What is one to make of a season that has involved multiple crashes while also riding on the best form of a near 20-year professional career?
If you’re Chris Horner, you look at the glass half full.
The always-smiling Horner, the number-three American on an all-star Astana team that also features Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer, departed the Tour of the Basque Country earlier this month after a crash sent him flying over his handlebar and sliding under a guardrail, injuring his right shoulder.
It was the second time Horner has hit the deck this season, the first coming at the Amgen Tour of California. At both races, Astana won the general classification.
The silver lining in all of this, Horner said, was that up to the moment he crashed he was riding as well as he ever has.
After returning from Spain to his adopted hometown of Bend, Oregon, where his children live, Horner flew on Thursday to San Diego, where he grew up, for training and to have his shoulder examined.
VeloNews caught up with Horner this week to find out how he’s recovering, what his adjusted racing schedule is shaping into, and about those rumors that Astana will send a stacked team of stars to the late-April Tour of the Gila. As this interview was being prepared for publication on Friday, we checked in with Horner again and found out his injuries were worse than feared: he did break his right clavicle and at least one rib and possibly two. He no longer expects to race the Tour of the Gila, but still expects to race the Giro.
VeloNews: Are you in constant pain?
CH: (Laughs) If you hit it just right, I’m in a lot of pain. … I can ride the trainer, that’s not a problem. I rode the trainer for three hours today.
VN: So all indications are that you were on very good form at the Tour of the Basque Country before you crashed out.
CH: Oh man, I had spectacular form — some of the best of my life.
VN: After the stage Alberto Contador said your crash was so frightening he had to look away. What happened?
CH: I would imagine it was quite scary to see. Basically there was a guardrail that was five feet high, with maybe a foot gap underneath, and I somehow slid under that gap. I landed head first, or helmet first, and went rolling and somehow fit through this 18-inch gap under the guardrail.
VN: What kind of drop-off are we talking about on the other side of the guardrail?
CH: Ah, it was maybe a 10-foot drop down into a ditch with some water, but I had no idea how far down it was as it was happening. I went under the guardrail and somehow my hand grabbed the post of the guardrail, and that’s what kept me from failing into the ditch. I don’t even remember grabbing the guardrail. On the other side was a grass slope, that was not quite 90 degrees, but really steep. When I was actually consciously figuring out what was going on, I was on my back and my left hand was holding on to the guard post.
VN: Did you know immediately that you were not getting back on your bike?
CH: Well, I knew that my right hand and right arm weren’t capable of holding myself up. I knew I needed someone to jump over the fence and help me get my feet under me, and hike back up the slope.
VN: And what caused the crash?
CH: My teammate Danny (Navarro) was sprinting, I think covering an attack from the Caisse d’Epargne guys. I think maybe he was having trouble shifting, he said earlier in the day he was having some shifting trouble, but anyhow he was in a full sprint, and maybe the chain jumped, but he went over the bars in front of me and there was nothing I could do. The funny thing is that he crashed me last year when we were at a Spanish race, and I got crashed by a teammate in California, too.
VN: Who was that?
CH: That was Jani Brakjovic. So I told the team for the next race I’m going to ride two teams behind the Astana guys (laughs). It’s bizarre. It’s nobody’s fault, that’s just bike racing. There can be no mechanical fault or anything like that — it just needs all the right things coming together. In California, Jani hit a hole in the road and his hand slipped when he hit the hole. He swerved hard left, and we were riding in an echelon, so he overlapped my front wheel, and I went straight down. I felt like I broke my knee. I was able to ride, but after six more days of racing I couldn’t even walk on it.
VN: So you’re 37 now — are you feeling those lumps more than you used to?
CH: Well, I probably don’t get off the ground as quickly as I used to, but these more recent crashes have been more spectacular, that’s for sure. Maybe my back feels a little tighter than it used to, but that’s about it. Actually, I am riding better than I ever have. It’s funny, but every year I feel like I am getting faster and faster.
VN: So what’s next for you? You mentioned the Tour of the Gila, and we’ve heard your name discussed for Astana’s Giro d’Italia team.
CH: Well, it all depends on the shoulder. It needs to heal right. My personal opinion is that I will be at both of those races. My shoulder is sore. I know I can show up to the Giro and not be sore, and I wouldn’t want to show to the Gila sore, so we’ll see on that. I am at a point in my career that I am capable of showing up to big race ready. I can train myself into form, I don’t need to race to be ready for the Giro.
VN: You mentioned that Astana would be sending a team to the Tour of the Gila. There’s been a lot of speculation Armstrong might be there — his Trek-Livestrong under-23 team is racing, and the race is being supported by SRAM, the team’s component sponsor. What can you tell me about Astana’s team at Gila?
CH: I don’t even know. I thought Lance might be going, or maybe Levi, too. I just know Johan said he wants me to go if I can. Originally I could do the classics, and Romandie, but with the injury we thought the Tour of the Gila would be good racing before the Giro. It’s perfect — it’s not too hard of racing so we can leave fresh, the weather is good, the altitude is perfect. We could end up showing up there with a really good team. It could be funny to see us at Gila, with a big squad.
VN: It would be especially funny considering a few months ago, before SRAM stepped in, that race was nearly canceled because of a lack of sponsorship
CH: Yep. There would be no stress on us to win it, it would just be a great warm-up race. I know the race well — all the stages are more or less out of the same location, and most finish close to the hotel. The altitude is at one of the best heights, in my opinion, at 5000 feet, and there are some spectacular climbing stages.
