Age was the deciding factor in Chris Horner’s future with Lampre-Merida. Despite a bumpy 2014 campaign with the Italian team that included a heavy crash and his untimely departure from the Vuelta a España, it was Horner’s birth certificate that ultimately proved his undoing with the WorldTour team.
Speaking to VeloNews, Lampre general manager Brent Copeland confirmed there was no consensus within the team to keep the 43-year-old on board for another season.
“The main reason came down to his age,” Copeland told VeloNews by telephone. “It was difficult to convince everyone within the team to keep him. There are only places for 25 riders on the team, and it’s not always easy to keep everyone happy. It’s unfortunate, because Chris is a fantastic rider and person, but his age was the deciding factor.”
Horner turns 44 in October, and his age became a stumbling block as he tried to negotiate a contract extension with Lampre. Unable to extend with the Italian squad, Horner found other doors closed in Europe, and later signed on with the Continental team Airgas Safeway for the 2015 season.
In 2013, Horner became the oldest rider in history to win a grand tour, when he won the Vuelta a España at 41.
Last season, Horner joined Lampre on a one-year deal with big ambitions, but was nearly killed in a harrowing accident when a motorist struck him inside a tunnel in northern Italy. Despite heavy injuries, Horner bounced back to lead Lampre in the GC at the Tour de France with 17th overall.
He came down with bronchitis, and then battled back to finish second overall at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. Dogged by the chest infection, Horner and Lampre team doctors agreed to treat him with corticoids to help clear up his breathing. Unfortunately, Horner tested for low levels of Cortisol in pre-race health screenings ahead of the Vuelta, which put Lampre in a pickle. UCI rules allowed Horner to start, but not so according to the Mouvement por un Cyclisme Crédible (MPCC), a volunteer group of teams aiming to adhere to an even stricter ethical code.
Lampre management made what they called a “difficult” decision to sideline Horner just before the start of the Vuelta, a decision that knocked the defending champion out of the race. Copeland, however, said that was not a deciding factor when it came time to consider keeping the veteran American on the 2015 roster.
“I must be honest, that wasn’t a factor at all,” Copeland said. “We had to respect the rules and regulations of the MPCC, and we pulled him out of the Vuelta. That was a very difficult decision, because it boiled down to pulling him out of the Vuelta, or puling ourselves out of MPCC. If we were in the same situation again, we’d make the same decision. … That was unfortunate, but that didn’t affect the decision to sign him or not.”
Instead, Copeland said there were disagreements within Lampre management and staff about filling out the roster for 2015. Some wanted to invest in younger riders, while others leaned toward keeping Horner. In the end, Horner’s age proved his undoing.
“When you sit down and look at it, he’ll turn 44 this year, it was not easy to convince everyone to keep him. It was not a decision of just one person,” Copeland said. “I am the same age as Chris, but when I saw how dedicated he was, how much he focused on training, how he worked on stretching and core strength, and how professional he is, hat’s off to him. He could show a lot of young riders how it’s done.”
Copeland also expressed empathy for Horner, who never had the chance to race in top condition throughout the 2014 season.
“Since his Vuelta win, he hasn’t had the opportunity to show himself, and he deserves that,” Copeland continued. “Last year, it was unfortunate luck from A to Z. Before his crash, he form was super, but he couldn’t race the Giro. And when he came back for the Tour, he got bronchitis, and then the issue with the MPCC. He couldn’t show anybody what his true potential is.”
Unfortunately for Horner, he might not ever get that chance again, at least not in Europe’s most important races.