Chris Horner is one of the greatest American racing cyclists in history. His career trajectory somewhat followed the patterns of my own, with his vastly more successful of course, bouncing seasons from Europe to the USA and back again. Horner is almost unique in his abilities, having won on the barnstorming American circuit capturing the NRC (PRT today) for three consecutive years and almost every important US race along the way including the Tours of California and Georgia, before returning to triumph in Europe. He’s won the Tour of the Basque County, ridden seven Tour de France’s and capped off his European career with a win in the Vuelta a España, where he put away Vincenzo Nibali in a mano a mano final climb becoming the oldest-ever winner of a Grand Tour. As Chris puts it, “I’ve raced from Indurain and Pantani to Lance, Nibali and Dumoulin.”
Chris Horner is known for astute tactical observation born of his innate racing spirit and long experience. He shared some observations on this Tour with me over the phone yesterday.
Q: What do you think of this Tour so far?
A: Well, to begin with, Movistar threw their Tour away by attacking in the Alps – the director screwed up massively. Real climbers go better in the third week. In the second week they are still exhausted from the big Classics riders who kill us in the first 10-days in the same way that we climbers kill them back in the mountains. I still can’t believe what they did with Valverde, who was going great. And Quintana’s a small guy who really suffers in the flats, so they should have waited, made Team Sky do all the work until the Pyrenees where they would have come good. Now, they’re cooked and have thrown their Tour away. It’s a disaster for the team.
Once in the Vuelta a teammate turned to me and said that he’d never felt so fresh after the first week of a Grand Tour. I responded that that was normal because in the Vuelta you have mountain stages right away and the big guys, who are cooked afterwards, ride 2-3kph slower on the flats than they would in the first week of “Classics” in the Tour.
Q: So, it would have been better for Valverde to wait for the third week to make his big attack as he’s older and more endurant? The fact that the Alps were ridden at such high speeds and Sky was still fresh made making any time difference on them that much more difficult?
A: Of course! When I was older I had trouble with the speed on the flats, jumping out of the roundabouts, that all became torture for me, but even into my 40’s I felt my endurance still increasing. I could train at 375 watts and hold it for 30-40 minutes. You lose that top speed when you get older, but endurance is not the problem, it just keeps getting better. Dumoulin, for example, floats through the first 10-days of the race with no real problems, he’s a big, very, very strong guy and can handle that stuff with ease. So he’s not as tired from those stages as a Quintana would be. (I note that the top four riders on top of the Alp – Froome, Thomas, Dumoulin and Bardet were all 6’ tall).
Q: Can Sky be beaten?
A: Tom Dumoulin can win but he’s got two tremendous riders to beat. The question is Thomas, who has never in his life climbed well in the third week of a Grand Tour. There’s no history on him in this respect and that’s the big question. So Dumoulin has to watch and calculate for that.
I note that Thomas has been specifically trained to win this Tour as a replacement for Froome should his case have gone bad. He was trained to win the Giro last year but crashed out so yes, we really don’t know what to expect of him.
Q: What do you think about the sprinters and the current issue with them – i.e.: no longer there?
A: (laughter) Maybe they just need to get a bit skinnier…., well, that’s not going to happen. Once I rode a stage where 400m from the start was the sign saying 28k to the summit. 75 riders banded together to make the time limit, the jury couldn’t throw them out. No one does that today. Maybe the future is that the sprinters will just focus on the first 10-days and go home afterwards.
I pointed out that that was what Mario Cipollini used to do back in the day: he’d take Yellow, and or win a stage or two, give the French the Italian salute and fly home as fast as possible to get to the beach in Viareggio. He was always severely criticized for this, but…maybe Mario saw the future.
We finished up by talking about training with wattage and Chris pointed out that one uses a monitor as a guide to interpret your own training and sensations rather than something that dictates it, an important distinction lost on many modern riders. (note, I once had the same interaction and viewpoint from Paul Koecheli, the famed trainer of Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault.)
I asked Chris about an article I’d read quoting a current pro saying that almost no one meets for group rides any more, they all just go out on their own and do intervals. We both laughed at how sad that was. “Nobody’s allowed to have fun anymore,” he said, adding, “I’ve never done an interval in my life. I go out, ride for the pleasure, and go hard up a mountain when I feel like it.” We talked about the beauty of being a pro racer. He replied, “Look, I’m approaching 50, have a pro license but am riding for fun. I was in the Tour of Romania this year, beautiful place, beautiful people and food, great hotel, same one for the entire race. Perfect race full of young strong guys just going for it. One stage, it was hailing, pouring rain, and threatening winds, and they canceled the stage. I was like, what are you doing! I’m having the time of my life! It was so intense and that is what cycling is all about.”
Thank you, Chris Horner, a man with true racing spirit.
John Eustice, is the organizer of the Thompson Bucks County Classic in Doylestown, Pennsylvania and a long-time cycling analyst who has contributed to ESPN, ABC Sports, Time Magazine, and CNN among others. The Bucks County native resides in New York City. He was a pioneer on the European racing circuit and is a two-time United States Professional Champion.