After competing seven times in the Tour de France over the past 10 years, finishing eighth in 2010 and 17th last year when he rode for Lampre-Merida, Chris Horner is at home in America this July as the Grand Bouclé winds toward its eventual finish in Paris on Sunday.
The winner of the 2013 Vuelta a Espaňa is competing this week with his Airgas-Safeway Continental team at the Cascade Cycling Classic, a national-level race in his hometown of Bend, Oregon, where Horner has spent the past five weeks preparing for the upcoming Tour of Utah in early August.
Horner's distance from the Tour de France hasn't stopped him from following the race, however, and he insists that despite Team Sky's dominating performance and Chris Froome's seemingly insurmountable overall lead, the race's wildest days may still lie ahead in what has been a notoriously raucous edition so far.
“The person who is going to make the racing exciting of course is Alberto,” Horner said, referring to Tinkoff-Saxo team leader and two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador.
“That's why it was bad for the fans to see him crash on the descent today, which caused him to lose more time and use more energy. After the crash he'll have to assess his form tomorrow and the next day. He was for sure the one who was going to throw caution to the wind. Alberto doesn't care if he finishes fifth. It doesn't even dawn on him.”
Contador lost another 2:17 to Froome on Wednesday and is currently in fifth place, 6:40 behind. Runner-up Nairo Quintana is 3:10 down, while his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde is another 59 seconds in arrears. Geraint Thomas, Froome's stalwart lieutenant in the mountains so far, is fourth overall, 6:34 behind his team leader.
“At three or four minutes, you can definitely do that in the mountains,” Horner said. “But Froome is going to have to have an off day, and the team's going to have to come apart at the seams too.
“Quintana has got Valverde there, but Quintana is really the only one who's been climbing even with Froome. Team Sky has been having a little bit more team problems keeping everyone at the front and keeping all that together, so Froome could be isolated. But even if he's isolated, you still have to drop the guy. That's a difficult card.”
Horner said the best thing that could happen for Quintana and Valverde would be to get a rider or riders up the road early who are fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth or 10th overall and put some serious pressure on Froome and Sky. And Horner said he knows a couple of former Tour winners who are perfect for the job.
“Maybe [Contador] throws caution to the wind and [Vincenzo] Nibali goes with him,” Horner said. “That could make something exciting happen. As long as the crash didn't affect [Contador] physically, I think he'll throw caution to the wind, of course Nibali will go with him – I don't think there 's any reason for him to be holding back so he may as well throw it out there, too. And maybe even put Valverde, too. The Tour has been interesting so far. It'll be worth watching the next two days.”
Another stage like Wednesday, Horner said, “where attacks just keep coming no matter who's up the road,” could cause major damage at the front of the race.
“Then you have to drop the best climber in the world, and you have to drop him in the mountains,” he said. “That's going to be difficult. No one is going to bet against Froome right now.”
Although Horner has enjoyed watching the spectacle unfold in France throughout the month, he's got his own race in the US to focus on this week as he prepares for Utah, where he finished second overall the past two years. During stage 1 in Bend on Wednesday, Horner finished eighth in a summit finish won by Francisco Mancebo, the former Spanish champion and Grand Tour contender who is guest riding this week for the Canyon Bicycles amateur team.
Horner is now six seconds behind Mancebo, who won Cascade in 2011 and 2012. Horner, by contrast, has never won his hometown race, and he'd like nothing better than to find a way to make up the six seconds he ceded to Mancebo and a handful of riders on the opening day. He'll get his first chance Thursday during the individual time trial.
“Mancebo's got a little bit of a cushion now for the TT,” he said. “But tomorrow will be a good indication of how the general classification should shake out. I've been doing a little bit of TT training, so we'll see if it pays off.”