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Checkin’ with Chris: A chat with Chris Horner about his first Tour

After dominating domestic racing for the past three years, Chris Horner earned himself a last-minute spot on the Saunier Duval-Prodir Tour de France team with a solo stage win at the Tour of Switzerland in June. It’s the first time riding the Tour for the 33-year-old from Bend, Oregon, who has missed out on several opportunities in the past due to injury, family obligations and race officials’ questionable team selection criteria. Over the three weeks of the race, VeloNews will check in with Horner when possible to get a first-person perspective from the always-outspoken rider. VeloNews:

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By Neal Rogers

After dominating domestic racing for the past three years, Chris Horner earned himself a last-minute spot on the Saunier Duval-Prodir Tour de France team with a solo stage win at the Tour of Switzerland in June.

It’s the first time riding the Tour for the 33-year-old from Bend, Oregon, who has missed out on several opportunities in the past due to injury, family obligations and race officials’ questionable team selection criteria. Over the three weeks of the race, VeloNews will check in with Horner when possible to get a first-person perspective from the always-outspoken rider.

VeloNews: What are your first impressions of the Tour de France?

Chris Horner: Yeah, it’s been a real warm welcome to the Tour de France. [laughs] It’s exciting. It’s been incredible to come and do it and see the crowds and the atmosphere.

VN: How would you describe the first three road stages?

CH: The racing is basically … the closest thing I can compare it to is like doing the Tour of Flanders every day, just fighting for position. It’s 50 kph, curb to curb, all day. Normally, once a break goes away everyone settles down and rides two-by-two or three abreast. But here everyone is so worried about a crash that we’re curb to curb, which usually causes a crash. The field doesn’t string out here, or at least it hasn’t yet. It’s maximum speed, all the way across the road. Literally, it’s almost a sprint from the moment we leave the start. I can’t imagine how we’re going to get through it if it rains. It’s like the last lap of a criterium all day long.

VN: How does that work into your overall fitness plans? Are you riding yourself into form? Has it been difficult to maintain that speed?

CH: My form is good. I’m not suffering at all. I’ll have to wait for the climbing stages to see if it feels very good. Obviously I’ve been losing time in the two time trials.

VN: We’d noticed that your team finished second from last in the team time trial.

CH: Yeah, that was hard to miss. We’d sort of planned that going into it. The best-case scenario was to finish 15th, but realistically we knew we could either finish two-and-a-half minutes down and lose at least four guys or keep the whole team together and take the three-minute hit and have an easier day.

VN: How do you explain losing that kind of time to a team like CSC or Discovery?

CH: Well, at the moment some teams are really well prepared for that type of event, and we’re not one of those teams. That’s the first thing I’d point to. Evidently we’re just not in that range of running with those guys.

VN: What was your feeling after the opening individual time trial?

CH: My time-trial result wasn’t much better than the team’s. I lost a minute to the favorites, and two minutes to Dave Zabriskie and Lance Armstrong. But if you take those two out of it, it was a respectable ride. It wasn’t what I wanted, but it wasn’t terrible.

VN: Why do you think that is?

CH: I don’t know. Maybe not enough racing. Maybe I’m not used to the time-trial bike. I think what it comes down to is those guys are completely prepared with their TT bikes and have had the time to put in those kinds of rides.

VN: How has that changed your plans to go for a top-10 GC spot?

CH: I’m going to wait to see if I have the form in the mountains. I think I can ride into the top 10, even with the problems in the TT. And now I’m lower on GC, so if I find a good group to go with, they’re not going to chase me down.

VN: Were you surprised by some of the favorites’ rides in the opening time trial? Like, say, Jan Ullrich?

CH: Not really. If you look at the way Ullrich was riding at the Tour of Switzerland, he didn’t do too badly. You certainly didn’t expect him to get passed by Lance. If he lost 30 seconds to Lance, that’s not a big ordeal. But to get passed was a bit of a surprise. I’d say Ullrich went maybe 30-40 seconds slower than I thought he’d go.

VN: Was it a surprise for you to see Zabriskie pull off such an amazing ride, having beaten him in time trials in the past?

CH: No, it wasn’t a surprise. You could see it coming. It had been building, coming from his time-trial win at the Giro d’Italia. He could have been just behind Lance, maybe 20 seconds down or something, and that wouldn’t have been a surprise either. Maybe it would have been more of a surprise if he had that kind of ride at the end of the Tour, at the last time trial.

VN: Have you had a chance to talk with Dave about wearing the yellow jersey?

CH: Not really. We spoke a bit, but when he had yellow he was at the front of the field to protect it. He had one kind of job, and I had another. I know that crash in the team time trial was a downer.

VN: You haven’t raced enough in Europe to get much recognition from the other riders in the peloton. Has that presented any problems?

CH: Nah. After my stage win at the Tour of Switzerland, people recognize me. Or at least I think they do.

VN: So you get some respect in the peloton for that stage win?

CH: I don’t know [laughs]. I still have to fight for a spot. If anything, the ride at Tour of Switzerland made it worse. Now people are probably thinking, “I don’t want a climber near me!” [laughs] But I don’t think anyone gets much respect in that way. Maybe Lance, or whoever is wearing the yellow jersey. I’m still just figuring out the guys in the field by face. At least here at the Tour the numbers have the riders’ names on their backs. I’m riding with two teammates, Constantino Zaballa and Nicolas Fritsch, and it’s the first time I’ve ever met them.

VN: What is the overall feeling within the Saunier Duval-Prodir team?

CH: I think the feeling within the team is to get through the first week and get us into the mountains. Everyone is looking forward to the mountain stages. For now, we’re just waiting out the first week.

VN: It seems like the team has been pretty active in breakaways, getting some TV time, with Rubens Bertogliati in the break with Erik Dekker on stage 3.

CH: Yeah, we’ve had a guy in the break each day, with Rubens in that break and David Cañada with Thomas Voeckler in stage 2. The team has plenty of guys that can get into a break.

VN: With all the Americans in France cheering on Lance, are you getting recognized? Any shouts of “Hey Horner!”?

CH: Sure, the American fans make themselves known to me. The crowds here are so crazy. In all honestly, I don’t know who is more crazy — the crowds, for getting so close, or us for riding through them. I saw a spectator go down today. He may have gotten hit by one of the motorcycles. I couldn’t tell, but he went down fast. It’s funny, because the spectators are 100 percent certain that if they can step six inches out on the road, their picture will be that much better when they take it. I don’t know if it will be worth the hospital bill.

VN: Was there some talk in the peloton today about the goings-on between Armstrong and the race director, Jean-Marie Leblanc, concerning his decision to start without wearing the yellow jersey?

CH: I think what happened is that we got to the start, and he wasn’t wearing [the race leader’s jersey], and then at the end of the neutral section [the race officials] made him go put it on. Should he have had on the jersey to begin with? I don’t know. He was trying to respect Dave’s accident. That’s not a bad thing. He was being a good guy. He was at the front, and then he went to the back, to his team car, to put it on. While he was doing that, some people decided they didn’t want to wait anymore.

VN: Was Lance pissed about people starting to race without him?

CH: I think he may have been a little pissed about that. I know I would have been.

VN: Any last thoughts on the first five stages of your first Tour de France?

CH: You know, in the last few days I have just been enjoying being at the Tour. Not even letting myself get frustrated about my time trial, or anything at all. Let’s just enjoy this first week, and see where the form is in the mountains.