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Horner: ‘I’m Back For Round 3 In The US’

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Dec. 2, 2014 — On Monday, US continental team Airgas-Safeway announced that it had signed veteran American rider Chris Horner for 2015.

Words by Daniel McMahon // Images by Yuzuru Sunada

That news brought to an end lots of speculation as to whether Horner, the winner of the Vuelta a España in 2013, would even be racing again next year.

Having turned 43 in October, he’d had a tricky season with UCI World Tour team Lampre-Merida in 2014.

First, he suffered serious injuries in the spring after getting hit by an SUV while training in Italy. Then he came back to finish the Tour de France in 17th place overall, before finishing runner-up at the Tour of Utah. Just when he was looking good to defend his Vuelta title, Lampre pulled him from its roster at the last minute.

Since then, Lampre announced it would not be re-signing Horner, leaving the recent Grand Tour champion without a team.

peloton spoke with Horner on Monday night to talk about his newly signed contract and his plans for racing in the US.

What was your first reaction after you signed with the new team?

My first reaction was — I’m back for Round 3 in the US! I started my career here, and I’m comfortable racing in the US. I was thinking, if I come back to the US, it’s going to be fun bike racing here again, having a good time, enjoying myself, and riding with a good team.

It looks like the team is coming up in the right way, too, and ready to go up to the next level of bike racing. We’ll hopefully be doing California and Utah and those races. I’m assuming we would get into those races no problem, but of course we’ll need invites. I’m a former Grand Tour winner, so I think we’ll get in.

Will you be doing any racing in Europe?

I’m not sure. I think the team has talked about maybe going back to Malaysia or something. But California, Utah, and Colorado, those will be the main objectives. And the World Championships, because they will be here in the US of course. That will be different and exciting.

Horner dropped Vincenzo Nibali on the penultimate stage of the 2013 Veulta to take top honors in Madrid. (Photo: Yuzuru Sunada)
Horner claimed his greatest victory after beating Vincenzo Nibali at the 2013 Vuelta.

But I’m not interested in going over to Europe and doing any of the smaller racers. The only thing that ever interested me about racing in Europe was doing the really big races. I don’t want to be away from my family to do the small or medium-size races.

What role will you play in the new team in the smaller races?

Those races are more about making sure the team is getting everyone on the same page and working well together so that we’re ready for the bigger races. Of course results and winning bike races is always the first objective, but aside from that, it’s about knowing the capabilities of your teammates and making sure everyone knows how to ride well together. I’m not familiar with the team yet, because they’re all young kids, but usually it takes just a few races to figure that out pretty fast.

What, for you, are the major differences when it comes to racing in the US versus racing in Europe?

The mentality is different. Outside of being on your bike is when changes are really different for the riders. When you’re in Europe, it’s all about hotels and the bike race and getting to the next event. When you’re racing in the US, there’s a lot more life after the bike race. And the amount of energy spent on the bike isn’t as devastating. It’s really a full-time job in Europe — all the riders there use the term “It’s a business,” and in the US it’s a lot more relaxed. It’s still professional, but in Europe it’s like, race, massage, dinner, check out of hotel, go do the next race, check in, check out.

So I’ve always enjoyed doing the bike races but never enjoyed the travel part or the small hotels. And the difficulty is trying to find the food you want. In the US we have nicer hotels — bigger and more comfortable — which makes life easier. Plus, I always stay in touch with family quite easily here. We have a new baby coming along here in January, and it’ll be great to spend more time with my wife, and there will be some races that my kids can show up at.

Were you ever anxious that you might not get a contract for 2015?

No. I never thought I wouldn’t get a contract. That wasn’t the problem. It was a matter of, do I want to wait for it? How much energy do I want to put into it? You know, it’s nice knowing what your plans are for next year. It’s nice to know next year is all set, and you can focus on hanging out with the family another month before training starts up in January. In February you’re already in full race mode.

Horner won Stage 6 of the 2005 Tour de Suisse, and finished fifth overall.
Horner won Stage 6 of the 2005 Tour de Suisse, and finished fifth overall.

What’s one thing you’ll definitely not miss about racing in Europe?

Hotels! Honestly, the hotels are just absolutely horrendous. There are exceptions — you always get a nice hotel here and there, like when you’re in Switzerland. But it’s so hit and miss. And you don’t know what kind of food they’re going to serve you. That’s the one thing in Europe I’m happy to get away from.

