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Chris Horner: Back to the Big Leagues
 
By Charlie Melk
Date: 12/26/2004
Chris Horner: Back to the Big Leagues
 

Introduction

Everyone connected with road racing in the United States knows who Chris Horner is. Easily the most dominant rider on the US domestic scene in recent times, Horner has been racking up big wins with precision and astounding predictability for many years, since he turned pro in the early Ď90ís with Nutra Fig.

A short list of Chrisí wins includes the Tour de Langkawi (2000), the Redlands Bicycle Classic (four times - 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004), the Sea Otter Classic (twice - 2002, and 2004), the Tour de Georgia (2003), the T Mobile International (2003), the Fitchburg Longsjo Classic (2002), along with numerous stage victories in races such as the Tour Dupont, the Tour of the Gila, the Cascade Classic, the tour of Connecticut, among others, and a slew of other single day victories as well. Chris has over 50 wins to his credit as a pro, and the list keeps getting bigger every year.

Starting out in San Diego, Chris raced regionally until he signed with Nutra Fig in 1994, at the age of 22. He stayed with them for three years, eventually hitting his stride in 1996, winning one of the Olympic Trials road races, a stage of the Tour Dupont, the United Statesí premier event at the time, and most importantly, according to him, a stage at Redlands, which catapulted him into every teamís "most wanted" list.

After his successful 1996 season, Chris took a big step up, and signed the dotted line for Marc Madiot and the D1 La Francaise des Jeux team, making France his home base. Three very difficult and fruitless years followed, and he decided to give an American team with European aspirations a go in 2000. This was John Wordinís Mercury team.

Chrisí tenure at Mercury started off remarkably well, with a victory at the prestigious Tour de Langkawi, and soon later another big win at Redlands. But when the bottom infamously dropped out of the Mercury cycling team in 2001, Chris landed with a young and promising team in 2002 - Prime Alliance - where he picked up right where he left off before the Mercury fiasco - winning many important races with an unassailable combination of tactical sense and raw power.

The 2003 season saw Chris joining forces with the Saturn "super team" that, between himself, Tom Danielson, and Nathan OíNeill, won just about every race of any importance on this side of the Atlantic that year.


Horner after his win at the 2003 T-Mobile Internatonal. Photo by Jaime Nichols.

After the decision of Saturn to discontinue sponsoring a cycling team, the talent dispersed amongst the US peloton much more evenly, and Chris made the controversial decision to sign with a very new, very regional, and some thought, very weak and inexperienced team - Webcor Builders. But his largely untested teammates ended up coming through for Chris, and displayed a level of professionalism that surprised many fans and fellow racers, stepping up their game whenever the need arose.

But Chris didnít always want to stay racing in the US, and this fall, he earned a special opportunity to ride for Saunier Duval - a D1 team last year and a Pro Tour team this coming season. The waiting, the hard work, and the results had all finally paid off - he was finally going back to the big leagues.

Seeking to sharpen his improving, post San Francisco Grand Prix form, Chris headed to his long-time friend, Trent Klasnaís house for a final training camp before traveling to the World Championships in Verona, Italy. And judging by his result at that race, an incredible 8th place, the plan worked.

Parlaying his good form and former plans to sign a 2005 contract with Saunier Duval into a present, rather than future, opportunity, Chris promptly signed and started immediately with his new team. The US domestic season was over, and there were a couple of World Cups left. Why not just jump in right away?

After a respectable pack finish at Paris-Tours on a parcourse that didnít particularly suit his style, he narrowly missed a high finish at the prestigious Milan-Turin classic, three days before the Tour of Lombardy, as his two man break was caught 300 meters from the line. And at Lombardy, Chris again proved that he was right where he belonged by finishing 11th - in the first chase group - just 17 seconds off the five man winning break - the best American result at Lombardy in years.

And now - the skyís the limit. This resident of Bend, Oregon, is making the most of his new lease on a European cycling career, and weíll be hearing a lot more about him in 2005 if my radar is working like it usually does. Keep your eyes on Chris Horner this year, people - you wonít be disappointed.