(Editor’s Note: Tour of the Gila officials say Astana has not registered and they have received no information that the team is coming, although the race’s hometown of Silver City, New Mexico, is abuzz with the rumor. Armstrong spokesman Mark Higgins could not confirm that the Gila was in Armstrong’s plans.)
VN: Have you had a chance to look at the Giro time trial stage that rolls through Cinque Terre? Some are calling it the most demanding TT in recent history.
CH: I briefly looked at it in a magazine at the airport, that was the first time. The Giro is an impressive stage race. You’ve got long stages and hard TTs. I like the idea of more climbing in a time trial than a flat time trial.
VN: Armstrong rode the course, and was on record as saying it’s so technical he’ll probably ride a road bike with aero extensions, rather than a straightforward TT bike. Have you talked with him, or anyone else from the team, about that?
CH: Nope. I’ll ask Lance about it when I see him in the next few weeks. For me personally I like that sort of course. I think it could be really cool, but they might need to extend the time cut. But man, the Giro looks like it’s all business this year.
VN: I’m assuming the Tour de France is also in your plans, but on a team like Astana with so many guys capable of a podium finish I would imagine it’s not a sure thing.
CH: It’s in my plans (laughs). I know the team has me on the list. We have a fantastic Tour team, so I would imagine if you have a small injury or even a sniffle you have a good chance of not making it. I can tell you I’m making vacation plans for after the Tour, not during it. But yeah, with Contador, Armstrong, Levi, Andreas Kloden and Haimar Zubeldia certain to make the team, that only leaves four spots. And you know you will probably have a few Kazakhs, so that leaves two spots, and that means there are two spots left. I know with this team that there is nothing given. You have to work hard. My name is there on the list. I spoke with the directors at camp in January, and I made it known that I wanted to ride the Tour, and they made it known that my name would be on the long list.
VN: Basically, you just need to be healthy and injury free, which has proven hard for a lot of riders this season.
CH: Yep. But the riding I was doing during the first few days of the Tour of California was very good, and at Pays Basque, it was spectacular. So certainly if we only have two or three spots open, unless one of our guys won the Tour de Suisse or something like that, I’ve gotta believe there’s another spot there for me.
VN: Will you be doing the Tour de Suisse? I know racing in Switzerland has been good to you in the past, with stage wins at Romandie and the Tour de Suisse.
CH: It’s not on my list. With this injury I am missing so much racing, but before I hurt my shoulder I only missed Paris-Nice. Now I am missing Amstel, Fléche and Liége, and Romandie. I could be coming out of the Giro with good form, and it could be a situation where I decide ‘why not just do the Dauphine?’ But I am under the impression that I am going to finish the Giro and rest a week and then do the Tour de France. That gives me time to recover after the Giro, 14 days of good training, and then some relaxing right before the Tour.
VN: Is it hard for you to not to do the classics? After finishing eighth at Liége in 2006, it became pretty clear those hilly classics are great races for you.
CH: I was seriously bummed. I put together a very, very solid three weeks of training in San Diego. I had no distractions, just me and my girlfriend together. My buddy from Oregon, Carl Decker, he’s a mountain biker, he came with me and we did some hard training. I had a great diet and got great rest, and had fantastic massage work from another friend of mine. Everything was lining up perfectly up to the crash. It happens, but yeah, I was really bummed not to race Amstel, Fléche and Liége.
VN: Well, even though you aren’t there, who do you see as the guys for the Ardennes races?
CH: Man, I gotta believe both guys whose names end in Sanchez — Luis Leon and Sammy, the Olympic champ — those guys are both going really well. It’s funny, with Luis Leon, even though he is winning a lot, he’s not the best guy at those races, so everyone is giving him a little more room and it’s worked out well for him. I haven’t seen (Alejandro) Valverde all year but those races are perfect for him. And then there are the Schleck brothers. (Damiano) Cunego also looks really good. Antonio Colom looked good from what I’ve seen, but I’ve never seen him go good in the classics, or if he has, I don’t remember it. But he looked really good at Paris-Nice and at the Tour of the Basque Country.
VN: As far as the Tour goes, there’s been so much discussion about Astana being a “super team.” Beyond Lance, Leipheimer seems unbeatable in the time trials and can climb with the best, and Contador is arguably the best climber in the sport, with a dramatically improved TT. Given your view from inside the team, how do you see the dynamics for the Tour shaping up?
CH: I honestly don’t see any problem at all. Everyone knows Alberto Contador is the leader on the team, and Lance is the wildcard. Certainly the only issue you could see is if Lance shows up with spectacular form, then there could be a battle somewhere in the team for supremacy. I believe you can have two guys going good and they can figure it out on the road. You just can’t have four guys going good and trying to figure it out on the road. Those two guys would be Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador. The other guys, Levi and Kloden, are there for support. This team won’t have four riders battling for supremacy. At most there will be two incredibly impressive guys going at it to be the best.
VN: Don’t you think you could make an argument for Leipheimer to ride as a leader? He won Castilla y Leon with a strong time trial, as well as California, and took both the TT stages at the Vuelta last year, and he beat Contador in the Olympic time trial as well.
CH: Nope, I wouldn’t make the argument for it. It’s not gonna happen. You could make the argument that, on paper, Levi could have won the Vuelta. But look how it played out; just how it should have. Levi looked after Alberto, and also put on a show himself. At the Tour, unless someone’s form has changed dramatically, we have two guys. Kloden is not going to fight for supremacy, and Levi is not going to either.