|By Charlie Melk
Chris Horner bet a lot on this season. He took a huge pay cut and made many other personal and familial sacrifices to ride at the highest level again. This was the year that it all had to work. The good news is that it paid off, despite the fact that Chris had to overcome several big obstacles.
After starting the year out with work visa problems, then a significant injury, he managed to start hitting form just in time for Philly Week, scoring two top 6’s and rounding off the week on the bottom step of the podium after being a major protagonist at the USPro Championships. Soon after, he stepped it up another notch and got that elusive first pro win in Europe and on a mountain stage in the prestigious Tour de Suisse at that. This win also put Chris on Saunier Duval-Prodir’s Tour team, allowing him to taste the best stage racing pro cycling has to offer for the first time in his life.
As we’ve come to expect from him, Chris didn’t just sit back and watch the Tour happen to him—he attacked again and again, nearly winning Stage 13 before being partially swamped by a hard-charging, 70 kilometer per hour, peloton intent on a field sprint. And I say only partially swamped because, despite the fact that he had been away for over 100 miles, he still managed to sprint to a 10th place finish on the stage. This guy has heart, people!
I spoke to Chris on the eve of his departure back to Europe for his last three races of the season—Zuri Metzgete, Paris-Tours, and the Giro di Lombardia. As usual, he was extremely animated, very generous with his time, and about as happy sounding a person as you could imagine—this guy is living his dream and he knows it.
Next year he’ll be riding alongside Cadel Evans on the powerful, Belgian Davitamon-Lotto team, and it’s safe to say that we will see his name quite often in the results, as I’m sure he’ll never be far away from the business end of the racing. The impression I get is that, although 2005 was a good year for him, 2006 has the very real potential to be great.
Making the Most Out of 2005—Photo Courtesy of www.saunierduvalteam.com
DP: Quite a season, eh?
Yeah, it’s been ok. It got a little crazy at the beginning, and then I put it together for a nice little run there.
DP: Yeah, definitely.
CH: I’m happy—the season went really well.
DP: So, at the beginning you started out ok, right?
CH: Well, at the beginning, I had work visa problems in getting over there—that took 5 weeks—and then as soon as I got over there, I crashed and broke my leg [in Tirreno-Adriatico], so that’s 2 or 3 months—whatever it was.
DP: That’s crazy—I mean, even when your leg was broken you were still going really well [Chris finished Setmana Catalana in 16th place overall on GC].
CH: Well, yeah—I was riding on it fractured, which wasn’t doing it any good. I mean, I was starting the day off no problem, because the leg was healing over-night, and then what was happening was that I could walk to the bike in the morning before the racing, but then afterwards I really couldn’t even walk!
CH: Yeah, I mean, literally, it was taking me 10 minutes to get from the team bus to the hotel—and that’s from the hotel parking lot—so it was definitely causing some problems. And, you know, everyone, myself included, thought it was just a bone or muscle contusion, or something like that. I didn’t even really worry too much about it. But by the time Setmana Catalana was finished, I was pretty certain that it had to be broken because of the way it was acting.
So when I got back to the States and had an MRI done, that’s when I knew for sure—and that took a lot of time.
DP: Yeah, it really seemed that the diagnosis was dragging out.
CH: It was—I mean, it was my own fault, and the team’s fault to a smaller degree, to find out that it was fractured so late. I think it was a good 2 or 3 weeks later, or something that we found out it was fractured. After I broke it, I took a couple of days off, and then I trained really easy for a few more days, and then I trained hard for 3 days, and then I did Setmana Catalana, and then I had 5 more days of pain before I flew back to the States.
So, in the States, I didn’t get a chance to see Max Testa until the following Monday, which was another 4 or 5 days from when I'd gotten back. So, it’d been a while! (laughs)
DP: Yeah, right.
CH: And that whole time I was training on it, which was doing it no good at all.
DP: Right, so what kind of treatment did it take to get everything back on track?
CH: Well, it was just fractured, so I just needed to back off on the training and give it some time to heal—don’t walk on it so much, you know—don’t put a lot of effort into the leg.
DP: Man, it must have been tempting to get back on the bike.
CH: Well, it was. But then I called the team and said that I couldn’t do Georgia, and I couldn’t do the Giro. And then, from there, there was no reason to fly back, because about the time the Giro would be done the leg would be healed, and there was no reason to fly back for 1 or 2 weeks, and then fly back to the States for Philly. So, it really turns training—I mean I was training basically from January until Philly.
DP: Yeah, yeah—and Philly week went great for you . . .
On the Attack with Chris Wherry at Philly—Photo Courtesy of www.saunierduvalteam.com
CH: Oh yeah, Philly week went good—I put the training together. I was doin’ the work. I mean, I didn’t have a lot of days of racing, but I had a lot of mentally tough days added up throughout the season, just with that broken leg. It took a lot of effort to get through that.
DP: So right after Philly week [where Chris put together an extremely strong week of racing, taking 6th at Lancaster, 6th at Trenton, and 3rd at the USPro Championships] came the Tour de Suisse, and that fantastic mountain stage win. Did you see that coming?
