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Exclusive Interview: Chris Horner on his career, Armstrong and pro cycling

Daniel Benson

It's early evening in Javea, Spain and by the side of the Radioshack team bus, Chris Horner nestles into a handful of chocolate biscuits and two cans of Coca Cola. While his teammates are in their rooms surfing the internet and lounging around, "Redneck" -as he's affectionately known, is chatting with the team's mechanics. Wrapped in the comfort of the team's December training camp, the veteran American in his element. He loves bike racing, he lives for cycling and at the age of 41 he shows no sign of slowing down.

It's a somewhat sobering thought but Horner is now the US's most successful rider of the last 20 years. With USADA's case against Armstrong having gutted the annals of America's recent cycling past, Horner, with his 60-odd wins and no sanction to his name, stands as the next best thing since Greg LeMond. Statistically speaking at any rate.

With a pro career that stretches back to the mid 90s and a tapestry of teams from Saturn, FDJ, Mercury, Webcor, Saunier Duval, Lotto, Astana and RadioShack, Horner has witnessed the sport's highs and lows from the front passenger seat. And none of that seems to have dented his enthusiasm.

As he tucks into biscuit after biscuit, he clearly has the appetite for more than just snacks.

"I don't have any plans on stopping so we'll just have to see how the season goes," he says later in the evening, a broad childish grin permeating from under his team cap.

"It's been a fun career. I've no plans of retiring at the end of the year. I plan on going until I have an injury that keeps me from going on or age catches up with me. I know it will. But I'll continue to go on for as many years as I can. I love the sport, I love doing it. The only part I hate is the traveling on flights to Europe."

"The sport itself is fantastic," he adds with an almost contagious smile.

"The feeling you have when you finally reach your peak after so much dedication and sacrifice... and to get a win, and I'm old enough now to even enjoy not so much winning but just having good form, is incredible."

Horner is somewhat of an enigma, a relic to some extent. For years, he was seen as a useful super domestique, plucky in spirit, and capable of the odd flash of brilliance, but more often than not a dependable climber designated to assist others. That assessment shifted when he became a top 10 rider in the Tour de France in 2010 and a year later won the Tour of California. His palmares hit a plateau somewhat in the last two seasons, but he still managed 13th in last year's Tour de France and second in a demanding Tirreno-Adriatico behind Vincenzo Nibali. Sixth at the Tour of California after a poor time trial was a disappointment, however he was arguably the strongest rider in the race.

The devil wears USADA

While Horner's trajectory of career results has improved, so has the microscopic focus on cycling's dirty past.

USADA's Reasoned Decision stripped away not just a chronicle of results but a vaunted footing under a generation of US riders. Vande Velde, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, Danielson and others were granted leniency and six-month bans in the off-season, for testifying against Armstrong and admitting to their own doping, while Michael Barry and George Hincapie were even allowed to serve out their careers before admitting to their systematic doping.

Horner's name was not mentioned in USADA's 1000-page report. He remains almost an exception: a veteran US rider relatively untouched by doping scandal. Guilt by association these days seems flimsy.

"I've been around the sport for a long time. The sport deserves a lot more than what it was getting," Horner says when discussing the last few months reportage.

"It's complicated, it's difficult but at a certain point you just don't turn on your phone or go on Cyclingnews or Velonews or anything like that. It's easier to go for a hike and I think most professionals saw it the same way."

He's certainly not alone. While some riders have taken to social media and Twitter and voiced approval of USADA's actions - albeit some appear to pander to public opinion rather than provide honest appraisal - there are riders, clean riders, who think that the continued reportage of doping has harmed the sport.

"It sounds like you don't think the report should have come out?" Horner is asked.

"No I didn't say that," he replies. The press has to put out what's news, and it's certainly news. But it doesn't mean I have to read it. I certainly got my fill of it and saw what came out of it directly and right away."

"It will be interesting to see how the fans will continue to watch the racing, everything. This affects the whole world of cycling, which is my world."

Armstrong's legacy

But when the subject of Armstrong comes up, Horner continues the supportive line that he has walked for the last two or three years.

