The stars aligned for Chris Horner and his bid to land a major team for 2014, with Lampre-Merida confirming the 42-year-old’s arrival Thursday with an ambitious schedule for the coming season.
Lampre team manager Brent Copeland told VeloNews that the Vuelta a España champion was the right rider, with the right profile, and the right price to help fill several voids on the Italian team.
“We’re really happy with it,” Copeland told VeloNews about Horner’s arrival. “He fills a space we were looking for the last few months. It happened rather quickly, but we made space for Chris. He was a perfect fit.”
Copeland said conversations began with Horner and his new agent, ex-pro Baden Cooke, around the end of the year. Copeland admitted it wasn’t easy finding the budget to sign Horner, but said the 42-year-old brought several key elements to the table.
“We knew that he was dealing with other teams, but we didn’t know what his situation was. Baden called us, and we started speaking,” Copeland said. “We made room for Chris, even though in the back of our minds we wanted to fill that space. The fact we wanted to add an American rider to the team helped. It was not easy to find money in the budget, but we got the sponsors together and made it happen. It was not easy in January.”
In an interview with Rob Arnold of RIDE Cycling Review, Cooke said Horner’s one-year deal is top-heavy with bonuses.
Copeland said there was “no hesitation” to sign Horner, despite doubts from some quarters over the American’s dramatic Vuelta victory.
“When we bring a rider on board, there is a sequence of things we have to run through. We looked at everything, the biological passport numbers looked good, and the medical team gave us the go-ahead,” Copeland said. “Speculation is often just a lot of talk. We go with the feeling of what a rider says, and with what the medical staff recommends.”
Copeland said Horner would step in as a GC contender for the major races to complement another new arrival, world champion Rui Costa, as well as serve as a mentor for Lampre’s stock of younger riders.
“Chris is one of the most intelligent riders in the peloton. He’s a rider who knows when to spend energy, and when to save energy, and how to move around the peloton,” Copeland said. “We invest a lot in our young riders, and having a rider like Chris to help them is a big plus. As well as being a GC rider, that was one of the main things we thought about when signing him.”
With the departure of Giro podium contender Michele Scarponi to Astana, Lampre needed another strong GC candidate to help round out its roster. Horner’s immediate goal will be riding the Giro d’Italia as one of the team’s captains, with a likely Vuelta defense later in the season.
“Even though we have [Przemyslaw] Niemiec and [Damiano] Cunego for the Giro, putting in another GC rider of Chris’ stature is something that will strengthen the team,” Copeland said. “You start off with the idea of having a few GC options, and we’ll know within the first week who is the strongest. We’d like to see him do what he did at the Vuelta in the Giro, but if he helps other riders, that’s fine, too.”
The team is hopeful that Horner, who remains in the United States, can quickly finalize paperwork in time to race the Mallorca Challenge, which will coincide with a Merida dealer event on the Spanish island in early February.
With his arrival to Lampre, Horner will see a world-class schedule, with likely starts at the Volta a Catalunya and the Vuelta al País Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) before a straight run at the maglia rosa in the Giro. Horner is a former winner of the Basque tour. He started the Giro in 2009 and was eighth overall following stage 9, but a crash early in stage 10 forced him to withdraw.
Copeland left the door open for a possible Tour start, but said the focus now is on the first half of the season, with the idea of defending the Vuelta, and leaving Costa to the Tour.
“We have built a team around Rui for the Tour, but during the season, things can often change with injuries and illnesses, so if Chris comes out of the Giro feeling fresh, that’s something we could think of, but for now, we’re planning the Tour for Costa,” he said. “We don’t like to plan too far ahead. We plan up to July for our riders, and the idea for Chris is pretty clear until the Giro.”
And what about Horner’s love of cheeseburgers? Copeland laughed, but said if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
“If he rides like he did at the Vuelta, he can eat cheeseburgers every day,” he said. “The experience of Chris is huge. He’s been around 20 years. It’s difficult to change the mentality of veteran riders. If they’re used to following a program, and they’re ready to race, we’re open to it.”