Horner goes down swinging for the GC fence

Defending champ risked all for the overall at the Amgen Tour and came up short on Mount Baldy

ONTARIO, California (VN) — What else would you expect from Chris Horner?

The defending champion went on the attack posthaste in Saturday’s queen stage at the Amgen Tour of California, at one point seizing the virtual race lead on the road between the Glendora Mountain Road and Mount Baldy climbs.

Horner had to try something — anything — to recover from his inexplicably poor time trial in Bakersfield on Thursday that saw him drop 2:50 off the lead and lose more than a minute to his chief rivals in the mountains in under 30 kilometers.

The initial RadioShack-Nissan plan was to aim at the stage win Saturday, in hopes of salvaging an early season that’s seen the super squad underachieve. But there was a problem with that.

“Unfortunately, I didn’t want the stage. I wanted GC,” Horner said atop the Baldy finish. “We got the guys in the break that I wanted. When I saw we had three up there, I knew there was a glimmer of hope to try to win the overall.”

Horner was nearly three minutes off yellow at the start of the day, and he was thinking about winning the bike race. What’s more, people were believing him. A lot of people, in fact.

Horner leapt into the day’s break with three of his teammates in Jens Voigt, Grégory Rast and George Bennet. The four drove the group to an advantage of more than three minutes, but a wary peloton wouldn’t give Horner much more rope than that.

As Voigt peeled off the front, Horner found himself isolated but no less ambitious. He went to the front and began smashing out a high pace with 40km to go and Baldy looming. More than an hour of racing, down to no teammates, and he was still pressing. The move to press the pace and obliterate the break had some scratching their heads. Horner reasoned it like this:

“The group’s size was 12 to begin with, and if they all rotated on the valley, we were going to stay away,” he said. “A few guys rotated through the valley… but then you had a lot of guys sitting on. I was arguing with the Ag2r guy, and he’s like: ‘You’re too strong.’ But it’s like, there’s always somebody too strong in the break. We’re at Amgen. What do you want?

“When everyone stopped rotating through, I just told Jens and George and the UnitedHealthcare rider to drill it as hard as you can for the last 10K so I could rest up, ’cause I’d been working already from kilometer zero. I wanted 10K of rest and then just wanted to light it up up the last climb and find out who wanted to win the stage and find out who really wanted to play. I would have liked to have four or five of us there.”

The acceleration popped two solid climbers in Lucas Euser (Spidertech-C10) and Chris Baldwin (Bissell). Next to go were Maxime Bouet (Ag2r La Mondiale) and Marc de Maar, “the UnitedHealthcare guy” who was then the virtual leader on the road.

Horner accelerated again and with 38km to go, the only man to match the defending champ was Jhon Atapuma (Colombia-Coldeportes). With 35km to go, the duo had 3:35 on the peloton and their advantage was growing. A number of GC contenders had said in the days before Baldy that it’s hard to count Horner out of a race, ever.

And for a moment, it appeared they might have been right. But there was a problem with the break, and Horner said Atapuma hadn’t worked much throughout the day, sitting up in the valleys. Atapuma attacked Horner twice around the 5km mark, the second of which did the champ in.

“I loved how aggressive the Colombians were. I would have liked to seen a little more work out of them today. I understand they want to win the stage, but you can’t win the stage if we don’t have a two-minute lead coming into the last climb. Facts are facts. It doesn’t take much to figure out one plus one,” Horner said.

“It is what it is — you’ve got to play the tactics. But if he works a bit more, maybe he can win the stage. Certainly, I wasn’t interested in the stage. Like I said, I knew it was small, but I would have gambled everything for the GC.”

But it wasn’t to be on this day up this mountain, a mountain on which Horner sealed his Amgen Tour win last year, when he and then-teammate Levi Leipheimer rode across the line together. By the time the main field, pulled by BMC Racing and Garmin-Barracuda, hit the steeps of Baldy on Saturday, it was clear that Horner was finished. A flying Robert Gesink (Rabobank) passed the American with about 3km to go, head down at full tilt. Of course, Horner tried to hold his wheel.

It was clear; the time trial had sunk the always-feisty American in his home race. He’s still trying to figure out what happened.

“We all know I time trial better than that. Perhaps I didn’t get enough electrolytes in. I haven’t time trailed that far outside the top 10 in a U.S. stage race in 18 years,” he said. “You can see with all the work I did today… you know, the legs were good. And it is what it is here. With the mistake I made in the time trial, you just can’t make up that kind of time,” Horner said. “I thought we had a shot at something special.”

Special? Perhaps it was not to be for Horner. But for an Amgen Tour that saved its best for last? Absolutely.