From the pages of Velo: California Kid (analysis of the 2011 Amgen Tour)

At 39, Amgen Tour champ Chris Horner keeps getting better and better. (Don’t believe us? Just ask him.)

Editor’s Note: This story initially appeared in the July 2011 issue of  VeloNews Magazine. For more on our award-winning print publication, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, click here.

“Hey, your boys writing the articles for Cali do remember that I was 4th last year, I’m the highest-ranked U.S. rider in the world, and am going to drop all your favorites.”

Less than a week before the 2011 Amgen Tour of California, RadioShack’s Chris Horner sent the above in an e-mail in regards to a Amgen Tour preview, which named Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervélo), Tejay van Garderen (HTC-Highroad) and Linus Gerdemann (Leopard-Trek) among the GC heavyweights to take the start in Lake Tahoe.

Horner’s name was not mentioned.

A week later, on the slopes of Sierra Road, the first-ever summit finish of the Amgen Tour, Horner did just what he said he would — he dropped all the favorites, including Leipheimer, a three-time winner of the race. Afterwards, he said he’d been “unappreciated” during his career, and had felt “insulted” that he hadn’t been invited to the pre-race press conference.

Horner doesn’t always predict he’ll win, and he’s equally as candid when he’s not on form, or if he makes a tactical mistake. But the thing about Horner — and his teammates, directors, friends and rivals will all agree with this — is that he’s a realist, and he’s rarely wrong, about anything.

And while he’s probably one of the most sincerely positive people you may ever meet — he is always smiling, even when racing full-gas — emotion plays little role in Horner’s actions, decisions or conclusions. Instead, everything he does, on and off the bike, is based around known quantities. When describing his abilities as a rider, his words may come across as cocky in print, but in person, in context, they come across as simple matters of fact.

“I think it’s hilarious when people get away from facts,” Horner said about his penchant for truth. “A lot of things in life are just all about the facts. Most, actually.”

And the fact was, heading into the Amgen Tour of California, Horner was flying. His brash pre-race prediction wasn’t, in his mind, braggadocio, but rather, a frank statement.

“I knew what my SRM was telling me when I was out training, and the SRM doesn’t lie. It’s facts, it’s undeniable,” Horner said, adding that he is his own coach, and that before he began using a power meter in 2008, his “scientific” training method involved timing himself up favorite climbs with a stopwatch. “You see the numbers, you know what they do in the big races, and you know you’re going to be good.”

In California, Horner wasn’t just good, he was the best in the race, taking one of the biggest wins of a 16-year professional career that only seems to get better with time.

Man with a system

With an American title sponsor, the Amgen Tour wasn’t just a season objective for RadioShack — it was a season imperative. In Leipheimer, the team had a three-time winner, but manager Johan Bruyneel needed additional assurance. With the addition of two summit finishes to this year’s route, Horner, a climber with a good, not great, time trial, became an obvious candidate.

Bruyneel asked Horner what he would need to be ready to win California. Horner, who had finished fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya and second overall to teammate Andreas Klöden at the Tour of the Basque Country, told Bruyneel he’d need to skip the Ardennes classics and go home, to his hometown of San Diego, to prepare.

“I’ve got a system,” Horner said. “Whatever it is, I’ve got a system. I’ve got a certain way of getting dressed, of washing my car, of taking care of the dogs — everything has to flow a certain way. I like my bikes cleaned. I pack my suitcase the same way every time. I like to go to the same restaurants.”

Horner took a week off the bike, and then began slowly ramping up his training, with two weeks of hard riding leading into the race. Integral to dialing in Horner’s power-to-weight ratio was the diet he and his girlfriend Megan Elliott, the 2002 U23 national road champion, devised. Despite his a penchant for hamburgers, candy bars and soda, Horner and Elliott closely monitored his caloric intake, bringing his weight down from 150 pounds to 140.

For the first time in his career, Horner was coming into the tour of his home state at 100-percent form; the SRM wasn’t lying. In early May, Bruyneel announced that both Leipheimer and Horner would be the team’s leaders. “Levi Leipheimer will of course be our leader,” Bruyneel said. “He has never lost the time trial in Solvang. Chris Horner will be our perfect alternative. Thanks to his performances earlier this year in Catalunya and the Basque Country he deserves the co-leadership. Chris never disappoints us.”