Horner in yellow with the Redlands 2004 jersey-wearers. Photo by Daily Peloton.

Interview with Chris Horner

How did you get started in racing?

Well, I was working at a bike shop when I was 15, and I was down at the track training, and I just kind of ran into a club there, and theyíre like, "Yeah, come join the club and do a bike race." And I was like, "Yeah, all right." Thatís kind of how I officially got started - I was just down at the track. I had no idea how to get a license, or anything like that. I mean, without knowing cyclists or having someone in the family who raced, you wouldnít actually know how to race.

Yeah, totally.

You wouldnít know the information to get started. I mean, nowadays, with the computers, you could probably figure it out a lot easier, but back in the day - this was around í87, or something like that - give or take a year. The computers werenít there, so you didnít understand that you could race, day in and day out.

Yeah, I started laughing when you said that you were working at the bike shop when you were 15, because, weíre about the same age, and I got started the same way at the same age.

(laughing) Yeah, itís really weird. You kind of just fall into it.

Exactly.

Yeah, and I got a road bike, a 10 speed at the time, when I was 13, for my birthday, and I knew I wanted one. My birthday was coming up, so I asked my mom for one and she got me one, and I always kept riding down to the same bike shop, whenever I needed something, or just checking out bikes, or whatever. Then one day the manager says, "Hey, you want a job here?" (laughter from both of us) Iím like, "Sure!"

Yeah, for me it was sort of like I was hanging out there so much that they finally started paying me for it.

Yup, thatís what happened to me - exactly - I was hanging out there quite a bit, and one day I was buying some shoes, and the guy was like, "Hey, you need some work? You need a job?" And I was like, "I go to school - I canít have a job." Because I was only 15 - I was under the impression that you couldnít even have a job at 15.

Right.

I was like, "You canít have a job when youíre 15!" And he said, "Yeah, you can!" And I was like HUH?" (laughter) I guess that there are some limitations on what you can do, but you can definitely work at 15.

And thatís kind of nice too, because I was making just under 50 bucks a week, and you got paid once a week, which was great - we got paid on Monday. So, it was perfect - youíd start to run out of money after the weekend, you know - school started again on Monday, Iíd collect my check, and whatever money I had left got burned on the weekend!

You know, if you got paid on Friday, youíd just burn it on the weekend, and you wouldnít have any money, Monday through Friday.

Basically, making any money at all when youíre 15 is great, right?

Oh yeah! You know how it is - you give a kid 10 or 15 bucks and thatís something to do that day.

For sure.

Yeah, it worked out nice - those were fun years.

Photo by Scott Schaffrick.
How did you get to the point from where you were racing locally on the track to where you were racing on a national level? Did you race on the national level as a junior at all?

Ah, no - not as a junior. I didnít even do that many races as a junior - probably four or five races, and then a couple of track races - thatís about all. And then at the end of the 1990 season - my last year in school - I started doing a couple more races - it took about four races - but I got my upgrade, so I could be a Cat 2 for the í91 season. I was racing quite a bit in the í91 season, and from there you just keep rolliní it through, basically.

The real reason I was able to turn pro is that I was working construction once, at the end of the summer, and then all the jobs dried up in October. So then I was on unemployment. By then I was 20 - so Iíd been working for 5 years - by then I could collect unemployment. And after three months, there would have been some work for the construction, but the form was starting to get pretty good (he laughs), so I called the boss-man of the construction site, and I said, "Ah, think Iím just gonna race my bike!" (we both crack up) So, truthfully, I turned pro because of unemployment - so it is good for something!

Thatís a great story.

Yeah, well, it wasnít like I turned pro and started making money right away. I was broke, and living off 20 bucks a week until I was 24 or 25, and I finally started making some decent prize money around then.

Right - payiní your dues.

Oh, I paid dues - believe me! I had to go to races with no money to get my car back home because I was out of gas. Iíd have to win gas money to get back home! And at that same race, I probably floated the check to the promoter! So I probably had to win to get the money so I could get back quick and put the money in the bank! So it was doing whatever I could to get to the races.

