It's been approximately eight months since Chris Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) last turned his pedals in anger in competition, but the 40-year-old American has shown he's made a full recovery from a serious crash at the 2011 Tour de France by taking the overall lead today at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Horner suffered a broken nose, cracked ribs, concussion and a blood clot in the lung as a result of his crash on stage 7 of the Tour last year, and was forced to bring both his race and his season to a premature halt. The ongoing Tirreno-Adriatico, which began on March 7, would be Horner's first race since last year's Tour and his performance through the first four stages has indicated a return to form.
His RadioShack-Nissan team opened their Tirreno-Adriatico account with a second place finish in the team time trial, and Horner was well-positioned on general classification heading into today's decisive stage 4, culminating with an arduous climb to the finish in Chieti.
Horner finished in fifth place with the same time as stage winner Peter Sagan as part of the five-man group which escaped in the finale to contest the victory. Horner took over the race lead from Matt Goss (GreenEdge) and holds a seven second advantage over stage 4 runner-up Roman Kreuziger (Astana) and a 13-second lead on third-placed Cameron Meyer (GreenEdge).
"I'm sure many people doubted my fitness after my embolism but it shows today that it didn't effect my form," Horner said. "The team asked which races I wanted to do this year. I told [directeur sportif)] Dirk Demol that Tirreno-Adriatico would be a big objective and he supported me. "
Horner had targeted today's stage as one crucial to his overall ambitions and his assessment proved to be correct.
"Before the race today I thought for sure I might have the leader's jersey at the end of the day," Horner said on his team's website. "After the team time trial on Sunday, Fabian Cancellara and all the big riders on my team did a fantastic job, so today they protected me from the wind and brought me to the front at the bottom of the climb. Cancellara got me in position and then I knew to follow the moves from the best riders on the day."
Horner followed an attack by Danilo Di Luca (Acqua & Sapone) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) on the finishing climb's steepest pitch and thought that would be the final selection for the stage, but a general classification rival made his presence known in the finale.
"Roman Kreuziger came along and threw an attack in on the three of us and I had to bridge that," said Horner. "He was the biggest threat to us on GC so I had to respond in order to take the jersey."
Sagan's teammate Vincenzo Nibali would also make the juncture and the five-man group would sprint for victory, although a mistake by Horner hampered his finishing effort.
"In the final to the line I accidentally shifted from the big chain ring to the small one and my hands were cramping up so I couldn't get it back up to do the sprint, leaving me to just spin the cranks at 130rpms to the finish, all the while losing ground," said Horner with a laugh. "Even if I could've shifted back I wouldn't have won the sprint, but maybe I would have been up a little further."
Horner still faces three more stages at Tirreno-Adriatico before he can claim a final overall victory, but his and the team's morale is high and he feels up to the challenge.
"Kreuziger is close on time and we both time trial pretty evenly, so it's going to be a fight," said Horner. "My legs are feeling very good, so certainly I have a shot at winning the overall."