Up Sierra Road

Stage 4 from Livermore featured the hors categorie climb and descent of Mount Hamilton before finishing atop Sierra Road, a 3.6-mile climb, with 1,791 feet of elevation gain, an average gradient of 9.5-percent and maximum gradient of 15-percent. It would be the first GC battle, and every rider in the peloton knew it.

With Vande Velde, Hesjedal, Tom Danielson, Andrew Talansky and three-time runner-up Dave Zabriskie, Garmin-Cervélo had several riders capable of winning the race, and was perhaps the only team with a legitimate shot at challenging RadioShack’s Leipheimer-Horner combo. Midway down the twisting Hamilton descent, Hesjedal jumped from the pack, opening a maximum gap of 50 seconds.

“There was an uphill section I’d heard that was a good launch pad, and we talked about it, so why not?” Hesjedal said. “It forced the race and I had some fun, and I think it worked out.”

Hesjedal hit the climb up Sierra with a 30-second lead, which worked out better for Horner than anyone else in the race; it forced RadioShack to push the pace, rather than another scenario, where they might have started the climb mired in a tactical battle with Garmin.

“Ryder’s move changed the whole dynamic for the entire tour,” Horner said. “He’s a big threat. He can climb well and time trial as well as I can. You give him 1:30 on a 5km climb, and no matter how steep it is, you aren’t gonna catch him. We had to go full gas, we had to drill it, we had to catch and drop him.”

As he’d said he would, Horner set the pace for Leipheimer, ultimately shedding the last remaining climbers, which included Danielson, van Garderen, Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) and Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare). Once the pair caught Hesjedal with two miles remaining, Horner continued the pace making, gapping off Hesjedal, and leaving a struggling Leipheimer to mark the Canadian’s wheel.

“Chris just kept the pace on and it was gonna be up to me to stay with him,” Hesjedal said. “So if I’m gonna drag Levi up to him, I’d put them in an even better position.”

And politically, Horner was in a perfect position — he’d been the consummate teammate, and he had the power to simply ride away, from the front.

“At that moment, I’m leaving (Levi) room to stay on the wheel, but my goal was clear,” Horner said. “The team’s objective was to win the Amgen Tour of California. I rode for Levi the whole time up Sierra until I was solo, and I can’t slow the pace down with Ryder on his wheel. Had (Hesjedal) not gone solo, maybe the Garmin guys start attacking, I follow attacks, it comes back, Levi follows an attack, he’s up the road, and I’m stuck behind playing tactics. Maybe the pace is not fast enough and Zabriskie doesn’t get dropped, and he goes on to win the time trial and leads heading into Mount Baldy.”

As it was, Horner never let up, stretching his lead to 1:15 at the top and taking control of the race for good.

After the race Leipheimer conceded that Horner was the strongest man: “Always fun to take control and pull it off,” Leipheimer wrote on Twitter. “Chris was clearly by far the best. Great day for Team RadioShack.” However if he was content with Horner’s team leadership, it didn’t show atop Sierra; journalists attempting to speak with Leipheimer found him in no mood to talk to the press.

May the best man win

Zabriskie, who hemorrhaged 4:40 to Horner on Sierra and any chance at an overall win, rallied in Solvang to take the time trial with a new course record. But the real question was what would happen between Horner and Leipheimer. In 2007 Horner finished 1:53 behind Leipheimer in Solvang; in 2008 he finished 1:42 behind; in 2009 he finished 1:39 behind. Last year, in Los Angeles, Horner finished 39 seconds behind Leipheimer. Should Horner lose the race lead to his teammate, the dynamics would revert on the pivotal climb up Mount Baldy, and Leipheimer would almost certainly take the overall win.

Leipheimer and Horner were the last two men to take the start. Leipheimer worked his bike, and the course, as hard as he could, coming in at 30:49, 14 seconds slower than Zabriskie. Horner finished 37 seconds slower than Leipheimer, preserving his race lead.

With Horner and Leipheimer the strongest climbers in the race, and the climb to Baldy so steep — the last three miles average 10-percent, with the last half mile an unrelenting 12- to 16-percent — a RadioShack victory seemed a foregone conclusion. Garmin again put Hesjedal in a move, this time in a breakaway with Talansky, but with Jason McCartney and national champ Ben King manning the front of the peloton, the break was brought back at the bottom of the climb.

