Hours after learning that his RadioShack-Nissan team had not included him on its list of riders pre-selected for the Tour de France due to a back injury, American veteran Chris Horner told VeloNews that his back is no longer hurting him, and that he would have been ready to race come the Tour’s June 30 start in Liège, Belgium.
Horner’s team said Monday that back problems, which flared up last month following the Amgen Tour of California, had prevented him from racing the Tour de Suisse and therefore made it unfeasible for him to race the Tour.
“Already at California, his back was not OK. That is also the reason why he is not in the Tour de Suisse this week,” RadioShack spokesman Philippe Maertens told VeloNews on Monday. “Without racing Suisse, it would be impossible for him to race in the Tour de France.”
Horner acknowledged that he took a week off the bike following California to treat his lower back — forcing him to skip the May 31 road race at the USA Cycling Professional National Championships — but he said that he had since returned to training and he had opted to skip Suisse, as he did last year, to fully concentrate on being at his best for the Tour.
“My back is fine,” Horner said. “There is no problem with my back. It was tight after California. It spasms up from time-to-time. I needed five days to rest it, so I took a week off the bike. I could have shown up to Suisse but I wouldn’t have had form.
“If the Tour de France was a month later, I could do Suisse, recover, and then train again. But the finish of Suisse is 10 days before the Tour, so it was better to just train and focus on doing that. I trained hard last week, I rode 600 miles, and I rode 100 miles today.”
Horner, who will turn 41 in October, has dealt with intermittent lower back problems since 2006, adding that the only time he’s ever missed a race because of the pain was the 2008 Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. That year his Astana team had been excluded from the Tour, and Horner instead spent his July supporting his teammate Levi Leipheimer at the Cascade Cycling Classic, which Leipheimer won.
Horner’s best Tour ride was ninth overall in 2010. He crashed out of last year’s edition with a concussion. Later doctors discovered a potentially dangerous embolism in his lung and he didn’t return to racing until this year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished second overall.
Horner said he learned about his exclusion from the RadioShack Tour team from his wife, who read it on the Internet and called him while he was out training. He added that as of Monday evening, he had not yet spoken with anyone from RadioShack team management. The last time he spoke with team manager Johan Bruyneel, Horner said, was a month earlier in Santa Rosa, California, when Bruyneel briefly visited the team prior to the start of the Amgen Tour.
“While I’m out doing a 100-mile training ride, I’m told that my back is wrecked beyond competing at the Tour de France,” Horner said. “As bike racers, you want to do the Tour more than any other race. By all means I can understand the team being concerned about a back problem, but my therapist was able to get it back under control, and at almost three weeks out, it’s still early to make that kind of decision.”
With Horner’s permission, Greg Bourque — a licensed acupuncturist and certified massage therapist who has treated Horner since 1997 — described Horner’s back issues as general erector spine tightening, absent of signs of sciatica or neurological dysfunction.
“I’ve treated Chris seven days a week since the Amgen Tour of California, for 90 minutes nightly, and after the first week, we didn’t even really focus on his back,” Bourque said. “I moved on to a knee treatment, and some general neuromuscular work, focusing on soft tissue — not joints or ligaments, just muscles.
“Lately it was not even therapeutic massage, because he was riding 100 miles a day,” Bourque continued. “It was not even deep work, nothing fancy, just a drainage massage to get him ready for the next day of training. He was doing everything right to look after himself. I know him really well, and I fully expected him to be ready for the Tour — and I fully expected him to be going to the Tour. And I know he did as well.”
What comes next?
Horner admitted that his back issues are triggered by outside stresses, and acknowledged that there is more stress on his RadioShack team this year than in the past.
Owned by Luxembourg-based businessman Flavio Becca, who merged his Leopard-Trek team with RadioShack after disappointment in his squad’s 2011 season, RadioShack-Nissan has fallen short of expectations both in stage races and at the spring classics. Only Fabian Cancellara and Jakob Fuglsang have registered wins thus far — both have missed starts due to injury — while Tour contender Andy Schleck has struggled throughout the year to finish races.
Horner’s ride in the leader’s jersey and eventual second-place overall at Tirreno was among the few bright spots for the squad in early 2012. His contract with the team is set through 2013.
And while he said he was “devastated” to miss the Tour, describing his disappointment as “catastrophic,” Horner said he was equally as concerned about what the team’s message might mean for potential Olympic selection.
USA Cycling is set to announce its five-man Olympic team roster on Friday, June 15. None of the five spots have been claimed through automatic qualifications.
As of the June 10 UCI WorldTour ranking, Horner was the highest-placed American rider, 25th, as well as the highest-ranked RadioShack rider on the list.
Throughout his career, Horner has been in the running, but overlooked, for Olympic selection — first back in 1996, and again in 2000, 2004 and 2008.
Horner said he spent Monday afternoon emailing his most recent power files to Jim Miller, USA Cycling’s vice president of athletics, to prove that he is race-fit and worthy of Olympic selection.
“I’ve had great results this year. I was top 10 at the Tour of the Basque Country, and I was third on the hardest climbing stage at Basque,” Horner said. “I was second overall at Tirreno, and in California I was clearly one of the best riders. I know I had a bad time trial; I was there, I remember it well. But if you look at the Mount Baldy stage, it was epic, there were three teams destroyed chasing me, I had a one-minute lead at the bottom of the Baldy climb and only four guys caught me by the finish.
“I’ve proven I can ride with best in the world,” Horner continued. “My back is healing. Whether or not my team wants to take me, I can’t control that. But I don’t like that they’re putting something out there that’s not true, that could affect my chance of going to the Olympics.”
Because he hadn’t spoken with anyone from his team, Horner couldn’t speculate on what the rest of his 2012 race schedule might look like, and if August might include racing Stateside, at the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge, or abroad, at the Vuelta a España.
“I have no idea what the team is planning for me, because we haven’t spoken,” he said. “No one has called me, so I have no idea what they are thinking. I’ve had no communication with the team.”
Instead, Horner said he wanted to focus on what he did know.
“The team has put it out there that I have a severe back problem,” Horner said. “I don’t. I’m not injured. I’m not hurt. This is something I’ve had since 2006. It flares up, and it disappears, and I keep racing. I’ve had the best results of my career with this problem. Could it reoccur at the Tour de France? Sure, anything is possible. A knee injury is possible. A broken collarbone is possible. But I’m not going to let the team make it out like I have some devastating back problem, when I don’t.”