Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) was wet and tired after finishing stage six of the Tour de France in Reims, but he remained upbeat and even happy to be spending his July in France after missing much of the spring with a punctured lung and four broken ribs after being hit by a car in Italy in April.
Horner lost four minutes on the cobbled stage to Arenberg on Wednesday and described the day as 'devastating' but is hoping to find a day of grace in the mountains and win a stage at the Tour de France.
Like so many of the battered and bruised riders in the peloton, Horner was hoping Thursday's flat stage to the capital of the French champagne area would give him a day to recover mentally and physically. Instead it was another tough day in the saddle.
"Today started off nice and I thought it was going to be easy and no stress. Then with 180km to go, it got hard. It was no rest day," Horner told Cyclingnews with a long laugh before giving a perfect analysis of why the 194km stage was so hard.
"It was cross-tail wind and so the guys up front were working hard and so were we. You had to stay top fifty or so otherwise you're dead back there if there's a crash. And there were, with a lot of guys going down."
"It's been a hard start to the Tour and for me mentally, it's been especially hard. You're fighting every day but me, I'm fighting for nothing. I know I'm not going to win the early stages and not be on the podium. But you've got to mentally stay in the game. And that's hard when you're not 100 percent."
"But I'm happy to be back racing. You can't do anything when you puncture your lung and have four broken ribs and I mean broken, not fractured. You've just got to let it all heal itself. So I went from zero to a few weeks of training and then to coming here.
Hoping for some form, hoping to win a stage
Horner will be 43 in October and is the second oldest rider in this year's Tour de France, outdone only by Jens Voigt, who is a month older. He became the oldest ever winner of the Vuelta a España and the oldest ever Grand Tour winner last season, but struggled to find a team for 2014 and eventually joined Lampre-Merida in January. He was due to lead the Italian team at the Giro d'Italia but his accident left him scrambling for some summer form.
He hopes to come out of the Tour de France ready to defend his Vuelta victory. He claimed he does not know if he has some form after only riding the four-day Tour of Slovenia since his crash, but promised to find out during the Tour by trying to win a stage.
"First I'm just hoping I've got some form. Second I'm hoping for a stage win but I've got to get the form first, I've got to get to first base. Maybe it's good, who knows? It's so hard to tell. I never feel good in the first week in the Tour," he said.
"But I don’t really care. I'm going to give it a go and see. In bike racing, you don't need 100 percent form to win, you don't always need to be the best. We see people win stages thanks to lots of reasons. Think back to the guy from Cannondale (Daniele Ratto) who won the stage in the Pyrenees at the Vuelta last year. He's not a climber, he's probably one of poorest climbers in the bunch, but he had some luck, lots of determination and really wanted to suffer. That's what makes bike racing so special. You can be last overall in the GC but still win a stage if you get it right. I'm hoping for some of that luck and good fortune. I think I deserve it."
Horner rides alongside world champion Rui Costa at Lampre-Merida, who is targeting a breakthrough overall classification placing at the Tour following his third victory at the Tour de Suisse. Despite the Portuguese rider's lofty ambitions, Horner can ride for himself. Up to a point.
"I've got all the freedom I want with the team. I don’t have help but I've got freedom," he explained.
"Rui has the team there for him and possibly me there for him too later on. But for now I'm free to ride for myself. The mountains will determine if that changes. Rui looks really good so I wouldn't be surprised if I have to ride for him and that's not a problem. If I can’t play for the win, I'll be riding for him."
Revealing how Froome crashed out
Horner compared Wednesday's stage on the cobbles to drag racing, revealing he was close to Chris Froome when he crashed and retired from the Tour de France.
He insisted Froome had no real fault in the crash.
"Ah man, yesterday was devastating. We went: sprint, stop, sprint, stop, sprint, stop. You hit the brakes as hard as you could and your bike is sliding in every direction. Then you have to start sprinting hard again to stay on the wheel," Horner said.
"I was right there when Froome went down. He slid about 50 yards. I'm not surprise he climbed off."
"He caught a little crack in the road. There was road furniture on the left and he got caught in the crack and it took his front wheel. It was nothing he could do about it. It wasn't about experience or lack of bike handling skills. It was just very slippery and he got caught in the gap and went down. It could have happened to any rider."