THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (VN) — Chris Horner took a trip down memory lane Sunday as he rolled toward the biggest result of his career at the close of the Amgen Tour of California. Minutes after leaving the stage in the gold leader’s jersey, the RadioShack veteran took aim at the Tour de France — and his doubters.
Horner called his overall win at the Amgen Tour of California his biggest for a number of reasons and said he would arrive to the Grand Départ for the Tour on July 2 with free rein to go after the final podium.
“I say I’m going to go in there 100 percent,” said Horner. “I will have freedom to make a run at the podium. I think last year I could have been top five without a doubt.”
The 39-year-old will take the start on France’s Atlantic coast without domestique duties for the first time in his career. Having helped Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong onto the podium in Paris, Horner said he could ride onto the steps on the Champs-Élysées himself this year and with a little luck, wear the yellow jersey before the Arc de Triomphe.
“I see Alberto (Contador) and Andy Schleck, if he can arrive with the same form as last year, as being very unbeatable, but there’s a spot open for third,” said Horner. “If one of those two riders has a bad day, which is very easy to do during a three-week stage race, there’s a spot open for the win.”
Horner came into the Amgen Tour quietly, missing an invitation to the pre-race press conference in the shadow of three-time winner and teammate Levi Leipheimer. After spraying the champagne in Thousand Oaks, he said the result should land him in the pantheon of the top Americans in the sport.
“From here out, there’s nobody that can’t say Horner is one of the best Americans,” he said. “I won Tour of Georgia back in the day. I won Olympic trials in 1996. I won San Francisco in 2003. I’ve led the Saturn team. I’ve led teams as small as Webcor and as big as RadioShack and my career’s been filled for the last 20-25 years, I’ve had results, and I don’t think that anybody, and I have the facts to back it up just with my résumé, can say anything different.”
The winner of the 2010 Tour of the Basque Country said that while the competition was stiffer in northern Spain last spring, the Amgen win was tops as far as exposure.
“When you look at the Basque Country and the talent that was there, it is unbelievable. We had the best riders in the world,” he said. “It is the biggest result of my career, but when you compare the talent that’s at one and the talent at the other, the Basque Country is an unbelievably talented race. The difference is, here you have every American gunning for it and when you beat every rider of the top Americans, it puts you in a whole new stratosphere.”
Horner took a trip down memory lane Sunday while he paraded the leader’s jersey around Southern California. The 39-year-old said afterward that he spent much of the day reminiscing over 25 years of training in Simi Valley.
“All day it was nostalgia,” said Horner. “I really built my career training here and racing here.”
Horner, who grew up down the road in San Diego, spent his youth racing and training in and around Los Angeles. His overall lead secure over teammate and runner-up Levi Leipheimer, Horner’s mind strayed as the peloton neared the finishing circuits in Thousand Oaks. He laughed about the memories.
“What was going through my head the whole time was the time spent doing the Simi ride and all the friends and riders I’ve met throughout my career,” said Horner. “For me, I felt as though I knew the corners, the roads, the crowds, the people. I have a fantastic team around me and it was really just memories coming back from the last 25 years.”
Horner’s demonstrative win on Sierra Grade in stage 4 delivered the gold leader’s jersey and when he rode away from the competition with Leipheimer on Mount Baldy on Saturday, Horner’s overall win was all but locked up.
“It’s really a race I wanted to do well at as soon as I saw the summits,” said Horner. “I was super calm, super relaxed. … The whole SoCal area really has been my stamping ground from the time I was a kid until now.”
Horner said he would take a short break before heading to the Tour de Suisse in early June and the Tour de France in July. A year after finishing 10th overall, he’ll finally have the chance to see where he lies not only among the top Americans, but the top international names in the sport.