It wasn't always this way though. Before Armstrong signed with Astana in 2009, he and Horner appeared at different spectrums. Horner would occasionally dish out veiled comments about the 'preparation' of the Tour contenders during the Armstrong era, and when the two began racing with each other in Astana colours, it looked as though a confrontation would develop.

In fact the opposite happened. The two appeared to warm to each other and Horner has since changed his public declarations.

"Did he test positive?" he replies when asked about Armstrong's case with USADA.

Nowadays such a response leaves most people cringing. Armstrong did test positive for a steroid in 1999 and was given a post-dated exemption form from the UCI. But Horner continues.

"Look, I'm certainly old enough and wise enough to understand the magnitude of the situation, but in the end he's still getting prosecuted with no positive test. A lot of guys say they saw him and a lot say he did this and he did that, but I look at it and say: 'USADA, WADA, UCI, they're saying that the tests are worthless.' So do you take all the tests, 500, 1000, I don't know the number I've done in my own career and you basically say, that you took them for no reason?"

It's a neat side step from the issue, but Marion Jones also never tested positive and those fighting for clean sport would argue that any measure taken by anti-doping authorities – be it legal and fair - was a benefit for sport.

"Certainly in my younger years it was part [of conversations]... and it was so much on your mind what one rider was doing and was winning races. There were a lot of times when you're younger and it used up so much time and energy and so much negative energy. You're going out there training and you're asking yourself why should I train? But in the end at some point in time, you've just got to stop asking yourself how someone else is coming to a bike race and just start worrying about yourself. If a rider's passed the test he's won the race."

"And again I understand and I'm clear on how much information is out there on what Lance is said to have done but I'm also clear on the fact that he's passed all of his tests. Are you supposed to go back and erase those memories? I remember the 2005 Tour de France and Lance was the best guy there and he past all the tests and won the Tour. I'm not going to debate if he won, he was there, he won and passed the tests."

So if a cheat passes all tests, that's good enough? What about retrospective testing, testimony and accountability?

"It's the UCI's job, it's WADA's job, it's USADA's job to come up with a test so riders can't cheat. If they find the guys who cheated then those guys have to go, it's that simple," Horner said.

"Maybe USADA have found the guys who have cheated but.... for me, you won the race (if) you passed the test. Lance won seven Tours de France and that's what I saw and the moments I enjoyed and that the way it's going to stay."

It's clear that Horner doesn't feel cheated by riders in his generation who have broken the rules and not been caught and when asked if Armstrong has been victimized, he puts forward his case.

"There's no doubt about it. He's certainly been victimized because he's the most important cyclist in the world today. Certainly I believe they looked at him and evidently they weren't interested in the other 15 or 20 riders who were interviewed because those guys are retired or kept some of their results so they were going after Lance and victimizing Lance."

Six-month suspensions for riders who cooperated with USADA highlight two points: Firstly, if you cooperate with an investigation, a level of leniency is possible. However, riders were also allowed to continue racing after their suspensions were at the very least discussed. During the Tour de France, news broke that several riders had cooperated and would receive six-month bans. Cue headlines, pandemonium at team buses and the frantic issuing of press releases.

But the riders continued to race and made a series of "no comments" to the press. A number of them were omitted from the Olympic team yet carried on racing and being successful at the Tour of Colorado and the Tour of Utah. USADA and the riders' teams allowed them to jump on podiums, take wins and wave to crowds while the suspensions sat in an office in-tray.

Horner points out the high level of hypocrisy, but is coy on delivering names.

Within days of confessing to doping, Michael Barry was afforded a column in a US publication where he laid out how the sport could change for the better. Barry, it must not be forgotten, forged a career as a doper for a number of years and even helped cultivate an image for himself as an ethically clean rider.

"I certainly feel that they've targeted one rider and they've never tested positive and other riders that they know about are getting off lighter. They've looked at just Lance. They targeted one guy and that's all they care about and that's crazy because the sport should have been looked at as a whole," he says.

"I don't see what USADA has done as a positive thing, and the sport has been damaged by USADA. And I believe it could have been handled sooner and years ago."

