An interview with Chris Horner, June 29, 2005
In his 10 years as a professional, Chris Horner has possibly had more chances than most of riding the Tour de France without actually having ridden it. For one reason or another, ranging from personal, to physical, to mental, things just never clicked when the opportunity arose.
But one day in Arosa changed all that, and with just a few days to go before the 92nd edition of La Grand Boucle, one of America's most talented riders is ready to ride his first lap around France. Story by Anthony Tan.
I had scheduled an interview with Chris Horner the evening of June 16. It was at the Tour de Suisse, the day he took his first pro win in Europe after soloing to victory on the first serious mountain stage of the race.
"I heard it all through the team, 'Tim Johnson this, Tim Johnson that - how are you going to do?'" - After Tim Johnson's lacklustre performance with the same team, the pressure was on Horner right from the start
I honestly didn't expect him to be available. After all, I'd stood him up the previous two nights, and now, after one of the most significant moments - perhaps the most significant - in his cycling career, surely he wanted to celebrate the victory with his team-mates rather than some cycling hack?
But when I call Room 514 at the Valsana Sporting Hotel in Arosa (now 9pm), I get the following response: "Perfect, c'mon up."
"We just toasted with some champagne, real easy," Horner says when I asked how he celebrated his win today. "There's work still here to do, and very soon after that is the Tour."
"The Tour? You're going?"
"I did it - they told me!" he exclaims with a smile from ear to ear.
"Yeah, yeah... Matxin [Joxean Fernandez], the director of the team, told me: 'Yeah, you're on the Tour list.' So now it's official!" he giggles like a boy who got to open one of his presents the night before Christmas.
"But it was a very satisfying win, it relieved a lot of stress and no matter what happens now - if I crash out or break a leg or whatever - I won a stage of the Tour de Suisse," he says, underlying the importance of the events that took place today.
"You look at the quality of the field here, it's one of the tops, and there's no doubt in my mind that this is one of the hardest races in the world next to doing the Tour."
Joining his Saunier Duval-Prodir team towards the end of last season from Webcor, a complete unknown in the European cycling scene and by no means one of the biggies back in States, was considered a big step for Horner. Sure, he'd spent three years with La Française des Jeux from 1997 to 1999, but as he admits, they weren't his greatest years - and that was six years ago.
However, at the 2004 world road championships in Verona, the then 32 year-old slipped into racing at the highest level with apparent ease. One of only 15 to finish on the same time as three-time winner Oscar Freire, his seventh place finish made him the best-placed American finisher by a massive 71 places; 78th was Guido Trenti, who came in almost 10 minutes down.
Two weeks later, he showed Verona was no fluke at the final World Cup event of the year which was also the final World Cup ever (the UCI ProTour set to make its debut in 2005), finishing 11th at the 'race of the falling leaves', the Giro di Lombardia. Again, he was the best from the US - but this time, he was the only American rider to finish, the race's difficulty leading to a 61 percent attrition rate.
"Those last three weeks went a long way in the way the directors and stuff have treated me than what they would have for a guy who's only done 10 races for the team," he says.
10 races? But aren't we at the end of June here?
Wanting to make the most of the good weather back in the States and avoid an unusually long and cold European winter, Horner didn't reacquaint himself with his team until a few days before the start of Tirreno-Adriatico on March 9.
The first day was no problem. But on the second stage, he was involved in a pile-up 20 kilometres from the finish after losing control of his bike on a section of gravel. At first, it appeared he wasn't too badly hurt, but after finishing third-last the next day, the American had enough experience to know it was something more serious, played it safe, and pulled out of the race.
A week later at the Setmana-Catalana stage race in Spain, it appeared Horner had mostly recovered from his injuries, scoring two top-10 finishes before finishing 16th on GC to overall winner Alberto Contador from Liberty Seguros. However, what he didn't find out until one week later was that he rode the entire race on a fractured left leg.
"It didn't make life easier that I wasn't here for training camp; I skipped the first five weeks of the season - and when I get here, I fall down on my bike, break my leg and disappear again, so someone's always filling in for me. I mean, there's guys on my team that I don't even know!" he remarks about his early season tale of woe.
And for those who did know him, or have at least heard of him, they weren't too sure about the team's token American signing, despite a good end of season performance the previous year. The last American rider on the team, Tim Johnson, regularly found himself out of his depth in Europe, and returned home after less than a season completed.
"He had the same problem I had at Française des Jeux," says Horner. "But I heard it all through the team, 'Tim Johnson this, Tim Johnson that - how are you going to do?'
"What people saw of him in Europe was not what Tim Johnson in capable of - but because he rode bad, when I got here, that's what they thought of me, too."
While Horner fared much better than Johnson did during his time with FdJ, in fact going as far to earn himself a spot on their Tour de France team in 1998 before he breaking his wrist on the final day of the Midi Libré, it was still a very difficult period for him. An American from San Diego moving to Paris for the first time could quite easily be described as culture-shock of the highest order, and as Horner admits, riding his bike wasn't the hard part.
"I've always said this and I've always believed it: the riding part was never the difficult part; the difficult part for me was off the bike. It doesn't need to be explained to me - I lived through it for three years - I completely, 100 percent understand, but absolutely, [Johnson's performances] definitely had an effect."
Chuckles Horner, "I don't know even if I have it down yet," adding that even today, he's doesn't even have a semi-permanent place to live in Europe, describing himself as a gypsy of sorts.
"I just know things get a whole lot easier when you have a good support system around you, you have good people helping you out, and the team looks after you more. At Française des Jeux, aside from [directeur-sportif] Alain Gallopin, I was kind of told: 'You've got to do it like this, you've got to do it like that.'"