From there American sensation Matthew Busche set a tempo so hard it shed everyone, including Schleck, and all that was left for Horner and Leipheimer to do was finish the job. Leipheimer escorted the race leader up the final steeps to the finish line, where the two men crossed practically shoulder to shoulder, then raised clasped hands. Leipheimer took the stage win and second overall, and Horner’s GC victory was all-but assured.

It was a bittersweet moment for Leipheimer, whose name has become synonymous with the race. “Chris has been around for 16 years, but he’s been even more professional in the last couple of years, especially with his diet, and just everything,” Leipheimer said. “You’re seeing the results of that. I’ve had some health issues and the team needed a Plan B. That turned out to be Chris. I think it was smart of the team. I am happy because I showed I could have won, but my teammate was better, there’s no denying that.”

Speaking to the matter of displacing his teammate as the American champion of the race, Horner said, “I could see that Levi is a three-time winner, he’s coming in here with 100-percent form, and he’s focusing on it. Certainly there’s a downside to that. But at the same time, you have to look at it how much work the team had done. RadioShack came focused to help whoever was going to win. The team hadn’t come just for me, it came for anyone that could win. I think as a rider you have to just embrace the team winning — what we did on Sierra Road, what we did on Baldy, and what we did on GC.”

To the Tour — and beyond

With his Amgen Tour win, coupled with his 2010 Basque Country overall victory and 10th place at the Tour, Horner has proven that even nearing 40, he’s one of the best stage racers in the sport. For the majority of his European career — which, after a stall with FDJ from 1997-1999, began again in 2005 — Horner has ridden in a support role, for riders as varied as Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong.

What he might be able to accomplish as a protected team leader is a question worth asking, and after winning on Sierra Road, Horner shared his own views.

“Certainly when you have teammates such as Alberto Contador or Lance Armstrong, you can’t have five RadioShack riders or Astana riders sitting up here at the same time,” he said. “But at the same time it’s pretty simple to see that in the last four years my form has been with the best in the world, and with the exception of Alberto Contador I don’t think there’s anyone who can drop me.”

It was a bold statement that was quickly plastered into headlines around the globe. Asked later to expand on it, Horner said, “Contador is the only guy who can drop me on a regular basis. I certainly can have a bad day where people are better than me. But I feel confident, and I have the facts to back it up. With the exception of Alberto, and the form Schleck had last July, those are the only guys I can’t match, and nobody in the world of pro cycling can match Alberto from February to October, and Andy in July.”

With Leipheimer, Horner, Klöden and Jani Brajkovic, RadioShack will take four riders to the Tour capable of reaching the podium. And though it might seem as though establishing leadership would be more complicated on the roads in France than it was in California, Horner said it’s actually the other way around.

“It’s simple,” he said. “Our team has no stress. Alberto and Schleck, they are the favorites. When those guys go, whoever is at the top of a summit finish first, that’s our leader. You won’t have to assert yourself. You just have to be capable of following.”

Looking forward, beyond the Tour and into next season, Horner said he believes he can race for four or five years longer, which would soon make him the oldest rider in the pro peloton. What jersey he might be wearing, in 2012 and beyond, is up in the air. His contract with Bruyneel ends this year, and as he always has, Horner’s taking offers. (Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters jokingly refers to Horner as “a mercenary, a gun for hire.”) And the prospect of riding as a protected team leader has a certain amount of appeal to a rider who is in the twilight of a long, successful career.

“If a smaller team offered me the same salary, and I’d be the leader, I’d think about it,” he said. “Sometimes I think I would be better off on a team with fewer leaders so I could race for myself. I believe I’m giving up three or four wins a year racing for guys like Klödi, Alberto, Lance, Levi… okay, maybe I can’t win the GC at races Alberto is at, but I could have won a stage here and there.”

Like all things with Horner, a decision like that wouldn’t be based solely on emotions; dollar amounts don’t lie. One thing is certain, Horner is still enjoying the ride, and is in no hurry to hang it up.

“More than anything, I still have the motivation,” Horner said. “I love what I’m doing. These are the facts: I love riding my bike, I want to keep riding my bike, and I never think ‘I hate this, I want an office job.’ I know, at this age, this is where I want to be.”

Part of that motivation is surely being at the top of his game so late in his career. As Horner said, “From here out, there’s nobody who can say Horner isn’t one of the best Americans.”