But what if Armstrong announced tomorrow morning that he'd doped, that it was all true and he was banged to rights?

Horner sighs and looks into the distance.

"That's what it would take to change my mind," he says.

"Either that or a bunch of positive tests. That's what it would take, Lance saying I did it. Clearly Lance won seven Tours. I just want to keep it as simple as I can, otherwise you end up looking up at the stars and you question everything out there. The guy won the race, and I liked watching those wins, the dominance, the seriousness of Lance's training, and his better recovery."

Surely it can't be that simple, that black and white?

Horner is asked, "What have you seen in terms of doping?"

"Nothing that I'm going to have an interview with. Certainly the peloton's speed has changed. You see [Operacion] Puerto problems in Italy and certainly there's a problem with sports and I don't want to say problems with cycling because you turn on television and the news lady has had botox and you wonder if she got the job over a woman with a few wrinkles. So you see it's not just sport, it's the world in general trying to find some kind of edge. It gets way too complicated if you look at the anchor lady, the model, the sportsman who wanted to win in cycling, football, basketball. It's a complicated issue but it becomes a lot simpler if USADA, WADA come up with better drug testing. Then it's not so complicated."

"I love at home testing, and out of comp testing. I think that's helped the sport immensely. I love what USADA and WADA have done with the blood passport. The UCI took a lot of heat but they've been a big part of the blood passport but if you want to make things more simple just come out with better tests. It really becomes that better and then a young 15-year-old doesn't have to worry about turning pro or not."

Horner loves racing. He talks enthusiastically about the young American riders he now races with, the experience of racing the Olympics as America's elder statesmen and his desire to keep pedaling into the future.

Yet he's a contradiction, in his statements as much as his career honours. He's for more testing but questions USADA's intent when pursuing Armstrong. He feels that there's a high level of hypocrisy but some levels of the doping discussion are off limits. It's a frustration for the interviewer, the reader and perhaps Horner, too.

