Horner is all-in for Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of California

For the defending Tour of California champ, it’s Baldy or bust

Last year around this time, Chris Horner sent VeloNews an e-mail. It went like this:

“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.”

Sure enough, Horner dropped everyone, including California darling Levi Leipheimer, a RadioShack teammate at the time, and the team’s co-leader at the tour. He won America’s biggest race in definitive fashion.

Horner (RadioShack-Nissan) had effectively called his shot — a remarkable feat of both confidence and performance.

Will he go that far again this year?

Not quite.

“You can’t do the same thing, because the course isn’t the same thing,” he told VeloNews Thursday, noting that last year’s route, with a race-shaping climb before a time trial, was more to his liking.

The defending champion rattled off the names of his top rivals for the Amgen Tour, which opens on Sunday May 13 and runs to Sunday May 20: Nibali. Van Garderen. Danielson. Talansky. Leipheimer (if he rides).

But … “Oh, I think I’m the favorite for sure. I’m the champion from last year,” Horner said. “I’ve got some really good form. There’s no doubt about that.”

On straight-up fitness, Horner wouldn’t pick against himself. He liked last year’s route better, but said this year’s is probably harder, and that suits him fine. Horner thinks that if Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) rides, he’ll ride to win the race he helped build. Horner knows he’ll lose time to the favorites, including Leipheimer, in the Bakersfield time trial on day five, but there is that storied California climb looming on the race’s penultimate day.

“Basically, I’ve got one chance to win the Tour of California, and that’s Mount Baldy,” Horner said. “I need a Sierra [Road] climb, I need the Baldy climb,” he said of the steep ramps he used in 2011 to attack the favorites into submission. “Motivation is good — the form is almost where it was last year.”

“Almost” may be good enough; last year, Horner’s form was far and away superior to everyone else in the field. He was so emboldened by his solo victory atop Sierra Road near San Jose — over the likes of Andy Schleck and van Garderen — that Horner said at the time that Alberto Contador was the only rider in the world able to drop him in the mountains. His triumphant ride up Mount Baldy days later, where he gifted the stage win to Leipheimer and locked in his GC title, went a long way to confirming the statement.

Horner expects this year’s race to be tight until the seventh stage, from Ontario to Mount Baldy — where the final 15 switchbacks tilt toward the sky and even team cars struggle to ascend its pitches, at a miserable 15-percent gradient in sections.

Before Baldy, there are three lofty King of the Mountain climbs in the stage, so by the time the peloton, or what’s left of it, hits the finish climb, those who aspire to wear the golden leader’s jersey in Los Angeles will have to be up front. It’s likely the rider who wins the queen stage will win the race as well.

“I’m going to lose time in the TT, that’s a given,” Horner said. “I’ll be somewhere between 25, 30 seconds down on the favorites,” he said.

That’s time he’ll have to claw back on Baldy.

It’s hard to tell if Horner is playing possum. All the cards are on the table, though: it’s Baldy or bust for the champ. And, if we can learn anything from history, it’s that Horner can deliver on Baldy, where he’ll again have Busche to tap out a blistering tempo

Earlier this week, Busche said, “Hopefully, when we get to Baldy, we can go to work.”

“That’s the whole plan,” Horner confirmed. “Certainly, I don’t feel like anybody’s going to ride me off their wheel on Baldy.”