High in the Swiss Alps with Teammate Leonardo Piepoli—Photo Courtesy of www.saunierduvalteam.com
CH: I knew the form was coming—I felt it at Philly. I mean, I knew it wasn’t 100% for sure at Philly, but I also knew it was good. So after that it was the Tour de Suisse, and I knew I had to do something at the Tour de Suisse to make the Tour [de France] team. So I knew that I had to do something.
Going Rev for Rev with Der Kaiser—Photo Courtesy of www.saunierduvalteam.com
DP: Sweet—so did you have your eye on that stage from the beginning, or was it more a case of you just waiting for your best shot?
CH: No, not from the beginning, but I also knew going into that stage—I mean, we had the meeting in the morning, and I said that if I felt good, I wasn’t going to do anything until that last climb. And I knew that I was down on GC, so I knew that I’d have an opportunity to get away if all of the favorites were looking at each other, so definitely in the morning I was very interested in that stage [on top of winning the stage, Chris ended up finishing the Tour de Suisse in an excellent 5th place overall on GC]. But before that—no, I hadn’t really set it aside and said to myself that that would be the day.
Winning Stage 6 at the Tour de Suisse—Photo Courtesy of www.saunierduvalteam.com
DP: Great, so the Tour de Suisse was a huge success, you’ve got the form—you must have been so excited to finally get to ride the Tour de France.
CH: Yeah, absolutely!
DP: So did your form continue to build going into the Tour?
CH: Nah, I think it stayed the same. Actually, I think I may have even lost a little bit of that edge. I mean, there were those days right before the Tour, when you’re in your hotel for three days—the weather is bad—you’ve got a lot of press and PR stuff to do—I think those were the days that didn’t help anything at all. I mean, I was definitely in better shape the day I arrived at the hotel than the day the Tour started. I think next year, if I’m doing the Tour, I’ll have to figure out a better way to work those 3 days out.
DP: Was it possible to ride very much at all?
CH: Yeah, well, I rode the trainer those days, but you’re not going to ride the trainer for 4 or 5 hours. I trained on the road, and I road the trainer. I mean, when I was in Spain the weather was great, and when I got to France, the weather was bad. But more than the weather—weather wasn’t really so much of a major factor—it was the press and a bunch of other stuff that got in the way of training.
DP: Right—so it must have been a big relief once the race actually began.
CH: Yeah, finally!
DP: So the day you got away with Chavanel [Stage 13 to Montpellier]—that was incredible to watch—did you guys believe that you’d make it?
CH: I thought we’d get caught with 50k to go! (laughs) But we didn’t get caught there, and then Chavanel came across. Then he attacked us, and I thought, “Ah, we’re gonna get caught anyway, so I’ll go ahead and cover that move.” And then I got on with him, and he attacked me a couple of different times. You can’t really see it much in the video, but you could see just a little bit of a gap opening up every time he pulled through—he was actually attacking me then.
So I started working with him, but I was still thinking that we were just gonna get caught, y’know? (laughs) And then it wasn’t until about 5k to go that I thought, “We’re not gonna get caught—we’re going to the line!” (laughs again) And in all honesty, the only reason they caught us is that him and I played games. We waited a little bit too long to start. I mean, he didn’t want me to attack him, and I didn’t want him to attack me.
DP: Yeah, and he was a little bit whiney in his comments after the stage, too.
CH: Yeah he was a little bit whiney for a guy who was making close to $1,000,000, trying to beat a guy making $50,000! (we both laugh when he puts it like that!) Especially when the guy making $50,000 was in the break for 100 miles and he was in the break for like 15! I mean—I was like—“If you can’t lead out from 800 meters and win, don’t blame me!” (both of us start laughing again)
DP: I kind of chuckled a bit when I read his comments afterwards.
CH: Well, the funny thing was that his comment was that I wasn’t cooperating. But if I remember right, and I could show it all on video—he was attacking me! When I got to him, he attacked me 3 times. That’s 3 times, where if he wouldn’t have been attacking me we could have gone into that last kilometer with a 10 second lead instead of a 4 second lead. And he kept attacking me, trying to go solo from 15k out—and you’re not gonna go solo from 15k out. So that was his mistake to begin with. And then, finally, we worked well together, but there was NO WAY I was gonna lead it out from under a K to go. I mean, once he passed that kite for a K to go, he’s leading it out—that’s just the way it is! (laughs)
DP: Yeah, when I saw the finish, I was just thinking, “Right on, Chris—right on!” I was yelling at my tv! So how did the rest of the Tour go? I assume the next couple days after this stage really hurt.
CH: Well, in all honesty, that stage didn’t take a huge toll out on me. I had another stage that really did [Stage 11 to Briançon]. I mean, I was in a break—we were going up the Madelaine with a bunch of different guys—all the top GC guys were there—and that was a mistake, because I was going pull for pull with those guys. Heras was there and Mancebo was there and Vinokourov was there. I mean, when Vinokourov got there I should have just sat on! (laughs) But instead, I went pull for pull with him, and we got to the top of a 30k climb with only a 30 second advantage! (laughs again) So when Mancebo sat up, I sat up. I thought, “Well, he’s sittin’ up, I will too—that looks like a smart move!” (more laughter) So we sat up, but the other 4 of them went over the top. It was impressive that they actually stayed off that whole day—Vinokourov ended up winning the stage.
