It’s hard to tell whether Chris Horner was engaging in a bit of psychological warfare before the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah heads into the high mountains this weekend, or if he was being sincere, but the former Vuelta a España champion told Cyclingnews after the stage 5 finish that Optum Pro Cycling’s Michael Woods is now the favourite to win the overall.
Woods won the uphill drag during the stage 5 finish on a Salt Lake City circuit to claim the stage victory and the overall lead as the race faces Saturday’s Queen stage, which features 3,700 metres of climbing.
Woods leads BMC’s Brent Bookwalter by four seconds, while pre-race favourite Frank Schleck is currently 10th, 17 seconds down, followed by Horner at 19 seconds.
“When you really look at it, I think it’s going to be up to Woods and Optum to control stuff on the climbs,” Horner said.
“Woods is climbing good. He’s out-climbed me many times this year already. He out-climbed me at Redlands, we climbed pretty even at Gila, but the last day at Gila he put on quite a show when he won the stage there. He attacked 10 times to blow up the field to begin with.”
Optum director Jonas Carney tried to downplay the “favourite” mantle that Horner was trying to lay around Woods’ neck, but he knows he’s got a special climber in the 28-year-old Canadian who came to cycling four years ago from a running background.
“Obviously [stage 5] is not the same as going up Empire Pass,” Carney said. “Woods is a phenomenal climber, but this kind of finish is a lot different than Empire. Hopefully he has the same kind of form for the big long climbs.
“He’s clearly riding really well,” Carney continued, “and I think he could win the overall. But it’s still really tough. There’s not a lot of teams here who can control the race. [UnitedHealthcare] did a great job, SmartStop did a great job, but anything can happen in the last couple of days.”
Woods’ teammate Phil Gaimon, however, was not so hesitant to say Woods may be the best climber in the race.
“I don’t really see anybody hurting Woodsy, but I think [the general classification] could shuffle around for sure. [Stage 5] was a shorter climb that kind of favours a certain kind of rider. The longer stuff will be different, but if it goes uphill, it’s all Woods all the time.”
When told Horner had picked his teammate as a favourite to win the race, Gaimon laughed and fired back at the former WorldTour rider.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Gaimon said. “Horner’s the champion. He’s been saying it all week.”