RadioShack-Nissan's Chris Horner is eschewing the normal Critérium du Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse preparation races for the Tour de France, choosing instead to remain home in San Diego, California to train in hopes he will be chosen for the team in July.
Horner has had to rehabilitate a minor back injury he had after his unsuccessful attempt to defend his 2011 Tour of California title, but is back on track for July. "The muscles tightened up on me, and I needed some rest," Horner told Cyclingnews. "I strained something that happened in the past and it flares up from time to time. I had to take a week to relax and I'm back on the bike so everything's fine, and it certainly isn't affecting my ability to train."
The down side of being home is that his teammates are showing themselves in the June races to the directeurs sportif who will decide the team for the Tour de France, while Horner will have to rely on their belief in his form and his abilities.
"I've been riding well all year, and I'm on the same program as last year where I went straight from the Tour of California to the Tour de France, so I'm not too worried about it. But it's something for the directors to decide."
Having placed ninth in the 2010 Tour and close to the main contenders, were it not for a crash, in the 2009 Giro d'Italia, Horner's climbing and time trialing abilities would make him a general classification contender for most teams, but in RadioShack-Nissan he knows his only role is that of a support rider for the Schleck brothers.
"Andy and Fränk Schleck are definitely the GC guys for the team. Where I stand in the Tour is [as support] in the mountains. I want the team to win the Tour de France. My goals have always been with what serves the team."
The results so far this spring have not promised that the Schleck brothers can contend for the win, however, in particular over the course of the more than 100km of time trialing they will face in July. Horner says that if Andy Schleck wants to win, he will have to win in the mountains.
"Everybody knows that Andy has to win in the mountains, [Bradley] Wiggins has to win in the time trial, and [Cadel] Evans can do both," Horner said.
Wiggins is currently holding a commanding lead in the Critérium du Dauphiné, but until tomorrow's mountainous stage it is unknown how he will fare when the climbers get on their own turf.
"It will be interesting to see if Wiggins goes really good in the mountains now, or if he's going to rely on the time trial. Cadel can climb with the best if he isn't the best, and he can time trial close to Wiggins as well. If you look at Andy from two years ago, nobody could climb with him, and he didn't lose massive time in the time trial. If he can get the form from two years ago when he won the Tour he'll be the hands down favorite."
Horner has ridden in service of several team leaders: from his days with Evans at Predictor-Lotto, to Astana with Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong and on to RadioShack with the Schlecks. He contrasted the leadership style of these men, underscoring RadioShack's belief in Andy Schleck for this year.
"The only race I've done with Andy are the Classics, but I think everyone on the team likes him and understands how good he is. I think it will be easy for him to have the whole team behind him. I've been on teams with Cadel, he's more quiet and just doing his part and the team has to do their part. With Alberto he was more forward with what he wanted and expected, so that was simple. I've ridden enough with Andy to know the team believes in his abilities. I wouldn't be surprised if it was [Fabian] Cancellara that really controls the team and puts them where they need to be."
Cancellara was critical to Horner's success at this year's Tirreno-Adriatico. Horner led the race into the final time trial, where he was overtaken by Vincenzo Nibali. "When I raced with Cancellara at Tirreno-Adriatico, he made my job really easy. He really took over and controlled the team and put them where I needed them to be, and when it was time to do my job, I did my job. So I wouldn't be surprised if he had a big impact on what the team does during the Tour de France.
"When we had the cobbled stage in the Tour de France (in 2010) it was Cancellara who was really controlling the Saxo Bank team and keeping Andy out of trouble in the cobbles and crosswinds sections before we got into mountains. You could clearly see that Cancellara had a dominant role in the team looking after Andy."
Andy Schleck is currently suffering the after-effects of a crash in the time trial, which concerns Horner more than his time losses prior to that point in the Critérium du Dauphiné. "Of course the crash in the time trial is a concern, but him easing up in the stages is not a concern. He's not riding 100 percent and getting dropped out the back, he's sitting up and saving the form. What we see is absolutely no concern in terms of what I think he will be prepared to ride like in the Tour de France."
His teammate's current troubles are a stark reminder of Horner's own devastating crash in last year's Tour, where he suffered a concussion and rode to the finish in a daze. Even more harrowing was the blood clot that later surfaced in his lungs and could have proven fatal. The clot meant he had to spend six months on blood thinners, during which time he could not race.
"It wasn't that I lost fitness, it was that I couldn't afford to crash - and if you race your bike, you are going to crash. I could train with precautions, but it wasn't an option to race. The first race back in Tirreno went well, The Tour of the Basque country was OK, and although the Tour of California was kind of a nightmare in the time trial, other than that, clearly my form was every bit as good if not better than the other guys in the race.
"Now it's up to the directors and of course Johan to decide if I go to the Tour."
At age 40, going on 41 in October, Horner still isn't ready to say this will be his last Tour de France if he is chosen for the team. "No, I don't think so. Certainly there is power left in the legs, and that's all that concerns me. You can always work around any other problems, but when the legs quit going fast then that's when your career's over."
His comments echo those of his teammate Jens Voigt, who is just five weeks older than Horner. Who will retire first? Horner let out a hearty laugh. "We've joked about that before. I would be afraid to say. I was quite impressed with Jens at the Tour of California and from what I saw at Tour of Luxembourg. I've wanted to be teammates with him for many years, so it's been quite a pleasure for me to spend even a small amount of time with him as teammates during my career."