Tour de France 2020

Americans en route to Paris: Chris Horner and Dave Zabriskie on the Fourth of July

Independence Day isn't a holiday for Chris Horner and Dave Zabriskie — they're on the job at the Tour

If there were a competition for the most American of American bike racers, Chris Horner would be in the running for the podium. Maybe he’d even take the jersey.

Horner’s father was in the military. And Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) grew up, in part, near a military base in Groton, Connecticut. The small town on Long Island Sound is home to a Naval base and General Dynamics Electric Boat division, builders of some of the country’s most sophisticated submarines. In fact, driving into town from the interstate, you’re bound to see a sign that reads “Submarine Capital of the World.” This town, too, is all-American.

Horner had a paper route when he was 10 years old, delivering The Day, the New London newspaper. When it snowed he’d ride his bike through the woods, which were normally flooded, and across the ice — young Chris Horner, cutting the course to save himself 10 minutes on his paper route. He’s not cutting courses anymore.

One of the most prolific American cyclists of his generation, Horner returned from his first stint in Europe at the turn of the century and raced domestically, dominating the National Racing Calendar in 2002, 2003 and 2004. This move was, in part, because the rider known for enjoying cheeseburgers and fries had trouble assimilating in Europe. Now, of course, he’s racing in the WorldTour with RadioShack-Nissan.

On Independence Day, 2012, Horner took the start of the Tour de France as a future Olympian, chosen by USA Cycling’s selection committee to represent the United States for the first time. Still, he’s in France, at the most intense race of the year; it’s hard to think about those folks vacationing back home.

“There should be a barbecue going on. It’s already the afternoon so you should be on your way and just arriving at your mom or dad’s or cousin’s house,” he said. “And, of course, we’re lining up for the Tour de France.”

Did he have any reservations about missing the fireworks show back home?

“Not even a hard question. I’d rather be here; that’s what we race to do. As bike racers, we want to be in the Tour de France and nobody’s going to trade that.

“I’ll have many, many more moments and barbecues with my family and kids ahead of me in the years to come and I don’t have so many Tours de France left. So I’d go with the Tour right now.”

But the memories of the years he’s spent in the United States celebrating the nation’s independence have had a lasting impact on the 40-year-old.

“That’s something [where] you have to be at home to really be involved with,” he said. “It’s a special, special day when you’re at home. I remember many times doing races around the Fourth of July… if I’m not mistaken it’s always when we’re doing Fitchburg, and I would go with the host families that we stayed with and we’d go to the fireworks in the park.

“But when you’re over here, the Fourth of July just doesn’t really exist. I’d love to be part of it, but I want to be part of the Tour — those are the sacrifices we make as bike racers.”

Garmin-Sharp’s Dave Zabriskie was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. In 2005, he became the third American to wear the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, after Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong.

From 2001 to 2004 he rode for the U.S. Postal Service team. He has won the national time trial championship seven times and taken stages in each of the grand tours. He had a Marvel action figure collection, until it was stolen in 2009, along with a number of bikes and Olympics memorabilia.

“Captain America,” a nickname he earned from the design of his national champion’s skinsuit, which has a striking resemblance to the Marvel superhero, is known for his eccentric responses during press conferences, his antics in the peloton and his sometimes peculiar race tactics.

If the French must attack on Bastille Day, then a quirky character like Zabriskie must surely attack on Independence Day, right? Asked prior to Wednesday’s stage if he had any plans to try to get into a break on a long and winding course through the coastal towns of northwest France, Zabriskie answered, “Not that I’m aware of. I don’t make plans.”

But Zabriskie’s passion for cycling is undeniable. When he moved into the race lead at the Amgen Tour of California in May after a blistering time trial performance in the Bakersfield heat, he was in position to finally capture the overall title, something that had slipped through his fingers on three previous occasions.

Certainly he couldn’t hold on for the win, though, given that Mount Baldy stood between him and the top step of the podium. He isn’t a climber. But climb he did, outclassing many of the world’s best mountain goats at their own game, bravely soldiering on to lose minimal time and, yes, securing another second place.

He was devastated. Sometimes it’s hard to see just how much Zabriskie loves to race his bike; his odd behavior can seem off-putting, confusing, even downright disrespectful to the sport. But his blog entry from a few days after the race spoke volumes:

I lost the leader’s jersey to Gesink and I was crushed. As professional cyclists we become conditioned about dealing with defeat. But this hurt and I was upset. After a brief recovery I turned around and headed back down to Baldy Village a few miles below the finish. Heading down I passed some of my teammates who earlier had buried themselves for me. We shot each other that knowing look that said, ‘this was a battle we did not win.’

My makeup is such that it affects me more to lose than to win. I usually find myself even tempered with my wins, surely satisfied but not ecstatic. But when I lose I feel devastated. I expect a lot from myself and falling short is hard to take.

Dave is truly a proud, all-American bike racer. Would he rather be at home having a barbecue with the family on this Independence Day?

“As long as I have employment I’m happy… that’s what a lot of Americans want: employment.”

Spoken like a true American.