By Anthony Tan & Brecht Decaluwé
Before the start of La Doyenne, Davitamon-Lotto's talented American Chris Horner said his team was strong, but didn't have an outright leader. But as the race unfolded, he became that man.
"Well, it's better to have an outright leader and the team walks away with the win. But the form's been good for me all week so far although outside of the bubble of the top ten guys, and unfortunately it's the win you're trying to get, or at least the top ten," he told Cyclingnews somewhat fortuitously in Liège's Place Saint-Lambert. "So, hopefully, the legs are better than they have been the last two races; I'm not complaining, the form's good, but it needs to be that one or two percent better and then I'm there."
Continued Horner: "The way we're approaching it is to wait until we get down to Stavelot, and from there, the racing's going to start. If a big break goes off, of course you've got to have someone in it, but you don't have to have anyone in a group of five. So the best thing to do is to keep routine until 100k to go, and with three, four climbs to go, that's when the real racing will start. We have a very strong team, we just don't have the favourite, and hopefully we can win by having the numbers versus having one superior rider."
Asked if he thought a similar scenario may happen like last year, the 34 year-old said it was possible, but again, only after Stavelot, which signalled 84 kilometres to go. "It can't happen before that, I don't think... the teams will still be too strong - but after that, you have two or three guys from one team, and that's not enough to chase. So then it would take three or four teams to chase together, and the problem with that is asking three or four teams to chase that most likely has one person up the road!" he laughed.
In fact, just about everything Horner predicted turned out to be true. One would think he's ridden this race a dozen times before, but before yesterday, 2001 was the only other time he's ridden Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Also interesting was that he didn't predict a clear favourite; even though Alejandro won, he wasn't head and shoulders above the rest like he was at Flèche Wallonne.
"There's a lot of favourites; there's absolutely no-one who's a hands-down favourite, though - I don't see it. It's not like those years where Bettini was on top of his form or Bartoli's on top... there's no-one like that - not today. There's 10 guys that are all on the same page and on top of that, they don't have super super strong teams here; maybe four teams with super strong teams and that's it - it'll be an exciting race, I think."
Exciting La Doyenne certainly was, and commendably, Horner rode a fantastic race to finish eighth: "I'm happy with my performance today. The team was supporting me 100 percent; Bjorn Leukemans told me that he wasn't super strong, so he helped me today.
"I had the legs to win here, but if I wanted to win, I needed to get in a smaller break. The problem is that you can't react to every attack, you need to gamble; maybe I should've been there with Boogerd and Rodriguez," the exhausted American said to Cyclingnews at the finish line.
With his form and confidence now on the up, it wasn't surprising to sense an air of anticipation in Horner's voice about this week's Tour de Romandie. "Romandie suits me better, absolutely," he said.
"A Classic is not my ideal race... I mean, I'm still ridin' good, it's just not my 100 percent preference because of the way the climbs come on; I'm not good at the shorter climbs, the stop-start racing. Here, you're going anaerobic, then you're stopping, then anaerobic again, then stopping... and that's not my best way of racing. I'm much better at going into the last climb hard for 50k and then the last climb it splits - that's what suits me best. This style doesn't suit me so well, so like at Flèche and Amstel, I was in the red so much at the bottom of the climb, then by the top, I was fine - but I had missed the move by then!" Horner laughed.