I can also remember the times of taking a credit card - and during this time you could get away with it - I noticed in the later years you couldnít - but in the early years you could go buy something on your credit card - and I didnít have a Visa or Mastercard, I had a department store card - and you could buy something on your department store card and have your sister return it (we both crack up again). Thatís how we would eat!

Sheer ingenuity!

Yeah, you did whatever it took. We did stuff like that all the time. I had a department store card and a gas card, so, between those two you could eat. Because some gas stations actually sold milk and all of that kind of stuff - you could get gas and milk. You just find ways to make it happen.

And itís funny, because I couldnít live off of that right now for a day!


The 2003 Tour de Georgia final podium: Rodriguez, Horner, O'Neill. Photo by Jaime Nichols.

Yeah, the older you get, the more complicated your life gets.

Absolutely!

And probably the more successful you get, the more complicated your life gets.

Absolutely!! (laughs)

So, what was that first big win that changed things for you?

The first big win that I can remember was at the USD [University of San Diego] Grand Prix. I want to say that was in í91. That was the opening race in the season, but at that time of the year, in San Diego, everybody was down there to race. The Chevrolet-L.A. Sheriff team was there, Lance was there, Subaru-Montgomery, or whatever they were called at the time, and Spago. There were a bunch of big guys there when I won.

I was in a break of five, and it had Jim Copeland, and Brian, I want to say his last name was Swank - he was in the break - and Jim Friar, and Trent Klasna were in the break. It came down to a sprint between the five of us, and I ended up winning. That was definitely my first big win. That was the first one when any of the local teams would have went, "Whoooo - look at this guy!"

But I would say the big one - the one that really got everything started, was in í96, when I won a stage at Redlands. That same year I went on to win a stage at DuPont and one of the Olympic Trials races that year too.

So, you road for Nutra Fig that year, right?

Yup, I rode for Nutra Fig í94-í96. I did three years with them. And I had results in í94 and í95, but nothing real big. I won a couple races at Superweek in í95, I believe it was. You know - more the regional races.

Yeah, I remember that. I live in Wisconsin, and was there that year.

Oh yeah? I miss it. I havenít been back there since 1996. I keep wanting to go back there, but by that time of the year Iím always so tired. And itís funny - I never did Cascade, but now I do because I live right here. So, Iíve always done Cascade, either coming off a break or going on a break right then.

Yeah, I love Bend. Itís a beautiful area.

Yeah, it is. I really like it up here. The training isnít really that good - I mean for road riding. Itís good enough. It gets the job done. But Iím more living up here because I love the area so much.

Right.

You know, originally I came up just because it was affordable, and all that kind of stuff, and Iíd never seen it. But it was really easy to buy a house, because, from day one, I liked the place, so itís been the same ever since.

Cool. Well, speaking of your early wins, can you put a finger on what your biggest win to date is?

Well, the one I enjoyed the most was the Olympic Trials, and then DuPont - those two together, probably. Biggest win . . . I donít know - maybe San Francisco or Langkawi in 2000 was a big win too, because that was a 12 day stage race with an international field.

Yeah, that was awesome.

Itís always hard to pinpoint one - I mean, biggest in terms of your career, or biggest in terms of your agenda? Know what I mean?

Right - yeah.

In terms of my career, San Francisco would probably be the biggest, but it didnít change my career any - my career was already there, and I was supposed to win it. Know what I mean? Compare that to í96, when I won a stage at Redlands and finished 2nd overall - thatís when people started saying, "Wow, look at this guy. This guyís doing it at a national level." Because from the moment I won that stage in í96, I had pro teams wanting to sign me. So, I would say that win was the biggest for my career.

Right, and the thing I really liked about your win at Langkawi was that it was after a couple of tough years.

Yeah (full-on laughter) - no, no - it was after three hard years!

(Laughing) I was trying to make it sound better!

Right - no, it was three really hard years without much results.

Totally - it must have felt so good to go to a big stage race and win.

Yeah, it really did - that, and it took a lot of pressure off of me, of course, because I was already signed on the team as a team leader! And at that race, I wasnít even supposed to be riding well yet, because I hadnít even trained for it, or anything!