It was a good thing Saunier Duval team management had enough faith in Horner to give him the time off he needed, who, after discovering his leg was broken, told himself that he wasn't going to race again until he was 100 percent recovered.
After just three weeks' training, Horner found himself competitive again at the Wachovia Cycling Series. Sixth at Lancaster, then sixth again at Trenton, it appeared he was on a mission. "I just focused everything on 'I'm going [to the Tour de France],'" he says.
"I was literally at a point: 'Either I'm doing the Tour, or maybe I'm going to ask to get out of the contract and sign with a US team.' As soon as I got to Philly, I realised I'd got the training right, everything else was in place to do something; so they didn't know it yet, but I was going - so they might as well make a spot!"
That 'something' was winning the USPRO Championships. Horner knew that Saunier Duval had hired him because they wanted a successful American rider, and it would have been a big call to keep a 'Stars & Stripes' jersey off their Tour squad. Said a fired up Horner to Cyclingnews the day before the race: "I NEED to be doing the Tour is what I am telling you! I NEED TO DO THE TOUR!"
"I came back [to Europe] because I could not end my career without winning something over in Europe. I won so much stuff in the States, it just did not make sense not to win in Europe - and the other thing is, I want to do the Tour de France.
"I've always wanted to do it and be a part of it at least one time during my career; I mean, I've been a professional for 10 years, and it just seems crazy not to have done the Tour during that period - especially since I was three years with Française des Jeux and one year with Mercury, when they should have done it, too."
At Philly, Horner rode an outstanding race. Initiating the break on the Manayunk Wall that brought he and eventual winner Chris Wherry across to Danny Pate to form the final three-man breakaway, driving the break to ensure it succeeded, but then dying at the end to finish third, he says it didn't even take a shower and a fresh set of clothes before he realised what he had to do.
"As soon as I crossed the line, it didn't even take getting back to the hotel; as soon as I saw Wherry won and I knew I wasn't getting the jersey, I thought: 'Okay, that was my second last chance - now I've got to do something at the Tour de Suisse.' But I also knew the form was coming good and it was getting better and better each day."
But when he 'tanked' the individual time trial at the Tour de Suisse on the second day of the race, finishing three minutes down on Jan Ullrich in 62nd place, Horner admits he became a little concerned. "I was worried - I didn't exactly know where the form went. I had really good form, but that was the first time I'd done back-to-back days."
Given his last stage-race experience was almost three months ago, each stage was another day in unknown territory, but the team's trainer, Iñigo, told him to keep his head and not worry - especially since he only arrived two days before the race started. So the American still had plenty of reasons to stay motivated. As it happened, the TT turned out to be a fluke occurrence that apparently happens once a year for him, whether he has the form or not.
Not only did Horner continue to improve, the 33 year-old went on to take a fantastic first pro win in Europe a few days later, and then rode out of his skin to finish fifth overall on two more very difficult days in the mountains.
"I've f***ing got form comin' out of my ears right now!" he shouted at me when I saw him moments after the final stage in Ulrichen. "Every day, it's just getting better and better."
"I've been fighting over here for jobs and results, and for a long period of time - it's very difficult winning so many races over in the States and coming over here and falling apart," he says, referring to his time with La Française Des Jeux, that until this year's Tour de Suisse, left a semi-permanent scar in his mind.
"I'd fall apart completely before I'd even got to the bike race, it seemed, and that's what happened. Now I'm older, I know what to expect; you have to let the bad days be exactly what they are - just one bad day - and then you just get on with the next day."
Talking about the potential to have a few bad days at the Tour, it's a good thing Horner now knows what to do when it happens. No doubt about it, this man is one of America's best modern-day riders - maybe not up there with Armstrong, though not too far off him, either - but this will be his first ever Grand Tour, and the Tour de France is a nasty place to start.
"They can't go any faster in the Tour, that's for certain," says Horner when I ask him what to expect.
"They might go faster for a longer period, but it's not going any faster than it is here... we're going 70k an hour on the flats - you can't go any faster than that. I mean, today [Stage 6], 30 guys attacking on the first climb. You just have to look at that first climb; who was on vacation on that climb - I don't think anyone was on vacation!"
It's true this man isn't afraid of speaking his mind or talking himself up. At the press conference after his stage win, 9 out of 10 journalists hadn't even heard of him, which saw him explain to the media how good a bike rider he believes he actually is. So is there a defence mechanism inside Chris Horner that switches on every now and then?
"Absolutely - you've got to have belief in yourself," he says. "I still haven't shown the team what I've capable of doing. Not much, anyways."
And what about being a relative unknown in Europe - is that an added motivation to become a known?
"No - I don't need that for motivation; I mean, my own motivation was just to prove to myself more than anything else - that I could win here was all the motivation I needed."
Realising I'm well aware of his results when we talk a little about his wins at the Tour de Langkawi in 2000 and the 2003 Tour de Georgia, Horner slowly begins to let his guard down. "Right now, I just want to go [to the Tour]. I just want to be part of the event. I'd love to go and have good form and win a stage or do something big there - but at the moment, just get me there," he says with due caution, knowing anything can still happen between now and July 2.
"Let's just get there first, and then we'll focus on the other stuff afterwards. But one thing's for certain: I'm 100 percent motivated to be there with the best form I could possibly have and I'd like to win something.
"If I retire three, four, five years from now - whatever it may be, who knows - [missing the Tour] would have just left... " his voice trails off, albeit for a brief moment. "I can live without winning a national championship jersey because sometimes it just doesn't fall that way, and I understand that with bike racing - but it would have been rough not to have done the Tour - or at least have a good win in Europe.
"So I've got one out of two out of the way... now I just need to get to the other one!" he says with smile.