Horner not fazed by strong Vuelta field as he prepares for title defense

The first stage at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah proved to be an easy day for Chris Horner, the Lampre-Merida leader who hopes to recover from a slight case of bronchitis he came down with during the Tour de France in time to defend his 2013 overall win at the Vuelta a España.

"It was a pretty easy day in general," Horner told Cyclingnews after Belkin's Moreno Hofland won the sprint finish in Cedar City. "The break got away quick, and the pace up both of the two bigger climbs was pretty steady, nothing too hard at all. It was just an easy day to recover, spin the legs and open them up. The finishing circuit was hard and a little dangerous, but that's normal and it's always going to be that way."

Horner said he is still waiting to see how his body reacts to the racing in Utah before he will be able to decide whether he will race for a stage win, the overall, or just shut things down for more recovery before Spain. Monday's stage went well for the 42-year-old American.

"Today was pretty good," he said. "The breathing was better today than yesterday, so we'll see how it goes tomorrow. It seems like now we should get into some sunshine, get away from this bad weather and the humidity and stuff. So that should help out. We'll see how it goes."

Horner's defense at the Vuelta got a bit more complicated earlier this summer when Chris Froome abandoned the Tour de France and set his sights on the Vuelta. Horner gave a nod to Froome as a pre-race favorite, along with Giro d'Italia winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Alejandro Valverde.

"It could be spectacular," Horner said of the Vuelta. "But let's make it clear, I won [last year] against [Vincenzo] Nibali. Certainly Froome had a very short Tour de France, so he should come into Spain very fresh and motivated. Froome is always the most difficult to deal with because of the time trials. He time trials really well, and he climbs really well, so it's difficult to put odds against the guy as not being a favorite. He's definitely a favorite, but same with Quintana."

The competition will be tough, but Horner said the Vuelta route is favorable to Horner's skills.

"Always in Spain is a really good course for me," Honer said. "There are a lot of climbs that are short and steep. And more importantly, the climbs come really close to each other. So when you finish one climb the next one starts.

"The problem I have is, I don't time trial very well, so I have to make up time somewhere else," he continued. "Luckily, last year I was the best climber in the world, so it was easier to make up time in the mountains. The time trial they had was a shorter one, so I didn't lose too much time in that area. And I came with an amazingly strong team, so we'll see how this year it works out."

The Vuelta field is definitely stacked this year, and Horner's preparation hasn't been ideal to this point, but he said he's looking forward to the challenge.

"You get more excited because you want the best field," he said. "Everybody wants to win against the best. It doesn't pay to win races that nobody's at. So you want to win against the best."

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Growing up in Missoula, Montana, Pat competed in his first bike race in 1985 at Flathead Lake. He studied English and journalism at the University of Oregon and has covered North American cycling extensively since 2009, as well as racing and teams in Europe and South America. Pat currently lives in the US outside of Portland, Oregon, with his imaginary dog Rusty.