Chris Horner Race File

Born: 10/23/1971 in Okinawa, Japan
Hometown: San Diego, California
Resides: Bend, Oregon
Height: 5-foot-10
Weight: 140 pounds

Teams RadioShack (2010-11); Astana (2008-09); Predictor-Lotto (2007); Davitamon-Lotto (2006); Saunier Duval-Prodir (August 2004-2005); Webcor (January-August 2004); Saturn (2003); Prime Alliance (October 2001-2002); Mercury (2000-September 2001); Française des Jeux (1997-1999); NutraFig (1995-1996)

Major results:
2011: 1st, Amgen Tour of California; 2nd, Tour of the Basque Country
2010: 1st, Tour of the Basque Country; 7th, Liège–Bastogne–Liège; 10th, Tour de France
2008: 7th, Giro di Lombardia
2007: 5th, Tour de Romandie; 15th, Tour de France
2006: 1st, stage 2, Tour de Romandie
2005: 1st, stage 5, Tour of Switzerland
2004: 3rd, Tour de Georgia; 8th, world road championship
2003: 1st, Tour de Georgia; 1st, San Francisco Grand Prix
2002: 2nd, U.S. national time trial championship
2000: 1st, Tour de Langkawi
1996: 1st, CoreStates Lancaster Invitational; 1st, stage 10, Tour DuPont; 1st, Microsoft Grand Prix (Olympic Trials event)

USA Cycling NRC Titles: 4 (1996, 2002, 2003, 2004)
Redlands Classic titles: 4
Olympics attended: 0
Favorite race: Liège–Bastogne–Liège

Armstrong refocuses for Solvang TT

Eight months after giving birth to her son Lucas, Kristin Armstrong added her name to the short list for the Olympic time trial in London next summer when she won the Women’s International Time Trial Challenge in Solvang.

A chance car ride shared by Armstrong’s Peanut Butter & Co. Twenty12 team manager Nicola Cranmer and AEG Sports president Andrew Messick got the ball rolling on the inaugural event this spring. SRAM’s Michael Zellman got on board and rumors started flying in late March; by the time the Redlands Classic came around, sources confirmed that a women’s time trial would take place in Solvang and that the participants would be paid based on how many men they beat — or “chicked” as popular parlance would have it.

The invited riders, including Armstrong, Amber Neben and Alison Powers, supported the format. The media and public response was not so warm. A small but vocal backlash led Messick’s team to reconsider, and a week later word leaked that the race would offer a standard payout.

“To be honest, I think the people that were having negative comments weren’t the riders,” said Armstrong. “They were from some of the media and I said, ‘Hey, let’s take a step back and ask the riders what they think.’ I don’t think we’re actually here to win any money.”

Whatever the format, 13 of the world’s top women against the clock lined up for the $10,000 event. Emma Pooley (Garmin-Cervélo) wore the world champion’s stripes in the Danish-themed tourist village, while American champ Evelyn Stevens was among five HTC-Highroad starters.

None of them could outdo Armstrong, however, and she rolled to a 13-second win over Amber Neben, with HTC’s Charlotte Becker third.

After a slow start in Redlands and contracting the Norwalk virus at the Tour of the Gila, Armstrong won her first major event since returning to competition in March. The win came weeks after the Olympic champion went through a phase of major doubts about her comeback. Armstrong said she had never had more difficulty focusing on training.

“There was a week of, ‘Okay, what am I riding my bike for?’ It was one of those mental sorts of periods,” she said. “It was a really hard focus because a lot of times, now that I have a baby, he is the biggest focus in my life. I’m a mom number one and a bike racer number two. Sometimes when things are getting really hard I ask myself, ‘What am I really doing? What am I doing this for?’ I have to remember that I love this sport.”

Unfortunately, the time trial nearly slipped under the mainstream radar in Solvang. Race officials invited just two major media outlets to the pre-race dinner and press conference and did not distribute a start list or feature the event on the race website ahead of time. The crowds on the course were strong and the atmosphere electric on the ground, but even the local organizing committee spokesperson referred to the riders as “amateur” during the podium ceremony.

Despite these hiccups, many of the world’s top women time trialists gave the Solvang circuit full stick. Neben even flew direct from the Chrono Gatineau in Quebec, boarding the plane in her chamois, to take part. Thirty minutes before Versus aired the race, on delay, Armstrong was thrilled with the opportunity to show the women’s side of professional cycling to one of its biggest audiences ever.

