Saturday, June 20, 2009

Astana's Chris Horner heals and hopes for call to Tour de France

by David Stabler

Chris Horner walks his bike to the end of his driveway, swings a leg over the saddle and pushes off. The three-time national road racing champion and professional puller of men up mountains pedals out of the cul-de-sac, past desert-colored houses with toys in driveways and garden hoses on lawns. An easy, neighborhood ride, a ride he's done a hundred times.

Two weeks ago, it would have been impossible.

This is a test, the first time that Horner has ridden a bike since he crashed 6,000 miles away at the Giro d'Italia. He's been holed up at home in Bend, willing a hairline leg fracture to heal. Now, he has a month before the leg needs to support not only its owner, but also the best bike racing team in the world heading into one of sports' most grueling events: the Tour de France. But all that hinges on a phone call that could come as early as Sunday.

In his early 30s, he dominated U.S. road cycling, winning everything in sight. But he struggled in Europe, returned to the States, won more races and now, at the antique age of 37, he's making his second assault on Europe. To everyone's surprise, including his own, he's peaking on the Astana team, riding alongside seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and 2007 Tour winner Alberto Contador.

"My form keeps getting better and better," Horner says, explaining his late-career surge. "I'm enjoying racing more than I ever have."

Johan Bruyneel, Astana's team director, put it more plainly on his blog after Horner broke his leg in the Giro. "Chris is a big talent and really can do anything asked -- chase on the flats, go up the climbs with the leaders, provide good morale and team atmosphere, etc. If he recovers nicely, he'll definitely be a strong candidate for the Tour team. Simply put -- he's the type of guy you want to take with you to war!"

If he recovers nicely.

Horner has been riding well for the team this year, but he doesn't yet know if he'll make the final cut for the Tour. He's thought to be the only Oregonian to ride the fabled race, which he's done three times, but never on a team like this. And while he is on the strongest team, he still has to fight for one of just nine spots on the Astana squad that will start the Tour in Monaco on July 4.

With the clock ticking, can he recover his racing form at home, a place he comes back to between every race, but also the place with the most distractions?

"You're only as good as your last race," says Horner, who turned pro in 1995. At the advanced age of 37, he's still peaking. "I enjoy racing more than I ever have."

When he's in Bend, Horner is a fulltime dad to Aarika, 11, Kali, 9 and Garrett, 7. That means backing the bike training down to three or four hours a day instead of five or six. It means waking up the kids at 6:30 a.m., making breakfast and driving them to school. Squeezing training rides in before picking them up again. Then homework, dinner, showers, bed.

Born in San Diego, Horner has lived in Bend for the past nine years. He chose the high-desert town because it has what he wants: a kid-friendly lifestyle, good rides at altitude, decent weather and a degree of anonymity.

Racers turn self-absorption into an art form, but instead of the typical pattern of all-day training and recovery (stretching, massage, napping, noshing, lying around) Horner is spending Saturday afternoon jumping up and down on the reluctant kickstarter of Aarika's motocross bike in the middle of the desert.

Horner is a racer, but he's also a dad, so the sacrifices come on both sides. Between training camp in January and the end of racing season in October, he's away from home for weeks at a time. When he's gone, the kids stay with their mom across town.

"The sacrifices are huge," he says. "You don't get to see your kids. You don't get to see your girlfriend. The kids are the funniest thing because you get to the end of the driveway and you already miss them. When you come back home from a race, they're the first thing that gives you a headache."

Horner runs all the scenarios in his head. He's one of the world's top climbers -- light, wiry, inexhaustible -- which makes him invaluable in helping either Contador, who is favored to win this year, or Armstrong, who has defined his career by dominating this race. But will his leg hold up over three weeks, 2,200 miles and climbing the equivalent of three Everests?

He can't imagine he won't get the call.

"In May, you think about the Tour every day," he says. "In June, you think about it every minute."

10 on the pain scale

Horner bends all the stereotypes of an elite cyclist. He's one of the oldest racers at the front of the pack. A single dad. Owns two trucks. Inhales junk food like a teenager. Lives in Bend instead of cycle-mad Europe.

"He's one of the smartest bike racers out there," says Levi Leipheimer, an Astana teammate who is a close friend and is among the strongest American riders expected to be in the Tour this year.

"He's very strong, a versatile rider. He can be there in the mountains, he can be there in the sprints. He's great at a lot of things."

Last week, Horner, Leipheimer and Armstrong got in some high-altitude training in Aspen, Colo. Leipheimer said Horner was riding well. "He's taking great care of himself. Still skinny. He's in the process of recovering. I don't think he's that far off."

In big races, Horner yanks Leipheimer and other teammates up the Alps and the Dolomites, cutting their wind resistance and preventing breakaways by other teams. He's a rider who sacrifices his own glory for the good of the team. He has no aspirations to win the Tour himself.

"I don't work on sprints in my training because I know that's never going to be what feeds the munchkins," he says. "So, you want to pay the bills? You gotta work on what you're good at, and that's climbing. They're paying me to climb well."

On a bike, Horner looks steely, coiled. The muscles on his pencil legs undulate under his skin like cables. At home, he's animated, talkative, easy to like. He has a boyish laugh and chats easily about trucks, bikes, diets, raising three high-spirited kids and retirement. A farmer's tan brings out the freckles on his arms and legs.

