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Horner in the driver’s seat for California glory

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 4
Horner celebrates his convincing win. Photo: Casey B. Gibson | www.cbgphoto.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. (VN) — The Amgen Tour of California is far from over, but after the first of three decisive GC stages, only one rider, RadioShack’s Chris Horner, stands as the favorite to win the overall.

Horner came to the Amgen Tour as RadioShack’s second leader, sharing protected-rider status with three-time California champ Levi Leipheimer, and predicting that they could finish first and second overall.

The two RadioShack riders rode away from the rest of the GC contenders at the bottom of the climb up Sierra Road, with Horner setting the pace for his team leader.

After sweeping up Garmin-Cervélo’s Ryder Hesjedal, Horner continued applying pressure from the front, and soon he was gone. Neither Leipheimer nor Hesjedal could hold the pace, and the always-smiling veteran of American cycling — Horner turns 40 this year — rode alone to the stage win and overall lead, proving himself to be the strongest climber in a race that still holds a hilly time trial and another summit finish, atop Mount Baldy.

Horner is no stranger to stage race victory; he’s stood atop the podium at the 2000 Tour de Langkawi, the 2003 Tour de Georgia and the 2010 Tour of the Basque Country, as well as countless national-level stage races such as the Redlands Bicycle Classic and Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic. At last year’s Tour of California he finished fourth overall while riding in support of Leipheimer, who finished third.

Plenty could still change with the classification — Garmin has five riders within 1:50 of Horner, and Leipheimer is still his biggest rival. Leipheimer has won the Solvang time trial three times en route to overall victory. In 2007 Horner finished 1:53 behind Leipheimer in Solvang; in 2008 he finished 1:42 behind Leipheimer; in 2009 he finished 1:39 behind Leipheimer. Last year, in Los Angeles, Horner finished 39 seconds behind Leipheimer.

But Horner is a fully capable time trialist, as evidenced by his TT stage at the 2010 Tour of the Basque Country, which sealed his overall win. And with the race leader’s jersey, a 1:15 advantage over Leipheimer, and another summit finish on the horizon, Horner will be the team’s protected leader, essentially reversing roles with Leipheimer.

“I’ve been known to win a couple of TTs,” Horner said. “The only exception that I have, and it’s not any fear, but the time trial is a questionable section. But I think I’m on my top form and when I’m on my top form I usually win TTs. I don’t think I’ll lose sleep over the time trial. I certainly believe if there’s any vulnerable part of my fitness or my riding abilities, it’s the time trial, but I think that’s a really small chink in the armor. Whatever time I lose there, and I don’t think I’ll lose the jersey there, but if I do, I’m sure I’ll make it back on Baldy.”

After the race Leipheimer conceded on Twitter that Horner was the strongest man: “Always fun to take control and pull it off. Chris was clearly by far the best. Great day for Team RadioShack.” If Leipheimer was content with Horner’s team leadership, it didn’t show atop Sierra Road; journalists attempting to speak with Leipheimer found him in no mood to talk to the press.

As for Horner, he stuck to the official party line — it’s all about the team.

“It doesn’t matter to me,” Horner said in regards to RadioShack’s team leadership. “I don’t care if it’s Levi, if it’s me; I don’t care if it’s Matt Busche. The objective as a professional is always that the team wins. That’s the first objective. The second objective is of course that you wish it to be you. The number one objective of any good professional is that the team wins, and the team won today.”

Judging from Horner’s impressive display on Sierra Road, it’s hard to imagine he won’t be wearing the gold leader’s jersey when the race ends Sunday in Thousand Oaks.

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