Although he was weighing offers well into August, American Chris Horner told VeloNews earlier this month that he feels right at home on Lance Armstrong’s new RadioShack squad.
After riding with Astana for two seasons, including 2009 — the first time Horner and Armstrong, both 38, had ever been teammates — Horner made the jump with the majority of the Astana riders and staff to RadioShack for 2010.
The move wasn’t a forgone conclusion, however. Horner was discussions with several teams, including Garmin-Slipstream, Team Sky, and Astana, and even contacted VeloNews to dispute a story that quoted an unnamed source close to the RadioShack team who said Horner’s signature was imminent.
“I’m certainly talking with Lance, and I would be happy to go to RadioShack, but I’m not signed with those guys,” Horner said in August. “We’re on different pages, on terms of my value. I’m talking to other teams, and I don’t want them to disappear because they’ve read I am almost 100-percent signed with RadioShack.”
However four months later Horner was in Tucson, Arizona, at RadioShack’s pre-season camp, and said that was exactly where he wanted to be.
“Certainly staying with the team was the first option,” Horner told VeloNews. “It was a good way for me to go. I didn’t have to change teams again. Of course I’ve changed teams a lot in my career, so I can deal with change. I’m comfortable with that. But staying with Lance and Johan was something I was comfortable with. Talking with other teams is just to find out your value, what you’re worth, stuff like that, so you know you’re not getting low-balled. Were I to have gone to another team, they would have had to change the pay quite a bit more. Staying here was the best option for me.”
Horner added that Bruyneel and Armstrong are, respectively, the best in the business at what they do, an intangible quality that brings out the best in everyone on the team.
“Riding with Lance for the first time in my career last year was just a fun experience,” Horner said. “He brings a lot of excitement around the team, and a lot more energy. You always want to make sure you’re on your best form when Lance is around and you know you’re going to be riding for him, because you don’t want to let Lance down. The same goes for Johan, you have a great director back there that you want to impress every time he’s at the races.”
Though his 2009 season was marred with four serious injuries, Horner’s great disappointment during the last year was his exclusion from Astana’s Tour de France squad — a squad that included lesser riders such Gregory Rast and Kazakh rider Dmitriy Muravyev.
The inclusion of a Kazakh rider was a decision that even Bruyneel admitted was political, and the perpetually upbeat Horner, who had been climbing among the best riders at the Giro d’Italia in May before he crashed out, called the news “devastating.”
In August Horner said he was using his exclusion from the Tour team as leverage in his negotiations with Bruyneel and Armstrong, telling VeloNews, ““I want to be hired as a guy who is expected to race the Tour de France. Teams hire riders specifically to do grand tours. That is what I am. I am a stage racer. I need to be on a team that understands my importance, that I’m the number four or number five guy on the team, not number 10.”
And though he understands that nothing is guaranteed in cycling, Horner said he fully expects to be riding alongside Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden come July.
“I certainly made it clear that the Tour de France is what I want to do,” Horner said. “I don’t think there is a director out there, at least on a team that I’ve been on, that can guarantee you are doing it. You can only be guaranteed your spot in terms of the quality of the riders and where you are on the pecking order within the team. But with Alberto gone there are less politics within the team. We had multiple different ways to look at the way the politics were dealt with last year. You had the Kazakhs, so the team had to take a Kazakh; you had Johan’s view of the riders he thinks should be on the team, you had Alberto’s view of riders he thinks should be on team, and you had Lance’s view, and on top of that, you had Kloden’s views, too.
“But next year there will really only be two views that matter on this team. This is Lance’s team, so you’re going to have riders that Lance wants to have around him, that he believes in and has faith in and can rely on, and I certainly believe I have met that criteria. And you have Johan’s decision of who will be on the team, and I think I’ve met that criteria. So when it comes to going to the Tour de France, I think it’s guaranteed. Of course if my form is bad, and not where it’s been in recent times, then I’d have no problem stepping down. I’m not a rider that needs to be told if a rider is better than I am. I know if a rider is better than me or not. Certainly on the team last year, I believed I was fifth or sixth-best rider, I don’t think I was fighting for a spot that was ninth or tenth on the team that was going to the Tour. I think I should have been fifth, or worst-case scenario sixth. But if you throw in the politics, it adds another way of looking at things.”
As for his own ambitions, Horner said first and foremost, his goal is to be a member of a Tour-winning team, something he has yet to achieve in his career. “I’d love to be part of that experience,” Horner said, having come close as a member of Cadel Evans’ second-place finish at the 2007 Tour.
Beyond that, Horner said he hopes to have a few opportunities to race for himself at one-day races such as Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, or weeklong stage races such as Paris-Nice or the Tour of the Basque Country.
“I would imagine at those races, I would have the freedom of riding the race for myself,” Horner said, “like I did with Astana last year at Lombardia, or something like that. I’d imagine I have complete freedom there, while I’d be working for Levi or Lance at the Tour of California, and one of the big guys at the Tour. But I think there will be a lot of freedom on this team to go for the win yourself.”
“It just gets hard on a team like Astana, where I show up at Basque Country, and you’re working for Alberto. He’s one of the best guys in the world, it’s clear what you’re job is going to be. You show up at the Giro, and you’re working for Levi. It’s difficult as a rider, just because you show up at one race and none of your favorites are there, the team says, ‘Okay, now you’re the leader.’ Well thanks, I’m the leader, but I was training 100 percent for the other race, where I helped Alberto win. Now I’ve been on vacation and I’m showing up at 95 percent instead of 100 percent, and they throw you the keys. And it’s like, ‘Thanks, I’ve got the keys, but there’s no gas in the car.”