Q&A Horner: ‘Racing my bike, it is what I am’

American sees chances for Schleck in TdF; targets Cali, Basque Country

When rumors of a merger between RadioShack and Leopard-Trek first gained traction last fall, Chris Horner’s inbox was filled with messages from friends and supporters lamenting the news.

Everyone thought that the arrival of the powerful Schleck brothers tandem was nothing but bad news for Horner and his dream of riding unbridled through the Tour de France. Rather than bemoan the merger, Horner has pragmatically embraced it.

The veteran American is smart enough to know that RadioShack-Nissan-Trek will be among the strongest teams in the peloton. And he’s also savvy enough to know that doesn’t necessarily mean anything negative. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Horner realizes he’s positioned perfectly, first to help Andy Schleck win the Tour, and second to take advantage of any strategic opening if one later develops on the road come July.

“I don’t see it like that at all,” Horner said in response to the question if the arrival of the Schlecks was a possible negative. “I am very excited about this merger. We can come to the Tour with the idea of winning the Tour. I would rather help Andy win the Tour than to maybe finish fifth, or eighth or 10th. People thought it was bad for me, it’s quite the opposite. It’s going to be a fantastic experience — in what’s already been a long and successful career — to help Andy try to win the Tour.”

The 40-year-old has made it no secret how he sees his role come July. He’s there to help Andy Schleck, three time runner-up at the Tour de France, win the maillot jaune.

“The only objective here is to help Andy win the Tour de France,” Horner said earlier this month at the RNT team presentation in Luxembourg. “This team is built around helping Andy win the Tour. If he has the form he had those two years, he’ll win. If not, we’ll play some tactics to isolate the rivals and make them weaker than they’ve ever been before on the final climb. Cadel (Evans) and (Alberto) Contador have weaker teams than we do and we can isolate them.” Chris, so you see your position in a positive light on the merger of RadioShack and Leopard-Trek?
Chris Horner: I looked at it as being enhanced as soon as the team has merged. We are going into the Tour with four riders who are incredibly strong. The objective will be that Andy will arrive with the best possible form and if he does that, then our job will be easy, we’ll just look after him, protect him and drop him off in the last climb and he does his thing. In the time trials, he limits his losses and kills everyone in the climbs. If he’s not hands down the best rider, then basically Johan has me, Klodi and Frank on the team to put the hurt on the other riders so that Andy can rest and get more of an edge when the climb starts. A third option is that one of us gets up the road and continues to get enough time to win the Tour de France. It’s a great option. So you believe that the team can simply out-shoot your rivals?
CH: They cannot cover four guys. It’s impossible. They’re going to have let somebody go, so whichever one of us they let go, maybe we can get enough time in the GC to become a threat, and the GC rivals have to chase. It will allow Andy to stay rested until the last moment. Hopefully with that little bit of an edge that he can win the Tour. You don’t think that nearly 100km of TTs is are fatal to Schleck’s chances?
CH: We would have preferred to have had the team time trial, with guys like Kloden and Cancellara, with a TTT and one individual TT, it would have been better for us. But, they didn’t, so we’re going to have find another way. Both you and Bruyneel have said that Evans’ and Contador’s teams are weak and you believe that will be an advantage you can exploit. How do you see that playing out on the road?
CH: What did you see last year out of Cadel’s team? At the beginning of every climb, he was alone. I am just stating fact. This is not my personal opinion, this is fact. Have they added anyone to help him start the climb? The only rider I’ve seen that they’ve added is Tejay (Van Garderen). We haven’t seen how well Tejay can perform in the grand tours, so it’s still a question. They’ve also added two very expensive, very big riders who possibly might not help, or might actually take more riders away from Cadel to look after them for possibly winning a stage or wearing the yellow jersey early. You’ve seen that dynamic before when you were on Lotto with Evans, when there was McEwen and the sprinters vying for attention against Evans’ GC chances. Do you see a similar situation with BMC this year with Hushovd and Gilbert?
CH: I was on Cadel’s team. I know what Cadel is going through. The facts of what we know at this moment is that Cadel’s team is no stronger this year than it was last year. And the fact is that last year he rode at the beginning of every major climb by himself, which would be a very dangerous thing to happen if you have to deal with RadioShack-Nissan-Trek riders who have arrived fresh. If you can make it through the first, not crash and not lose all your team before the mountains start. Facts are facts. You cannot argue facts, that’s why they call them that. Can things change between now and then? Of course. Cadel could end up with three fantastic riders that came out of the blue who can climb better than they did last year. The facts as they are now is that Cadel will be out-numbered when the first climbs start in the Tour de France. Besides working for the Schlecks at the Tour, you will have your own chances at other races. What are you main goals?
CH: The race schedule remains more or less the same: Paris-Nice, Catalunya, Pais Vasco, California, Tour de Suisse, Tour. Basque Country, I’d love to win again, and California. I’d absolutely love to win again and hit the Tour with the best form I can all season. Those are the goals. It was achievable last year, so if I can repeat what I did last year, it would be fabulous. The only difference is that I added Paris-Nice, but I think I need it because I haven’t raced since the Tour. It will be important to get some racing in before I hit Basque Country. With the departure of Levi Leipheimer, will you have more pressure to carry the team colors on home roads, such as California, Colorado and Utah?
CH: Yes, Cali, Utah and Colorado are all my responsibilities. California is going to be my main goal, you have to remember that Utah and Colorado come after the Tour. They will still be goals, but they will extend how professional I have to be all year and it won’t allow me too much to mess around, to play with the kids. It changes things in that I have to be focused on everything I do and how I expend energy in every moment from when training camp ends until after Colorado, perhaps after the Canadian races. You’re one of the oldest riders in the peloton — 40! — do you still love racing your bike?
CH: There’s nothing else I want to be doing anyway. At my age, I could have retired a long time ago and be doing something else if I wanted to do it, but there’s nothing else I would rather be doing than racing my bike. It is what I am. I will always be a cyclist and be around bikes. I have a contract for two more years — through 2013 — the future’s good and team’s good and sponsors of the team are incredibly ecstatic. The RadioShack and Nissan boys are very excited to be merging with the Schleck brothers. This is an Olympic year, is that on your radar?
CH: I quit worrying about the Olympics a long time ago. It seems like the people they have who select the teams for the Olympics don’t know men’s road cycling. They’ve done a bad job of picking teams in the past and I don’t have any belief that they’ll be any better this year, either. They don’t understand road cycling, either. There’s politics for picking one person or another. From 1996 until now, whoever has been doing the selection needs to be fired and replaced by someone who knows how to pick an actual team and show results at the Olympics. We certainly have had that. Some would argue that the U.S. pros in Europe don’t take international competition seriously, especially the world championships, that it comes too late in the season and no one’s ever serious about racing by then …
CH: The national team should do a better job of keeping in touch with their professional riders. They should do a better job of motivating their professional riders for arriving at the worlds, they should do a better job of selecting riders for the Olympics. They should just do a better job all the way around. That’s not my opinion, those are facts.