“We’re on a stage today,” she said. “We’re going to be broadcasted across the nation to thousands of people in hopes that people are going to see women out there, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness. These women are doing the exact same thing as the men, at least today…’ It’s getting the sport out there and getting it recognized.”

But more than any other viewer, the 37-year-old Armstrong hoped her coach and USA Cycling performance director Jim Miller would recognize her effort as worthy of a world championships selection this fall. —BRIAN HOLCOMBE

Race Revelation: Matthew Busche

The remarkable success story of Matthew Busche is one that could only happen in America.

Before 2008, he’d never done a bike race. Three years later, climbing the Amgen Tour’s toughest mountain ahead of his team leaders Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner, the 26-year-old, 5-foot-8 Busche pulled so hard that within 5km of uphill work only one of 30 rivals was left in his wake. And along the way he’d dropped the sport’s No. 2 climber Andy Schleck along with world-class Americans Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Tejay van Garderen.

Leipheimer, the stage winner on that climb to Mount Baldy, was so impressed with his young teammate’s performance, he told VeloNews: “I can’t think of anyone [who has risen so quickly in professional racing]. He really has just made leaps and bounds [in] his career path and his ability. It’s impressive and I think unprecedented.”

Busche (pronounced “Boo-shay”) is a clean-cut Wisconsinite who graduated from Luther College, a liberal arts school in Decorah, Iowa, only last year, majoring in exercise science. As a collegiate athlete, he ran cross-country and the steeplechase, but developed tendonitis and took up cycling in 2008.

As a novice cyclist, Busche joined the IS Corp amateur team, winning the Wisconsin state road championship before taking 11th overall (and top amateur) at the 2009 Nature Valley Grand Prix. That ride so impressed Jonas Carney, team director of Kelly Benefits Strategies, that he signed Busche to his first pro contract in time for that August’s Tour of Utah, where Busche climbed with the best to take a remarkable seventh overall.

After wrapping his ’09 season with fifth at the U.S. Pro Road Championship in Greenville, South Carolina, he got an out-of-the-blue phone call from RadioShack team director Johan Bruyneel, who offered the rising American rookie a spot on his RadioShack squad.

Busche showed up at The Shack’s first training camp 18 months ago wearing a green Kelly Benefits uniform, and few among the attending media noticed when he took his place alongside team leaders Lance Armstrong, Horner and Leipheimer on their opening ride. Who was this new kid who’d raced only a couple of months as a domestic pro?

When VeloNews caught up with Busche six months later, at the 2010 Tour de Romandie, his first ProTour race, he said, “I’m here to learn as much as I can and help my teammates.” He had never been to Europe before and was waiting for his wife Lisa to finish her masters degree in psychology before setting up a new home with her in Girona, Spain.

Only a year after that big-race debut, Busche garnered universal praise for his riding all through the California race. “It’s what you train for,” Busche said modestly after Horner and Leipheimer finished the Amgen Tour in first and second, while he was RadioShack’s third counter in 26th overall, 12:03 back.

“I work hard and just do the best I can. I know I’m growing and maturing as a cyclist, and I get stronger every race. Cycling is a strength game and an experience game. It’s exciting.”

In reaction to Armstrong tweeting “Busche: MVP,” after his stunning Baldy performance, Busche reacted, “He’s the man; he’s the boss. So when the boss says that, it’s a good thing.”
“We’ve always known that he has the horsepower,” Leipheimer added, “but bike racing isn’t just about being strong. It’s not just about being talented. You’ve got to be smart, work hard, and temper your expectations. I’ve seen him frustrated throughout the year because it’s such a steep learning curve, but now I start to see the confidence bloom.

“I told him, ‘Don’t expect success all the time because it doesn’t happen. Make sure you appreciate what you did [on Baldy] and learn to love the hard work.’ Special days like that don’t happen very often.”

As for Busche, he said, “I only hope it gets better from here and the team continues to have confidence in me.” In July this year, he’ll be racing the weeklong Tour of Austria, but he knows and expects that, starting in 2012, he’ll be lining up with his senior teammates at the Tour de France. —JOHN WILCOCKSON AND BRIAN HOLCOMBE