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Chris Horner says diet his biggest concern heading into Tour de France

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 8
Horner shed about ten pounds preparing for his ATOC victory. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

Recent Amgen Tour of California winner Chris Horner attributed his impressive climbing at the race, in part, to his ability to shed weight prior to the race, and told VeloNews his biggest concern heading into the Tour de France will be how to stay lean while in Europe.

In April, RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel asked Horner what he would need to be ready to win California. Horner, who had finished fourth overall at the Volta Catalunya and second overall, to teammate Andreas Klöden, at the Tour of the Basque Country, told Bruyneel he’d need to skip the Ardennes classics and go home, to his native San Diego, to prepare.

Horner took a week off the bike, and then began slowly ramping up his training, with two weeks of hard riding leading into the race. Though he often races in Europe, he said he prefers to train in the U.S.

Integral to dialing in Horner’s power-to-weight ratio was the diet he and girlfriend Megan Elliott, a two-time under-23 national road champion, devised.

Horner is an athlete with a penchant for hamburgers, candy bars and soda. But together they closely monitored his caloric intake, bringing his weight down from 150 pounds to 140. Though it might sound counter-intuitive, this included nightly dinners out at restaurants.

“We tried it the grocery route, preparing healthy meals at home, but I wasn’t losing weight. While cooking meals, I was snacking, too,” Horner said. “Often you don’t start cooking dinner until you’re hungry, and dinner takes an hour to make. Next thing you know, you’re shredding cheese and cutting yourself an extra thick slice to nibble on, or taking a handful of almonds, or eating a piece of the bread that is supposed to go with your pasta, and even though your dinner is only supposed to be 1,000 calories, you’ve added an extra 700 just snacking while making dinner.”

Horner said he struggled through several hungry nights, and found the discipline required in dieting even more difficult than training: “It’s easy to go out and ride, that’s what you want to do. But you also want to come home and eat with friends and family. That’s what is natural. What is unnatural is to go out to dinner, and while everyone else is having three or four different plates, you are having two, or just one. Sometimes you pay dearly the next day, you’re bonking on the ride, and you have to pull over and just eat what’s in your pocket and give it time to get to the muscles. There were a few days of that.”

The result was that, for the first time in his career, Horner came into the tour of his home state at 100-percent form. It’s what led him to declare, after winning on Sierra Road, that Alberto Contador is the only rider in the sport that is capable of consistently dropping him on a climb.

Horner’s next race is the June 11-19 Tour of Switzerland, which will include three mountaintop finishes and two time trials.

With Horner, Klöden, Levi Leipheimer and Jani Brajkovic, RadioShack will take four riders to the Tour de France capable of reaching the podium. And though it might seem as though establishing leadership would be more complicated on the roads in France than it was in California, Horner said it’s actually the other way around.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Our team has no stress. Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, they are the favorites. When those guys go, whoever is at the top of a summit finish first, that’s our leader. You won’t have to assert yourself. You just have to be capable of following.”

Horner said he was less concerned about wrestling team leadership or holding his form than he was over managing his weight in the weeks leading into the Tour. Once in Europe, he said, the ability to control his diet was a much taller obstacle to overcome.

“It’s difficult in Europe,” he said. “Grocery stories aren’t open all day, the restaurants aren’t the same, they don’t serve the same kind of food, the hours they are open are different, and half the time you don’t even know what you’re ordering. I’ll be away from my friends and family, which means I’ll be bored more, and that makes you want to eat. It’s the number-one thing on my mind. As soon as the Amgen Tour finished, the first thing I started thinking was, ‘How am I going to control my diet when I get to Europe?’”

After the Tour de France, Horner is scheduled to return to the U.S. to race the Tour of Utah, Colorado’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and the pair of WorldTour events in Canada in September.

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