I’ve been waiting for this result for years. Twenty years, in fact. Chris Horner, perhaps the most underrated American professional cyclist ever, is winning a grand tour. I watched him win the Microsoft Gran Prix in Seattle something like twenty years ago, back when he had long, rock-star hair and the youthful exuberance to hoist his bike over his head upon crossing the finish line first. That evident passion and energy permanently embedded his inspirational human being status in the far reaches of my noggin.
Then, for like ever, team directors passed over him for team leadership at race after race, instead placing his talents in the service of others. Now, after one of the most out-of-left-field pre-race proclamations I’ve ever heard, Chris Horner is about to win his first grand tour.
After that big win in the early 1990′s, Horner’s star should have been on the rise. He even earned a spot on the 1996 US Olympic team, yet somehow, through discretionary coach selections, he was left off the team in favor of one of Lance Armstrong’s inner circle riders. After that, he rode in support of riders like Joaquim Rodriguez at Saunier-Duval, Cadel Evans at Lotto, Alberto Contador at Astana, and Lance Armstrong and Andy Schleck at RadioShack.
He won some big races along the way, but in the grand tours his teams never gave him protected rider status, which sealed his fate as a rider who was essentially forbidden to shine at the races he is arguably most suited for.
When Horner announced just a few weeks before the race that he would be riding for the win at this year’s Vuelta A Espana – after a season mostly curtailed by injury – I believe I raised only one eyebrow (of the possible two) and distinctly thought Horner had lost his marbles. It’s a big ask to go from no racing since February to having knee surgery in late May, to winning a three-week grand tour in September. Yet, as bold as the prediction was, I held a glimmer of hope that he could actually pull it off.
Horner is well-known in professional cycling for a few things, among them:
1) His tactical sense – the guy can read a race on the road like nobody’s business. When he loses, he not only knows precisely where it went wrong, but can also state exactly why it could not have gone any differently given the actual circumstances. And he is always gracious in defeat.
2) His mouth – Horner tells it like it is, without fail. In one interview, he rather famously stated that Lance Armstrong was retiring because it was no longer feasible to dope since the testing had become much more sophisticated. (He didn’t explicitly say Armstrong doped, but teetered right on the edge of those words so it was obvious what he was saying. Somehow, he managed to smooth things over with the Armstrong camp and join the Astana team anyway some years later.)
3) His loyalty – Horner is loyal no matter what cycling throws at him. He is the consummate team player. He has always known his worth, but he’s stayed quiet about it, preferring to provide value to the team by performing whatever is asked of him. It’s made him a valuable asset on every team he’s ridden for, but his loyalty has also cost him many opportunities. Some say it’s even cost him credibility, in particular because he supported Lance Armstrong when his team leader was under attack in the media. Thing is, it was Horner’s job to support his leader and he did so unflinchingly, which in my book is admirable.
4) His riding – Even if he makes big predictions that are hard to keep, Chris Horner backs his words up by riding his heart out, and scores big wins when he can.
People say his 2013 Vuelta ride is nearly impossible at his age, but this ride is not otherworldly. Horner has been waiting for this opportunity to be a wholly supported, solely protected team leader in a grand tour for years. He’s won big races, climbed with the best climbers in the pro peloton, and had more than his fair share of bad luck. As a champion rider who knows he has been overlooked for much of his career, and now having to answer doubters about the validity of his Vuelta performance, Horner finally told it like it is the other day, imparting what anyone paying attention all these years would know: this form isn’t the form of his life. It’s consistent with the promise and talent he’s shown during some of professional cycling’s biggest races.
This year, he’s steered clear of the junkiest junk food (his oddly beloved McDonald’s), slimmed down to the skinniest he can be, staked his claim as team leader, and put on one hell of an entertaining show.
Finally, at age 41, Chris Horner has some of the best riders in the world riding in support of his ambitions (seriously, how much would it rock to have Fabian Cancellara as your super-domestique?). He has steered clear of crashes, ridden with panache, timed his attacks to perfection, dug insanely deep, and outclassed more accomplished grand tour riders.
Chris Horner’s Vuelta A Espana win is perhaps the most inspiring ride I’ve seen in a bike race in twenty years. It’s about time!