do it has changed. It’s all about survival and the fittest guy trying to dominate.”
While on the topic of dominance, in the past Horner was not shy about criticising Lance Armstrong and his Tailwind Sports management company. The Texan is a man with a long memory for slights, but he also knows Horner is a key asset and actively recruited him for RadioShack. “Oh yeah,” Horner recalls. “I spoke with Lance up in Aspen before it was RadioShack. We get along really good. The guy’s fun to ride for and he certainly keeps things lively. You are always motivated when Lance is around.” Horner is clearly pleased to be staying with ‘The Boss’. “I enjoy the atmosphere that surrounds Lance. It’s unbelievable. And I enjoy racing with Levi. We room together. We talk on the bike, we talk off the bike. We get along great.”
Horner got burned in 2009 when Alberto Contador reportedly removed him from the Tour squad to make room for his right-hand man Sergio Paulinho. Asked about his chances of racing the 2010 Tour, Horner says they are “good, I hope!” Signing with a Tour shoe-in team run by strong supporters Johan Bruyneel and Armstrong (and without Contador – but, ironically, with Paulinho) is a positive step towards Horner lining up for his fourth Grand Boucle.
Horner also points out that the transition from Astana to RadioShack is not much of a change when it comes to team-mates. “Except for a couple of riders, you’ve got to remember that all the guys I raced with at Astana are here, except for Contador. Bruyneel offered me a great contract and he gave me a week to think about it.
“At the time,” Horner says, “I didn’t even really know who was in control at Astana.” When a week passed without anyone from Astana getting back to Horner, he signed his agreement with RadioShack. “With Johan and Lance, I’m comfortable.”
Comfort was not something Horner had at Astana, for it was never clear when he would be paid. “It was all year, every month. If we went to the date of what your contract says, I don’t know if I got paid on time ever during those two whole years.” For a family man, a dodgy employer is especially troubling. He expects that this year will be stable, allowing him to focus on his bike rather than the fiscal dramas that roiled Astana.
Last year was trying for Horner because he suffered four debilitating crashes. He shakes his head in disbelief and says he never crashed as frequently and seriously as he did in 2009. “Unbelievable luck. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
After hurting his knee at February’s Tour of California, Horner went down at the Vuelta al País Vasco and slid under a guardrail, breaking his rib and collarbone. A month later he started the Giro with form he describes as “the best in my life”, only to crash on a stage 10 descent. Horner brushed himself off and pushed on for another 160km to finish the stage in 25th. Evening X-rays revealed that he did so with a fractured leg. Vande Velde agrees with Horner’s fitness assessment, pointing out that, had the broken leg not forced Horner out of the Giro, he could have easily placed top 10 on GC.
Adding insult to a season of injury, at the Vuelta a España, Horner smashed face-first into a curb: twice fractured hand, broken pelvis, and a hole in his lip. Horner exasperatedly recollects that with all four incidents “there was not one crash where I crashed myself.” In every instance he was up with the first 20 guys, but others stumbled ahead of him.
Racing is Horner’s life force; going fast and beating others is the personal Nile from which his other concerns – kids, travel, cars, houses, physiotherapists, paychecks, coaching – are tributaries. Fifty-year-old Thurlow Rogers saw this essence when he raced with Horner on US domestic teams NutraFig and Mercury for five years in the 1990s and early 2000s. Today Rogers, who was on the 1984 US Olympic team and won the world Masters time trial championship in 2006, says when they were team-mates, Horner stood out because he had “tons of drive”. Current team-mate Leipheimer underscores what Rogers saw 10 years ago: “Chris is excited to be at the races and he works hard at his job.” This intense will to succeed comes through when Horner looks ahead to 2010.
“I can’t wait until we start racing.” His key 2010 races are the Ardennes Classics, País Vasco and late-season monuments like Lombardia. Essentially, the hardest events on the calendar. And, of course, the Tour… should he be selected.