pot belge More than 1 year ago
How about competing "clean" at forty one. Horner = Joke.
TShame More than 1 year ago
I tend to lean towards not reading interviews with dopers anymore. Turn in your trophies and prize money. Maybe take yourself out of racing for two years, the deserved punishment. Then, name your suppliers to the police. Then, I'll listen to how sorry you are and how you plan to race clean forever more.
nasley More than 1 year ago
I don't get all this negative and suggestive comments around Redneck from this article. Let us the readers to infer.
Pat Mattson More than 1 year ago
He see's this like most others that are not a "Top Commenter" here in these posts. I am 48, I ride for my fitness and the solitude it affords me. Years ago I raced at the local level in MTB and Road, I had a blast, some good results, and made good friends. It is a shame that all the news is "Lance this and Lance that". It was and still is about the state of the Peleton in the 1980's through 2000. We will learn from the mistakes of the past, however we cannot continue to drag it to the present if we are to go forward. It will only drag it down. There is a saying, "when do we stop paying for the mistakes of our grandfathers?" it is appropriate now.
Pat Mattson More than 1 year ago
Also, Mr Horner needs to afforded his opinion , you may not find it to your liking. However it his, just as you have one.
BigEddie More than 1 year ago
All opinions are not equal. I afford him equal opportunity to voice his opinion. But his opinion itself is so moronic it's laughable.
Mr.DNA More than 1 year ago
If not still riding, a lot of the people doping in the '90s and '00s are still active in DS or management roles. It's not a thing of the distant past as you make it out to be. You can't stop paying for the mistakes of the "grandfathers" when gramps is the one in charge.
70kmph More than 1 year ago
From Levi affidavit "In 2008 Rider-15 told me that he was using EPO during his recovery from an injury in 2005 before the Tour of Switzerland"
Sean Hanna More than 1 year ago
I think you're very much mistaken if you think doping would just go away if we just give it a polite nod of recognition as something that happened in the past, then carry on as normal. It's always been 'in the past' and anyone saying otherwise is 'dragging down the sport'. The past which always used to be 1990 to 1998, became 2001 and 2002, then 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and then.. well you get the picture, and riders' careers are longer than a year as Mr. Horner shows us. The sad thing about this article is Horner's language. Maybe it's a coincidence that he uses the same key phrases that you'll find with riders that have at least been complicit with doping: 'never tested positive', slightly off tangent swipes out at the testers or journalists, and wanting to talk about the hard work and/or the future. Which of these ever tested positive for EPO? Pantani, Ulrich, Landis, Hamilton, Riis, Vaughters, Basso, Millar, Vinokourov, Leipheimer, Zabriskie, Hincappie, (let's just say the Postal confessors) the last 6 rode this season and three are team managers next season. Not in the past. Bizzarrely, I don't think the recent Lance scandal harms grass roots cycling at all. It's headline news, so people are becoming aware of this minority sport, and when the dirt is all out in the open and can be addressed and dealt with properly and openly, cycling has the chance to be the shining example to the sporting world, when all the other sports' skeletons start falling out of their cupboards.
Carboncrank More than 1 year ago
"cycling has the chance to be the shining example to the sporting world" Now THAT is funny. Keep in mind that if you're looking for pure as driven snow, even driven show isn't as pure as it used to be. You are denying the history of cycling and all kinds of competition, sporting or not, by denying human nature is what it is. Would you say you are a totally moral and your own ethics are pure? Human beings are corrupt by nature. If that were not so, there would be no need for laws. This discussion is the same as the ones on here a year ago, 2, 3, 4 and on years ago. I haven't been here in about a year. I see it's still infested with the sanctimonious in their self congratulating circle jerk. I'm 63. I'm going to go ride the bike try and stay away from this BS.
Matt Campbell More than 1 year ago
I respected Chris Horner and admired his riding over the years. I am very disappointed that he doesn't acknowledge what is right and what is wrong. Armstrong was wrong Chris and he didn't win seven tours
spinrod More than 1 year ago
armnstrong did win 7 tours period. shut the f____ up!.
Paul Le Fevre More than 1 year ago
"armnstrong"? Phew! For a moment there I thought you suggesting that Armstrong won 7 Tours.
Dr.JSW More than 1 year ago
@spinrod. Watch your spelling and try to use some logic. The evidence is overwhelming. Have you read the 1000 page report? Why are you defending him?
Carboncrank More than 1 year ago
Because lance was just a doper among dopers. No secret formulas. Nothing available to him that wasn't available to the contenders. No voodoo, no evil genius. But some people didn't like his persona. Thru the forum here and other places he slowly was inflated to mythic status. He couldn't go buy a cheeseburger without people her reading evil intent into it. What good has come out of the public crucifixion of lance? Did they make testing better? What did they accomplish that improves currents? Did they accomplish anything more finish the personal vendettas over a decade in the works. It was ugly, sordid and if this is the process USADA now established as precedent, it can catch up the innocent as well as the guilty. It was not due process of law. It was not fair and many things in the report are specious and those things needed to be espoused along with what was fact but never will be because he was convicted in the press, not a hearing. And don't bother trying to tell me the hearing they offered him wasn't rigged. You know better. They put him between the rock and the hard place. Justice in not supposed to be a popularity contest among some supposed elite few. That does not reflect a legal system in this country that is imitated and envied around the world. It was un-American. He was just a doper among dopers. None of the real contenders he competed against cried foul. They don't feel cheated. Watching him, I don't feel cheated. He didn't kill anyone; invade some country or plan 9/11. The punishment did not fit the crime. It could happen to you. I know. That is why I defend him.