And the thing you’ll really miss?

The big races. There’s something special about them. The one-day races, I don’t have too many that are my favorite. I like Liège [8th in 2006 and 7th in 2010] and Lombardy [10th in 2007 and 7th in 2008]. But of course I’ll miss doing the Grand Tours this year. There’s an upside and downside to that. One is, you’re not on the road for a month straight. The other is, you’re not doing something as big as the Tour de France.

You have said that a top-10 Grand Tour rider should earn in the neighborhood of $800,000. With your top-10s in GTs, and the Vuelta overall, surely you’re taking a major pay cut by signing with a US continental team. How will that affect you?

“Should earn” — those are the key words! But, yeah, usually a top-10 Grand Tour rider should earn in the 800 figures, give or take. And clearly that changes when you get back to the US. It’s not a problem for me — I’m well paid with the team here, and it certainly covers all my bills and stuff like that. And of course I’ve been bike racing a long time, so I’m financially well off.

There must be one or two races you’re looking to be 100% and gunning for in 2015.

California and Utah: Those are the races that are best designed for me. With Utah, the course is beautiful for me, but the altitude might be a little complicated. California is hard enough, but I wish it were harder. I’ve lived and trained and traveled all up and down California, SoCal and NorCal, so I’m very comfortable, no matter what stage we’re doing, to know what to expect. So California is certainly the first objective, where I’d like to do well and win something at. Utah is also a really ideal course for me considering how steep the climbs are.

What about the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado?

I’m not familiar with it since they changed it. The longer and harder they can make it, the better for me.

But probably the hardest thing for me to win on the whole calendar is US road nationals, because everyone is just so strong for that one day. I’m also targeted by the whole field, and it’s only a one-day race, so everybody’s fresh and everyone’s fit for it.

You’d really need a climb at the finish, or near the finish, to get a result.

That would be perfect.

So road nats is one of your major goals in 2015?

Yeah, it’ll be a goal. It comes right after California, so I don’t have to think about peaking for it — I’ll be peaking for California anyway, and can hold it for nationals.

And what about Richmond 2015, the next UCI Road World Championships?

I’d like to do it, for sure. In terms of the length of the race, it’s not an ideal course for me, but among the US riders we have for the one-day races, Tyler Farrar’s results are the best, and mine would be second, so it would be ideal to go there and see what kind of results we could get in front of the US crowd. Assuming the climbs are not that terribly hard, on paper Tyler’s the best US rider we have in terms of results. Maybe mine come second, because I’ve ridden top 10 at Liège and I’ve been top 10 at Lombardy.

At the UCI Road World Championships in 2003.
At the UCI Road World Championships in 2003.

As far as I know, we don’t really have any US riders who have been top 10 in big races like that. It’d be an ideal situation for a rider like Tyler and me to go.

What bikes are you on next year?

The team rides Marin bikes — very, very nice. It’s a company that makes beautiful bicycles.

I trust you’ll still get your extra-wide 44 or 46 bars?

Yeah, totally — but I might have to knock them down a size for the criteriums!

Wait, will you really be racing a bunch of crits?

Yeah — if you’re going to race in the US, you gotta do crits. There’s no doubt about it. I won my fair share of criteriums, so I enjoy them, because you never get bored once you’re at them. I don’t really think they’re any more dangerous than any of the other races we’re at. Clearly when you’re doing your first week at the Tour de France it’s more dangerous than any criterium I’ve ever done. I’ve always enjoyed doing criteriums, and I’ve got quite a few wins in them on my résumé, so it’d be nice to go back and do those again.

I’ll focus on putting back on a little more muscle, which will be a bit of a change for me, because I’ve always avoided muscle and tried to stay as small as I can. So I’ll try to add just a bit of muscle to help out in the crits, because what I’ve lost is a bit of acceleration, which I’ll need.

How are you going to do that?

I’ve got gym equipment arriving at the house here any day. So I’ll get to work on that and put on a little muscle that will help with the acceleration a bit.

Do you see yourself racing after 2015?

Oh yeah. I’m not planning on retiring. I don’t plan on this being my last year. Of course I take it year by year. But I’m not coming back to retire with this team or anything like that. I think it’s going to be fun coming back to the US — hopefully the young kids keep me motivated to race that much longer.

I plan on racing my bike.