Chris Horner (Airgas-Safeway) may own the Redlands Bicycle Classic, as he told Cyclingnews before the season started, but the four-time winner had to lease it out to Phil Gaimon last week as the Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider took his second overall win at the Southern California race.
Horner, who won here in 2000, 2002, 2003 and 2004, finished seventh overall this year, 1:01 behind Gaimon's winning time. Despite failing to come away with his record fifth win, Horner said there were no surprises with his performance this week at the opening event of USA Cyclng's National Racing Calendar.
"Overall it went like I thought," he said. "You know with form where it's at before you come in. I figured I'd go top 10 or something like that, and if I got lucky and the form changed or something then maybe I'd win it. But I didn't have that form. I could follow the best, but that's all I could do."
Horner's return to Redlands started on Wednesday with the Highland Circuit Race, where he finished in 15th place as part of the main field. During the following day’s stage 2 individual time trial at Big Bear Lake, Horner finished in 34th place, 39 seconds behind winner Tom Zirbel (Optum).
The return to Oak Glen during the stage 3 Yucaipa Road Race offered the first mountain-top finish the race has seen in years, and Horner found himself in the select group of 10 riders battling in the closing kilometres of the final climb.
But Gaimon and his teammate, Michael Woods, double-teamed the group and took the top two spots. Horner finished eighth on the stage, 31 seconds behind Gaimon, who also took the yellow jersey there.
The 2013 Vuelta a España champion got his reintroduction to American criterium racing during the technical nine-corner stage 4 criterium in downtown Redlands, where Gaimon crashed just before five laps to go and took Horner down with him. Both riders, and all the others involved, were given the same time as the main field.
Gaimon's Optum team took control of the infamously difficult Sunset Loop Road Race on Sunday and squelched any general classification threats, with Horner finishing in a front group of more than 40 riders that made it onto the finishing circuits on the same downtown streets used in the criterium the day before.
Horner took back seven seconds on Gaimon at the finish, but he was never a threat to take over the race lead.
"I think I still have a little problem left from last year - that sickness that I had last year," Horner said, referring to a bronchial ailment that plagued him last year from the Tour de France onward.
"I don't think it's cleared up," he said. "I feel something still in the lungs. I was coughing some during the race and all that stuff. I'm on all kinds of Singulair, and my asthma medication doesn't seem to be helping. I think it might be something left over from last year, so I'll see if I can't figure that out. And once I get the lungs cleared out, maybe that will help out, too."
But physical ailments and lack of top form aside, Horner was clearly impressed by the talent he's up against in the US domestic peloton.
"In my day we never finished with 60 guys on this circuit," he said after Sunday's final stage. "We finished with five or 15 or something. But the racing before here is always short and everyone is still fresh, so they can do this one day big, with big power.
"At the end of the day I had 246 watts, which is huge power for average watts in a bike race," he said. "Even in the WorldTour races you're finishing with 225 or something like that. So it was big power today, and clearly the US guys have big power when the race is the kind of course they have here."
Horner's next opportunity for a top result will come at the Sea Otter Classic later this week in Monterey, California. After Sea Otter, the team will travel to the Joe Martin Stage Race, the second event on the NRC schedule, followed by the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico.
"Gila suits me, so I'll work on seeing if I can clear up the lungs and hopefully get that," he said. "But the training has gone good, the training this week is going good and the weight is good, so now I can just focus on keeping the training steady heading into Gila.
"At Gila we start getting UCI points and all that, too. It's nice to get some NRC points, but it’s also really nice to get some UCI points for the team."
While Sea Otter and Joe Martin favour all-around riders, Gila is definitely one for the climbers. It will give Horner a chance to get some redemption against Optum and Gaimon, who clearly put a damper on Horner's return to Redlands, a race he previously joked should be called the Chris Horner Bicycle Classic.
Gaimon suggested on Twitter last week that they refer to the race as the Chris Horner Classic presented by Phil Gaimon, a joke that drew a few laughs from Horner.
"We were joking around about it," Horner said of himself and Gaimon. "Yesterday was funny before the start of the stage, because we were in the back, and I'm like, 'Hey, Gaimon, one plus one only equals half as many as I've won.' So we were having a good time with that."