Tom Janci More than 1 year ago
Horner is asked, "What have you seen in terms of doping?" "Nothing that I'm going to have an interview with..." But I thought the Omerta was broken?
kingkeirin More than 1 year ago
I think team Sky showed that wasn't true.
Dr.JSW More than 1 year ago
Yeah, I noticed too that he was evasive on that question.
Emilious50 More than 1 year ago
As much as I enjoy the sport of cycling and the fitness that I've gained from it in my days as an amateur, there is a grand old world, beyond cycling, that demands greater attention than its being offered up by athletes in general and Mr. Horner specifically. Mr. Horner seems to have found the modus vivendi between his take (and that of USADA and WADA) relative to what transpired in cycling during the last fifteen years or so. Mr. Horner says no positive test, or maybe just one in a sea of hundreds, and a rider can hardly be viewed as an incontrovertible cheat. The world can't be kept as "simple" as Mr. Horner desires because we are flawed beings, and absent to an internal system of checks and balances, accountability must be brought about by extrinsic forces. I agree with Mr. Horner that in our culture, and nowhere is this more evident than in the U. S. where Individualisms compels us to a constant quest for our "best" self, people want a leg up on the competition. But to say that the onus is on those organization providing the oversight, while the protagonist is exonerated on account of embryonic dope-detecting science, is irresponsibly corrupt and deterministic. (I wonder if Mr. Horner, as an American capable of reciting his constitutionally-protected rights, is even modestly aware of the inferences that can be drawn from his penchant for SIMPLICITY.) It is indisputable that cycling's self-assessment, as of the last several months or so, has been marked by considerable levels of hypocrisy, but isn't that the narrative of human Affairs? We look the other way, we turn a "blind" eye, and we pick battles that will minimize the collateral damage inflicted upon those who bear a LESSER degree of culpability. (The cadre of journalists on this very forum turn blind eyes and and look the other way; If they didn't they would likely be blacklisted, kept out of post event conferences, and they'd have no news to cover.) The world is very complicated and the American Jurisprudence System tries to bring simplicity to it--Mr. Horner should, one would think, sympathize with the system's overall intentions. Mr. Merckx scoffed at the American courts having "only" witnesses against Mr. Armstrong. I know nothing about the system of laws in Belgium, but its American counterpart rejoices at the sight of witnesses. Now I am left to infer that Mr. Horner is inclined to believe (like Mr. Merckx) that the witnesses who testified against Mr. Armstrong are of little value and that Mr. Armstrong's personal confession would be, in his estimation, the only true "mind changer." Erasing the memories of Mr. Armstrong's victories, "his recovery," "if he passes the test, then he's the winner," these all seem like the very SIMPLE ramblings emanating from the mind of a very young boy who is under the delusional spell, unadulterated by any sense of reality, that the world is "all about the bike."
LaBici More than 1 year ago
Well said.
Emilious50 More than 1 year ago
toomanycrayons More than 1 year ago
"It is indisputable that cycling's self-assessment, as of the last several months or so, has been marked by considerable levels of hypocrisy, but isn't that the narrative of human Affairs?"-Emilious50 So, what happened to the "grand old world, beyond cycling?" What seems to have transpired narratively is a clash of competing, reductive, Narcissistic silos. Dick Pound representing, for example, the school that believes in sport which celebrates genetic, social and economic advantage, and Armstrong, who figured once you cheated death with drugs, everything else which similarly served the self was fair game. I'm seeing Armstrong more and more as Faust; Pound simply as a joiner trying to perpetuate a particular ethos which served him well: Big, tall, white and priviledged...
toomanycrayons More than 1 year ago
'Erasing the memories of Mr. Armstrong's victories, "his recovery," "if he passes the test, then he's the winner," these all seem like the very SIMPLE ramblings emanating from the mind of a very young boy who is under the delusional spell, unadulterated by any sense of reality, that the world is "all about the bike." '-Emilious50 How is that any less sophisticated than the notion that reality is all about clean sports? Both are simplistic, arbitrary social constructions. Horner maintains himself by selectively choosing to think in a way which doesn't disturb his enjoyment of the theatre that is pro cycling. You're doing the same thing. He isn't nearly as condescending, as far as I call tell. In the end, maybe it's all about [what you can do on] the bike. So far he and his approach are doing pretty well.
Henry Chinaski More than 1 year ago
i recall reading one of the british cycling mags back in the day, Pro Cycling or Cyclesport, and i found an article describing the pro racers as kind of dumb. the word stupid may have been used come to think of it.¬if_t=share_comment
Henry Chinaski More than 1 year ago
it's undeniable - our man is a real genius: "...the sport has been damaged by USADA."

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