But racing requires mental and physical toughness beyond imagining. Even in a sport where crashing is common, Horner's season has been a brutal trade between injury and success. His three major goals this year were to ride in the Tour of California, the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. In February, he injured a knee in a crash at the Tour of California. Then, four days back into racing in April, he crashed in the Tour of Basque Country in Spain, fracturing a shoulder and a few ribs.

Still, he was "smokin'" when he arrived at the Giro last month, one of cycling's three Grand Tours, like pro golf's four major tournaments. The Giro is every bit as challenging as the Tour, but it's more dangerous. So dangerous that Armstrong and others protested one of the stages this year.

Halfway through it, Horner, who was in 11th place in the overall standings, was near the front of the peloton, rounding a downhill curve at 40 mph. Suddenly, two riders in front of him went down. He swerved to avoid them, but the turn was too tight and he slammed into the hillside, hitting his head, left knee and a still-sore shoulder.

On a scale from one to 10, the pain was a 10, he says.

But pros don't quit when they crash. If they can't finish a stage, they're out of the race, so Horner got back on his bike. His left leg hurt like a charley horse, but for the next 115 miles, he raced on, relying on his right leg for 70 percent of his power.

His doctor, who has treated plenty of Horner's injuries, was stunned after diagnosing him back in the States. "I cannot believe you finished the race after the injury by riding 100 more miles," Dr. Allen Richburg wrote to him in an e-mail.

Horner downplays his toughness.

"You live your whole career to do races like that. You always crash, but if you can still pedal and get a good night's sleep, you'll probably heal up OK."

He didn't. The next morning, he couldn't even stand on the leg.


There's nothing unusual about the gray, single-story house Horner rents in Bend for $800 a month. Until you look in the garage. You'd expect a couple of bikes, but 21? Some of them belong to his kids and his girlfriend, Megan Elliott, 27, a former national road champion herself. Still, it looks like an REI sale: road bikes, mountain bikes, a lemon-yellow time-trial bike, motocross bikes, gear bags, wheels, tools, bike stands and an air compressor cover the floor and walls.

All the stuff -- plus a rental house in Spain and one he's buying in San Diego -- suggests he's well paid (he won't say how well), but it leaves no room for his Chevy Silverado 3500 crewcab, the one with dually wheels that gets 17 miles per gallon.

"I love that truck," Horner says. "That's my baby. She's my big booty girl."

He also owns another truck and three cars, prompting Armstrong to nickname him "Redneck." He and Armstrong also joke about their ages, but Horner is quick to point out that the other guy is one month older, making them the two senior citizens on Astana.

Horner may be the only redneck who shaves his legs.

And keeps breaking the same bones.

"He has the worst luck," says Elliott, who's been with Horner for almost four years. "But he always bounces back."

For a lot of cyclists, often younger racers, setbacks can seem like the end of the world. Not Horner. "Maybe the rest of the day he's bummed," Elliott says, "but already, he's looking forward to the next race, the next opportunity."

At 5-foot-11, Horner is tall for a racer, but he weighs a mere 140 pounds, the lightest he's been as a professional. Astana lists him as 154, but while recovering from this year's injuries, he began a strict diet to lose weight so he could climb faster. He consumed just 2,000 calories a day -- less than prisoners in Texas get. Breakfast was tea and toast.

"I can't train any harder," he says. "I'm at the max of what the body can handle. I've tried everything else and this is the only thing left."

Elliott, who just finished her first year in law school in San Diego, is his unofficial nutritionist, and doesn't worry about him sacrificing power in the name of shedding weight. "He's good at reading his body," she says.

Now back on the bike, he's doubled the calories. He'll increase that to 6,000 to 6,500 a day for races, but he earns his Belgian nickname honestly. They call him "Snickers man." Amateur riders, hide your eyes: Before a 50-mile ride, he downed a Dr Pepper and a chocolate chip cookie.

Dad duty

Trouble. The instant Horner walks in the door from that 50-miler, he finds Kali with her head down on the kitchen counter. Elliott put her in a timeout for going to the park by herself, a big no-no. When she sees Dad, she bursts into tears.

Still sweaty from the ride, Dad sends her to her room, telling her that she can't have her allowance and can't motocross with the family that afternoon.

"And I was thinking about getting you a new bike tomorrow," he says. "That's not going to happen."

Horner is a hands-on dad, says Elliott, who met him when they raced on the same pro team. "It's funny, he's an optimist. He always assumes the best in his kids. He adores his kids, but sometimes, I have to pull him back to reality. They're still kids, they're not perfect. When he's gone, he worries about them, maybe their lives aren't that stable. They're the one area of his life that he sacrifices the most for."

Later that afternoon, just as he promised, Dad drives the kids 25 miles into the desert for an hour of motocross. As her siblings buzz back and forth, Kali entertains herself by gathering colored rocks. Horner's eyes never leave Aarika and Garrett, who zip expertly up and down the jumps.

"That bike's getting too small for him," he observes. And Aarika needs new motocross pants. The kids are growing.

People ask him about retirement all the time, he says. Someday, he might coach, direct a team, do commentary or get into sales and marketing. But not yet. "I think a lot of people retire a little bit before they need to. Most people retire more because where they're at mentally than where they're at physically. Look at Lance. I'll push it off as long as I can."

So, for now, he attacks another climb on Mount Bachelor. With the wind in his face and views of forest and mountain rolling to the horizon, the uncertainties fall away. His legs are strong, the pace is fast, the road is smooth.

"There's no reason to panic," he says.

And no reason to doubt he'll get the call -- the one he's sacrificed so much for -- this week.

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