Horner admits that racing gets him jazzed, not pre-season team-building exercises. “Bike racing is what brings the team together. You ask anyone on my team, I get keyed up for the bike racing more than anything. That’s why I go over to Europe. Once there’s bike races, dude, I’m ready to go!”
Horner’s cycling drive even defines his homemaking duties. “My motto is if you are not on the bike, you are getting something done; making sure that when that first training day comes the garage is already clean, house is tidy, cars are taken care of, any of kids’ needs have been dealt with and taken care of. That way, once racing starts in earnest, you are just riding your bike without any distractions – just rest and recovery.”
Among his off-season tasks, this winter Horner created a website and started working with his first coaching customer. He’s a strong believer in spending time on the road with his clients. “In order to do coaching really good,” he says, “you’ve got to ride with people.” Without spending time on the bike alongside a coaching customer, Horner maintains that “you’re almost kind of ripping the rider off”.
To deliver a hands-on coaching service, “I prefer to keep it in the San Diego and Bend area for now just because I know I’m going to be spending enough time at these two homes where I can take these guys out and train with them.”
Along with his nascent coaching service, in 2010 Horner will continue writing a column about his racing exploits for an Oregon newspaper (oregonlive.com/horner) and serving as a cycling commentator for an Oregon television station.
Asked for a pundit’s appraisal of Cadel Evans’ Tour de France chances if his new BMC team is invited, Horner gives a long pause. He supported the Australian’s 2006 and 2007 Tour efforts at Lotto, and has a thick dossier of experience from which to formulate an answer. “Because of his whole situation with his team I think it will take luck. He’s going to be one of the best guys, but he won’t be the best.”
While Evans’ 2010 squad boasts top-shelf riders like George Hincapie, Horner feels it lacks the depth to protect Evans on the big cols. Comparing BMC to Lotto, “He’s in the same scenario. Nothing has changed for him. He got rid of the headaches and went to a smoother team, but not a stronger team.”
Horner, meanwhile, will spend the next two years on a team that is smoother and perhaps stronger than both Astana and Lotto. How does he feel about signing a two-year contract at an age when most pros are long retired? It’s simple: he’s had a long run because doping is less prevalent today. The influence between now and a decade ago “is like night and day”.
Pointing to the front door that piss-bottle-toting drug testers are free to enter 365 days a year from six to seven each morning, Horner enthusiastically divulges that the UCI and drug testing agencies USADA and WADA have dramatically cleaned up the sport. That said, he is torn between the good these institutions bring to his sport and the privacy violations pros endure. “I want to be completely clear,” he says, pausing for emphasis. “I completely support what WADA and USADA and the UCI do. But I think it’s completely against the constitution and should be completely outlawed. But, that being said, I support it 100 per cent because it’s necessary.”
Two versions of the be-true-to-thyself Chris Horner seem to wrestle over competing values. While Horner the American feels his constitutional right to privacy is paramount, Horner the pro cyclist holds that without this civil rights compromise, he would not have such an enduring career. “I’m making more money than I ever have before and I’m racing longer. You can race without being doped up. And if you can ride good, you get paid better. You don’t need the drugs to ride at the top level.”
Balancing career interests with human freedoms is sticky, but Horner rolls with it and sides with what’s best for bike racing; sacrifice a bit of human rights to go faster, harder and longer on the bike. He is adamant that because of WADA and USADA, “It’s a fabulous time to be a bike racer. It’s a more complicated time, but if your end result is you want to be the best athlete you can, USADA is a fantastic organisation.”
As for his plans beyond 2012, Horner sparkles: “I’m going to stay forever, man! As long as I can. I don’t think it will be a mental thing that drives me out of the sport. It will be a physical thing. At this point in time the results just keep getting better and better and it keeps getting easier over there.” Thurlow Rogers had best watch out, because Horner adds that when he retires he will race Masters. “I’m going to keep racing for as long as I can. I will race my bike, I’m sure, forever.”
– Mark Johnson
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