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Chris Horner is ‘in exceptional form’ for Tour of California

Outspoken RadioShack rider Chris Horner believes he comes to the Amgen Tour of California with some of the best condition of his near 20-year career, and he predicts that either he or his teammate, Levi Leipheimer, will win this year’s race.

“I think I’m in exceptional form,” Horner said. “Depending on how the tactics play out, if it turns out that I have to work for Levi, and if our team can do solid work, I think we’ll go 1-2 on GC.”

Horner, who turns 40 in October, has a pedigree in winning stage races in North America. He was the strongest rider on the domestic circuit from 2002 to 2004, winning countless national-level stage races such as the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic and the Redlands Bicycle Classic, which he’s won three times.

At international stage races he’s stood atop the podium at the 2000 Tour de Langkawi, the 2003 Tour de Georgia and the 2010 Vuelta al País Vasco. At last year’s Tour of California Horner finished fourth overall while riding in support of Leipheimer, the three-time California winner and 2009 defending champion.

Horner returned to this year’s Vuelta al País Vasco as the defending champion, but ended up in a support role for German teammate Andreas Klöden, who was coming off strong time trial showings at Paris-Nice and Critérium International.

In a team press release last week RadioShack stated that Leipheimer and Horner would start the race as the leaders of the team.

“Levi Leipheimer will of course be our leader,” said team manager Johan Bruyneel. “This race suits him very well and this year even more than the previous ones. The race route became harder; we now have two mountaintop finishes, and there is the time trial in Solvang. Levi has never lost there. Chris Horner will be our perfect alternative. Thanks to his performances earlier this year in Catalunya and the Basque Country he deserves the co-leadership. Chris never disappoints us. Age doesn’t seem to have an impact on him. Quite the contrary.”

Because of Leipheimer’s track record at California — three wins and a podium finish in five tries — Horner said he could find himself riding in a support role again.

“I was defending champ at País Vasco, but we had Klödi there,” Horner said. “I really had no shot at winning, I was always going to have to work for Klödi, because when you have two from the same team in a small group, you have to chase. And because he was the TT specialist, you have to assume that we’ll work for him. At Pais Vasco I think I was best guy there, certainly one of the best guys there, but Klödi is time trialing exceptionally this year and the team put it all on him.

“I’m in same scenario at California. Levi Leipheimer is the three-time champion and we all know he can time trial well — he’s won in Solvang three times. We’re not going to jeopardize what’s best for the team just so I can win.”

Riding in support of Horner and Leipheimer are Americans Jason McCartney, Matthew Busche and national road champion Ben King, as well as Haimiar Zubeldia, Markel Irizar and Dmitriy Muravyev.

Horner clarified his role as the team’s second leader. “We have two leaders, with Levi and myself, and if he’s on exceptional form, I will know it. I’ve been doing this a long time, and it won’t take me long to figure it out. If his form is exceptional, I’ll figure it out quick, and I’ll be working for Levi. That means I’ll have the team getting bottles for me — everyone except for Levi. If I have a flat, I’ll have a few guys waiting back for me; if Levi flats, he’ll have the whole team waiting for him, except for me.”

Decided on Mount Baldy

A California native with roots in San Diego, Horner went on a reconnaissance ride last Saturday, previewing the tough stage 7 climb up to the Mount Baldy Ski Area.

Though he’d ridden stretches of the stage before, including Glendora Mountain Road as part of the San Dimas Stage Race uphill time trial, he’d never seen the road from Mount Baldy Village to the ski area — a 5-mile stretch that gains over 2,000 feet in elevation with an 8.9-percent average gradient, including sections that reach over 15 percent. Along with Sierra Road in San Jose on stage 4, Baldy is one of the race’s two summit finishes at this year’s race, and most likely the most decisive point on the race’s near-800-mile route.

Asked if he thinks Baldy is likely to decide the overall at this year’s race, Horner replied, “Oh yeah. Oh, definitely. It will blow the field apart. Riders will be coming across the line in ones and twos.”

Horner said his role as second team leader may come into play on the race’s two summit finishes.

“If we reach the bottom of a climb and our whole team blows up and there’s no one left, it would be me on the front before Levi,” he said. “But I don’t see that happening, because we have Haimar (Zubeldia), so I don’t think I’ll have to ride the front much. And if there are, say, five of us going up a climb, and me and Levi are still there, then we’ll play the tactics.”

Because of the difficult summit finishes on Sierra Road and Mount Baldy, Horner said the overall winner of this year’s race would be a climber who can time trial well, not the other way around. But he eased off from predicting anything for Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck, as he is unsure of Schleck’s form coming off the Ardennes Classics.

“I think if you look at the riders, there are really only a few riders who can win — Levi, myself, and Schleck, if he’s on form, but I just don’t know his form,” he said. “I did the Ardennes classics last year, took two weeks off, rode 10 days of training, and came in to California undertrained. By the last few days I was good, but for the first four or five days I was bad. If Schleck can come good at the end, he might be able to win, but that’s certainly only if he’s at 100 percent.”

Instead Horner pointed to Garmin-Cervélo as the team most likely to give RadioShack a run for the title, with three-time California runner-up Dave Zabriskie and last year’s fifth-place finisher Ryder Hesjedal as the team’s biggest threats.

“I think it will probably be someone from Garmin that we’ll have to watch, either Ryder or Zabriskie. They’ve got a deep team, but there’s no way the other guys won’t be on the front to help out leaders.”

Here and now

While respectful of their talent, Horner downplayed the chances of young, up-and-coming GC riders such as Tejay van Garderen of HTC-Highroad, and Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky of Garmin-Cervélo.

“Those guys all have solid results, but none of them has ever led a top team at a big race — or won at a big race,” Horner said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this year’s Amgen Tour of California is their coming-out party, but to call them five-star favorites? The only five-star favorites are Zabriskie, Levi and myself. Then I’d say Ryder, and maybe Dan Martin, although Martin will probably have to work for Zabriskie. He was climbing really well at Catalunya, and if he’s at 100 percent, he could be good contender.

“Then, after that, you can look at guys like Talansky and Tejay. I think they are strong riders, and they have a lot of hope for the future. But does the future start this Sunday for them? I don’t know, but right now I’m talking about the present.”

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