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Horner sports outsider status as reigning Vuelta champion

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) returns to the Vuelta a España with outsider status despite blowing everyone off his wheel a year ago.

Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) admitted he underestimated the 42-year-old American last year as Horner made history as the oldest grand tour winner, and it’s looking likely that the world-class field that’s poised to duke it out for the Spanish tour could well make the same mistake.

That’s just fine for Horner, who flies into Jerez de la Frontera this week under the radar yet again.

“The form is better this year than it was last year,” Horner told reporters last week at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. “I just need the health to clear up a little bit. Hopefully, this next week I’ll take it easy, let the lungs clear up and after that I’ll be 100 percent and ready to go on to win something at the Tour of Spain.”

Those are fighting words for Horner, who’s had a rough and tumble 2014 campaign. He dodged a bullet in the spring, when he was struck by a car while riding through a tunnel on a training ride in northern Italy. Though he was seriously banged up, he avoided career-ending injuries and rebounded in time to start the Tour de France.

Like many in the peloton, Horner fell ill in the foul weather of the first week, yet fought and scraped all the way to Paris to finish 17th overall.

Dogged by a chest cold, he rode to second at Utah, bested only by Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp). Horner retreated to San Diego to recover before flying to Europe this week for the start of his title defense at the Vuelta.

“I’ll do what I did last year. I’ll go back to my home in San Diego. The weather should be gorgeous. Go there, finish up the training, then head over to Spain and hopefully, 100 percent healthy,” Horner said last week. “I went to the Tour in great form, I just got sick.”

If Horner returns healthy to Spain, he certainly should be counted among the favorites.

Yet as it so often happens to Horner throughout his career, many look beyond him. Before this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, for example, race officials overlooked Horner despite inviting 13 riders to a pre-race press conference.

“I don’t ever get invited to the press conferences, so it’s nothing new,” Horner told VeloNews’ Gregor Brown. “I was just as surprised as you, but that’s happened to me my whole career, so it is what it is.”

And with this year’s superstar Vuelta field, that’s all but certain to happen yet again. Nearly every major star is heading to the Vuelta, including Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), with another solid platoon of GC contenders lined up behind them. The only major GC rider missing is Tour de France winner Nibali.

Horner says bring it on, and he quickly pointed out that he beat Nibali in last year’s Vuelta.

“Lot of guys, good competition going to Spain, so it’s gonna be a nice race, and hopefully we put on a good show for the fans,” Horner said at Utah. “You want the best field. Everyone wants to win against the best. It doesn’t pay to win races that no one is at.”

Lampre still has not released its official lineup, but it is expected that reigning world champion Rui Costa will not be racing the Vuelta. Instead, the team will bring a mix of riders to support Horner as well as hunt for stage wins. Climbers such as Winner Anacona, José Serpa, Damiano Cunego, and Przemyslaw Niemiec will help protect Horner deep into the climbs.

Last year, Horner hit ideal form on what he described as a course “tailor-made for me” in 2013.

The 2014 route is quite a bit different to the climb-heavy course Horner faced last year, with a string of steep, erratic climbing stages book-ended by an opening-day team time trial and a closing-day individual time trial. Another ITT in the middle of the race could complicate things for Horner against the likes of Froome. Most of the key climbs come stacked up in the second half of the Vuelta.

“Froome is most difficult because he time trials so well. It’s difficult to put odds against the guy not being a favorite,” Horner said at Utah. “The problem I have is that I don’t TT that well, so I need to make up time somewhere else. Last year, I had the best climbing legs, and the TT they had was a shorter one, and I came with an amazingly strong team, we’ll see how this year shakes out.”

The addition of more time trial miles, and a relative lack of first-half climbing stages, could make things more complicated for Horner. The team time trial and the first of two individual time trials at a long, 36.7km in stage 10 could put Horner on the defensive going into the key climbing stages in Asturias.

“It’s always a good course for me in Spain,” Horner continued. “There are a lot of climbs, short and steep, and more importantly, the climbs come close to each other, so once you’re down, you start the other one right away.”

It’s rare that a defending champion does not receive top billing the following season, but this year’s Vuelta is packing a superstar start list. Let’s see if the race organizers remember to invite him to the pre-race press conference.

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