And, literally, if you would have asked anyone at training camp, I was getting dropped - you know, holding onto the car. I was begging them not to take me. I was almost demanding not to go. But I had to go, because I was on the list, and it was too late to change it.

So, I get there. I didnít want to go to Langkawi. I get off the plane - itís a 21 hour flight - I can barely walk because my legs are so swollen, and stuff. I just wanted nothing to do with that race.

You actually get to the island of Langkawi with about two to three days before the race. As soon as you go on a ride and hear monkeys chirpiní off in the jungle, and on the other side itís this deserted, beautiful beach - I was like, "Wow, this is cool!" (we both laugh)

So, from then on my head changed completely. I was like, "Ya know what? This is cool! Iím going to use this for some really good training and see what happens."

I suffered a huge amount on the first three stages, but on the fourth stage - I donít know how it happened - but the legs just opened up, and they were fantastic.

Thatís especially great when itís a surprise, right?

Well, the funny thing was that Floyd Landis was on the team with us, and he was going exceptional! Heís from San Diego, and I didnít know Floyd that well at the time, because he was a new teammate to me, but we had met up and done a big group ride there that goes up the coast.

He was doing stuff on that ride that had me going, "WOW!" We had twelve guys chasing him one day, and everyone blew but me and Axel Merckx! So, me and Axel Merckx are chasing him down, full-gas, and we couldnít bring him back! (We both laugh.)


Landis in the yellow jersey on Stage 1 of the 2000 Tour de Langkawi.
Photo courtesy Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi.

Wow!

Yeah, I was like - "Wow, heís got good form!" Then we got over to training camp in Simi Valley, and we had this other Swiss-French rider, Steve Zampieri, and he and Floyd were just going at it every day in training camp.

So, when we got to Langkawi, Floyd won the Prologue, and he was race leader. Then he lost it the next day, but to some non-climber, so we werenít really worried about it.

During stage 6, then, I ended up getting into a really big break, and I didnít even realize that I was race leader in it, so I wasnít even working at first. Then the director came up, and said, "Youíre race leader, so you can work if you want." I was like, "All right, letís do it!" I ended up having the jersey after that.


Chris Horner in the leader's jersey at the start of Stage 12, 2000 Tour de Langkawi.
Photo courtesy Telekom Malaysia Tour de Langkawi.

I think stage 8 or stage 9 there was a crash about a k and a half from the finish, and everyone knew that there was going to be a crash. Everyone knew that you had to get to the front for this turn, and everything, so Iím fighting for position left and right, making sure Iím at the front. As soon as we hit the turn, everyone crashes, just like it always happens, and I managed to thread the needle and just get through it. Only about 25 or 30 of us got through it and made it to the line. Everyone else lost at least a minute. Some guys lost two, and Floyd ended up being one of those guys who lost two. So, the commissaires said that they were going to give everybody their time back if no one fought it.

Our director was Wordin, and he didnít want to fight it, because Floyd lost two minutes. So I said, "Hey, I know what I was like at training camp, but Iíve got different form now from what I had at training camp. I think you ought to fight this, because I guarantee you that if you give me an extra minute over everyone, Iíll win." But he didnít have any faith in me, and let it go, so they gave everyone their time back.

But when we went up the Genting climb, I ended up dropping everyone but one guy. There were a few guys up the road, but they were pretty far down on GC. I ended up dropping everyone but the guy who was second on GC, and he stayed with me all the way to the finish, so I ended up winning the race. But, I mean, the team had no faith at all in me, going into that race. It was a nice victory - absolutely.

(Joking) So no hard feelings between you and Floyd?

(Laughing) No, no - not at all! We get along fine. In fact, I was hoping that heíd come on Saunier Duval. When he had the whole fiasco with Phonak, they [Saunier Duval] really wanted to sign him, because Beloki left. I was talking to my agent, who is also Floydís agent, seeing if we could get him over too, but heís staying with Phonak.

Stay tuned for Part Two...

 
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