Coming off a broken hip in March at Tirreno Adriatico, American Chris Horner (Saunier Duval), the top rider in USA Cycling’s National Racing Calendar rankings the past three years, returned to racing on Tuesday in Lancaster, where he finished sixth. He again took sixth in Trenton Thursday, showing his Spanish team directors that he’s on the mend and eager to make his first trip to the Tour de France. A win, or a strong showing, in Philadelphia on Sunday could go a long way to make that happen. We caught up with Horner to pose the questions everyone’s been asking about the Tour and the USPRO Championships.
VeloNews: How are things looking for a spot on the Saunier Duval-Prodir Tour de France team?
Chris Horner: I hope it’s looking good, but I’m going to have to ride better than I did at Lancaster to make the Tour team. But I’ve got time. I’ve got Philly on Sunday and the Tour de Suisse right after that. It’s too soon to say, but I hope there’s a shot.
VN: Finishing top 10 at both Lancaster and Trenton shows the form is already back.
CH: It shows the team that I wasn’t on a vacation [laughs]. It shows the team they can rely on me to be at home and come to the race and be fit and be a professional, which says a lot. That right there says I am working hard, and the form is there. They know I want to go to the Tour. But then again, it takes a little more than that. A win somewhere, a jersey on Sunday, something in the Tour de Suisse, and I would think that would get me on, but even that, maybe not. I’ll definitely push for it. I think some of the sponsors on the team would push for me to go as well, especially Scott or Prodir, they really want an American on there.
VN: It seems like it would be a great built-in story for all the non-cycling American journalists at the Tour this year covering Lance. Here’s an American who has been the top rider in the States for years, but for one reason or another has never made the Tour de France. Coming off a broken leg, it has a lot of appeal to underdog America.
CH: But you’ve got to show you can ride at the level. I have shown it, but coming off a broken leg, when they are selecting the Tour de France team, they are thinking, “Oh, he’s at home right now, he’s not even racing.” You’re not even on their minds. We get here and I’ve shown I can ride a good race, but this is my first racing of the season. Hopefully it’s enough for the directors to say, “Now we’ll keep an eye on him. Maybe he is back on the list.” But I don’t actually know if that’s the way they are thinking, but that’s the way I would think about it.
VN: What’s been your mentality coming into Lancaster and Trenton?
CH: I needed these races to get that top-end speed back into my legs, and Lancaster and Trenton are good for that. Those will make huge leaps and bounds for Sunday’s race. It’s just like the world championships last year. I did the world championships on three weeks of no racing. In seven weeks I’d had just the San Francisco race, three weeks before world’s. So the legs paid the price at the world championships, but then later, each week after, I’d notice how much better the legs were getting. I’m hoping that the same happens here as well, that I’ll get that top end, that hit speed back.
Then of course we have [2004 USPRO Championship winner] Francisco Ventoso as well, who is a sprinter. If we can get him to the corner, he stands a good chance of winning, too. You want to look for the win first and foremost, and then I hope my form comes, too.
VN: Come Sunday, is the team riding for the win or the jersey?
CH: I think the team would be happy with either/or. I know I’d be happy with the jersey, and I’m pretty certain the team would be incredibly happy to have the jersey. Certainly our sponsors Scott bikes and Prodir would love to have it. I don’t know how much it means to Saunier Duval, but to the team itself, every time we’re in Europe it would mean a lot.
My form is good, I just need some more racing. And, I know it’s asking a lot of the legs with only two days of racing before the big one, but you deal with what you’re given, and this is what I’m given. [To legs:] Two races. Get ready!
VN: Philly, or at least the national title, is one of the few North American races you haven’t won. CH: It seems like any kind of national jersey has eluded me.
VN: Who are the other guys to watch fighting it out for the jersey?CH: Of course you’ve got Fred [Rodriguez]. The course is tailor-made for him, and he’s bringing a team that’s totally backing him up with the speed and power to get him there, too. You’ve got to keep an eye on Fred.
The Health Net guys are going really well, and they’ve got a lot of speed as well. Whoever they get in the break, out of the nine-man teams, you’ve got to believe they’ve got six guys with speed, so they should have someone there. They’ve shown they are riding well, that’s for certain.
VN: Fred said Chris Wherry [Health Net-Maxxis] was looking pretty strong in the break in Lancaster.
CH: Wherry was the strongest guy in the break, no doubt about it. He was by far and away the strongest guy in the break. He and Lieswyn were taking strong pulls, but Wherry was very, very strong on Tuesday.
And Bobby Julich … on Tuesday [in Lancaster] he messed up. He was attacking way too early, way too soon, showing way too many cards. He missed the move. Of course he had a rider in there, so that’s the way you do it, so he didn’t miss the move. But I think if he had been in that break, that was the move, with what form I saw that he had early in the race that he was using, had he used that later in the race, I think he could have soloed to the win. And that’s not taking anything away from Wherry, because Wherry was the strongest guy in the break, but Bobby J was the strongest guy in the race that I saw. Either that, or he was just blowing his whole wad right away. Five or six laps in he threw in an attack that completely shattered the field. At that point in time the race had been real easy, and everyone was still fresh. That move single-handedly destroyed the whole field, and that’s what set up our break.
VN: That was after you guys brought in the early breakaway?
CH: No, that was the other thing. You don’t attack before you bring the break back. Otherwise, you just get up there, and the same thing happens that happened to him at Philly last year happens again. What good does it do to attack while there’s still a break up the road? If you attack and go to it, it means nothing if they are still fresh. If they’re dead tired, when you catch them, you go right through them no problem. But five, six laps into the race you can assume they’re not dead tired. And then what are they going to do? They’ve got Bobby J, they’re not going to work with him, they’re going to sit on him the whole day. Then can you drop six guys, or the four guys that are sitting on him when they are fresh? No. So why attack?
But anyways, aside from that, he was the strongest guy I saw the whole day, so there’s no doubt about it, in Philly he will be pretty amazing.
VN: Having lived in Philadelphia, and having never won the national title, you know Julich wants it badly.
CH: Oh yeah, and he’s got the form. But I don’t believe he’s got the knowledge of American racing to be able to pull off winning the jersey. Here it’s not just the best guy. He’s the best guy that I’ve seen this week. But he’s lacking the timing of when to do it. Last year it showed, he went the wrong time. It was close to the right time, but you’ve got to bring back the break first.
He’s used to racing in Europe, where you get in the break and everybody works with you. But here, if Bobby J gets in a break, every director says, “No, no, you can’t work.” Last year at Philly he went across to a group of 15 guys, and they all sat on him. Can you single-handedly pull a group of 15 guys around until you get back to the [Manayunk] wall and drop them? You can pull them around, but you’re not going to drop them on the wall. But, we’ll see, if Bobby J does things right, he can win Philly with the form he has, no doubt about it.