After more than five months of sitting on the sidelines with a knee injury, Radioshack Leopard's Chris Horner will be back in the fold during this week's Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Horner will be part of an eight-rider team that includes fellow veteran Jens Voigt and younger teammate Matthew Busche, who was second overall last year.
Horner injured his knee at Tirreno-Adriatico and aggravated it at the Volta a Catalunya, eventually missing both the Amgen Tour of California and the Tour de France. Diagnosed with iliotibial band friction syndrome, Horner underwent surgery and missed most of his 2013 season. But the 41-year-old American is now focused on the Vuelta a España, and the Utah race will be his first big test.
"It's been five months since I last raced, and the knee seems to be healed up," Horner said on the eve of the six-day Utah race. "I got in three good weeks of training after the five months off, so I think I'll be good here. It looks like the course will be good for me, and if the knee holds up I hope to do something in the top 10 on GC and get ready for the Vuelta."
While Horner may not be targeting the overall win during his first race back, he said the team hopes to boost Busche onto the podium's top step this year.
"He finished second overall, and he's here again," Horner said. "I'm sure he's super motivated, so we have a lot of reasons to help out here and there during the race."
And the racing for the General Classification will start almost immediately, Horner said, on a course that features more than 43,000 feet of climbing over the six days. The first stage will throw one big climb at the riders before a long descent to the finish in Cedar City.
"I think we're going to see the field exploded on most of the stages," Horner said. "[Stage 1] might be the exception to that. The second stage is 130 miles with a big climb at the finish – looks pretty hard – so maybe we come to the line with 30 guys, 40 maybe. But I don't think it will be that big after 130 miles. So that stage is going to have an affect on the GC right away."
But Horner also said the Queen stage on the penultimate day will likely decide the overall. The stage starts at Snowbasin and takes riders over the category 1 climb of Guardsman Pass before finishing on the out-of-category climb to Snowbird Ski Area.
"Snowbird is where everybody is going to make time for sure," he said. "That climb you can put 10 minutes on most of the field, and you can certainly put minutes on most guys. So whoever has the best legs is going to win the stage there and probably the GC."
Horner finished seventh overall in Utah last year and is hoping for a top 10 this year, but his ultimate goal at at the race is to prepare for the Spanish Grand Tour that starts August 24.
"It's an ideal place," he said of the Utah race. "I found last year to be safe courses, wide roads, the right sized peloton and stuff like that. So I never saw the crazy crashes caused from the actual roads, it was usually always rider error rather than roads, so for me it's a great course to come back to. And, of course, because of all the climbing it's good for me. So I like it. I like it a lot.
"As soon as I knew I wasn't making the Tour de France, I knew the next best thing was to come here, try to win something here and then head over to the Tour of Spain," he said.
The weather in Utah, which is traditionally very hot, could also benefit Horner's Vuelta ambitions. Although he has homes in Bend, Oregon, and San Diego, which are both warm and dry, the Tour of Utah usually kicks the heat factor up a notch.
"Clearly here it brings up the temperature even more than San Diego, and so it does get me a little more adjusted to the Spanish weather," Horner said. "And we'll see, maybe the altitude does some real good for me on the training, too. It's been a while since I raced, but the training's been going well and we'll see how I go."