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“There are a lot of guys in the peloton who are fit right now,” Ed Beamon remarked. “It’s just that Chris Horner is about two levels above that.”
Had there been doubts about the Navigators director’s assessment of the Prime Alliance star’s form before, Horner surely put them to rest on the rolling hills of the Fort Ord road race at the Sea Otter Classic on Friday. The 30-year-old from Bend, Oregon and his team started the day as if he already had the leader’s jersey on his shoulders and by race’s end he did, well padded with a comfortable three-minute margin.
By the strength of his performance in the opening Laguna Seca time trial Thursday, the U.S. Postal team’s David Zabriskie had the honor – and the burden – of being overall race leader, having a 12-second advantage over Horner. But just minutes into the 115-mile stage, Zabriskie’s lead was at risk as a dangerous break formed up on the day’s first climb.
“It was just one of those things,” Navigators’ Glen Mitchell later recalled. “We went up the road, I looked around and there were eight other guys there.”
Mitchell, eight other guys and only one of them, Antonio Cruz, was from Zabriskie’s Postal squad. Mitchell, in 23rd overall at 2:40, had two well-placed teammates there – Kirk O’Bee (17th at 2:04) and the team’s leader, Canadian national champion Mark Walters (9th at 1:28). There, too, were two of Horner’s Prime Alliance teammates, Danny Pate (13th overall, at 1:32) and Matt Decanio. Mercury was represented by the biggest GC threat in the bunch, Chris Wherry, in sixth place overall, just 1:12 down from Zabriskie. In the mix, too, were Paul Manning (British National) and Tecos’s Ubaldo Mesa Estepa.
With Postal represented only by Cruz and the powerful Saturn squad without anyone in the break, the two teams soon formed an alliance. Postal team director Frankie Andreu radioed ahead and pulled Cruz back to help in the chase.
Up front, the task of driving the lead group fell to just two riders – Mitchell and O’Bee. Walters, the team’s designated GC rider, was directed to save his strength and none of the other mean in the break would or could lend a hand.
Beamon was frustrated and began the process of negotiation with other directors for assistance. Prime Alliance’s Kirk Willett could offer none.
“I am not riding Danny and Matt is spent,” Willett told the Navigators director.
“We’re in beautiful shape,” Willett said as Beamon eased his car back. “You now we have Chris back there and Danny up here. Saturn and Postal are having to do all the work back there to bring this back.”
And though Saturn and Postal were doing all the work in the main group, Mitchell and O’Bee continued to maintain an advantage of between two and three minutes on the field. The two Navigators drove the break that way for nearly 70 miles.
Finally with 25 miles remaining, Mitchell and O’Bee slid back, unable to drive the break any longer. Wherry, sensing an opportunity, took over but the field was already closing in. As the two Navigators faded, a group of 23 riders broke off from the main field in pursuit of the breakaway, driven by Postal’s Michael Barry. Also in the group, Horner, Zabriskie and Mercury’s Henk Vogels. Noticeably absent was last year’s early season star Trent Klasna. The Saturn rider pulled out of the race because of back problems.
Within a few miles the breakaway was caught and the jockeying for position began. The advantage was clearly in Prime Alliance’s court. The Postals were spent from the chase. Only Zabriskie and Barry remained in the lead group. Meanwhile, Horner was fresh and ready to ride. “By that point, I had barely touched the pedals,” he later said.
Entering the final 15-mile lap, Vogels made the first move, attacking on the steep descent that followed the feedzone. He was alone only until the road turned upward again. As the grade steepened, Horner jumped from the main group and quickly bridged up to the Mercury man.
From that point forward, it was Horner driving the break. Vogels stayed with his old Mercury teammate, but the Aussie was at a distinct disadvantage on the rolling terrain. Horner was simply faster on the hills.
“I did what I could to help – maybe pulled three or four times in 24 kilometers, but Chris was just so much stronger,” Vogels said.
And as the chase devolved behind them, Horner was really all that was required to power the two away from the men in pursuit. With 15km to go, the breakaway duo had an advantage of 2:00. Just four kilometers later, Horner had widened the gap to 3:00.
But on the final, long climb to summit that overlooked the Laguna Seca Speedway, Vogels finally gave in. “I couldn’t stay with him,” Vogels said.
Willett radioed Horner just to let him know that “Henk’s dead.”
Horner nodded, stood on the pedals and moved up the road. Vogels drifted back, disappointed, but still virtually assured of a second-place stage finish and the same spot on GCs.
By the time Horner reached the entrance to the speedway he could relax, his lead was secure. Taking the final turns, the Prime Alliance rider even took time to mug for the TV motorcycle, pointing to his sponsor’s logo on his jersey, grinning and holding up a finger to signify “Number 1.”
The only thing between Horner and the 2002 Sea Otter road title is Saturday’s final stage, the circuit race on the historic Laguna Seca Speedway. With a three-minute buffer in GC, Horner said the strategy for Prime Alliance is pretty simple.
“Stay at the front and make sure that nothing dangerous gets away,” he said.
Elite Men, Stage 3, Fort Ord Road Race
1. Chris Horner, Prime Alliance, 115 miles in 3:58:47; 2. Henk Vogels (Aus), Mercury, at 1:24; 3. Soren Petersen (Dk), Saturn, at 3:21; 4. Danny Pate, Prime Alliance, s.t.; 5. Damon Kluck, Saturn, at 3:25; 6. David Zabriskie, U.S. Postal, s.t.
overall, after three stages
1. Horner, 6:26:12; 2. Vogels, at 2:49; 3. Zabriskie, at 3:26; 4. Scott Moninger, Mercury, at 4:21; 5. Adham Sbieh, Mercury, at 4:29.