DP: So did everything with Davitamon-Lotto come together at the Tour?
CH: Yeah, well, I’m sure that might have been where they started keeping their eye on me, but it didn’t come together there—it was about a week before the Clasica San Sebastian, so just a little after the Tour.
DP: Cool—so what do you see your role being next year?
CH: Well, to help Cadel out in the Tour and look after myself in some of the smaller stage races. And I’ll try to see if I can’t pick up some more wins myself too. The good thing is, for me, honestly, is that this is a team that I’m kind of used to being on, in terms of they always have someone who can win. You go into the Classics—they have guys who can win the Classics. You go into the stage races—they’ve got GC guys. You go into the individual stages of the stage races, and they’ve got sprinters! I mean, the team’s loaded with sprinters!
And, for me, I like to be a part of the racing every day—I mean, day-in and day-out—not just—“Well, it’s a sprint day—there’s not a lot we can do. Let’s try to get into the break. If we miss the break, then we’ve got a 5 hour ride ahead of us.” (laughs) And that’s the way it was during some of the days during the Tour, y’know? You’ve got a 5 hour ride.
But when you’ve got a guy like McEwen on your team, I know that I’ve got a job to do—to lead him out at the end of the race. And with Cadel, I know that I’ve got a GC guy that I can help. And, you know, if Cadel’s not going good, I know that I can go good too. And if I’ll be doing any of the Classics, we’ve got Van Petegem that I can help out.
DP: So are you going to try to hit a lot of the Classics in the spring?
CH: Nooooope! (laughs) I’m pretty sure that I’m going to be on Cadel’s schedule—the same one he had. We’ll be doing more of the stage races than the Classics, so maybe Liege or Amstel, or something like that, but there are enough Belgians on the team where you’ve got plenty of guys to do the cobblestone Classics.
I know they’re great, and they’re just fantastic races to watch, but I just lose focus when I’m doing them. I get on the cobbles, and I think, “What am I doin’ here!?” (we both laugh) And as soon as you think that, you go straight from the front to the back! If I have really, really, really good form, then I might be interested in doing one of those, but I’m not the type of rider that’s good at fighting for position for a few hundred and 50K, and that’s what it takes. You’ve gotta fight for position for 250K. You fight for the position, sit there, and then wait for the split. Y’know?—it’s a waiting game—except you can’t wait at the back—you’ve gotta be up at the front.
DP: Right, and that’s just taking huge energy all the time.
CH: Oh yeah!—incredible. So, I mean, for me I prefer the races where a climb’s coming, and that’s when you know you’ve got to be in the front. (laughs) If you look at Liege or Amstel—you know you’ve got to be on the front in those races, but you also know when you really need to be there and when you don’t. And with the cobblestones—you’ve gotta be on the front on those things, because there can be a guy who crashes in front of you, and you lose 2 minutes right then.
DP: Yeah right—and then try getting back on after that, right?
CH: Right—and then, in all honesty, I’m just too light for those races—I’m just bouncing around all over the place.
DP: So, you mentioned that you’re going back to Europe yet this fall. What’s the plan?
CH: I’m going back for Zurich, Paris-Tours, and Tour of Lombardy.
DP: Are you looking forward to that?
CH: It kind of depends. I mean, I haven’t been getting the training in, or the rest, lately, because I’ve just been doing other things. I’ve been gone away for 4 months, and there are other things you’ve just gotta do when you finally get back home. Y’know, a house just doesn’t care of itself forever! (we both laugh). There’re just a lot of things you gotta do.
Hopefully I got some good rest out of this, with less training, and then I’ve got two more weeks after I get to Europe to hopefully build some good form for Lombardy.
DP: So looking forward to next year—are you going to live in Spain again, or are you maybe thinking about Belgium?
CH: Ah—noooo, I’m not living in Belgium. (laughs) For the moment anyways, I’m thinking that it would be ideal to get a vacation rental down South in Spain for the first few months, and then I’ve talked to Cadel, and he’d like to do some training together. So maybe I’ll spend some time up by his place too [Lugnorre, Switzerland]. That also requires speaking another language, so that’s making things a little bit more difficult too. I already speak a little French and a little Spanish—I’m certainly not fluent in either—but I’d like to get better at those two versus adding a third.
DP: The South of Spain sounds good for the early season, as opposed to how cold it might be in Belgium . . .
CH: Well, Belgium would have its pluses. I mean, the people are really friendly, most of the people speak either French or English, so I could get by a little easier in that way. You get a lot of English programs on tv. But the weather’s terrible, and honestly I don’t know how they can do it with the training. I just don’t see how you can find that kind of form, but the Belgians seem to find it.
DP: Yeah—works for them.
CH: Yeah, exactly.
DP: Many thanks, Chris— good luck at Lombardy and enjoy your winter!