Monday, June 27, 2011

Chris Horner - Pushing 40, and Getting Faster

When you've raced this long, you learn to take advantage of every big opportunity you get. A conversation with the Tour de France–bound Chris Horner.

By bicyclingeditor

THIS WEEK Chris Horner of Team RadioShack heads to Europe to make final preparations before the start of the 2011 Tour de France, which begins Saturday, July 2. caught up with Horner last week at his home in San Diego to talk about his long career, and why at this year's Tour he'll have his best chance ever at stepping onto the podium in Paris. You’ve ridden for many different teams over the nearly 20 years you’ve been racing. In 2008 you signed with Astana, which sort of became RadioShack, and you’ve been there a while. How important has settling down with one team been for you?

Chris Horner: It was just important because of the riders who are here with Astana and later of course with RadioShack, which in my mind is the same team. Some people at home can look at it as completely different teams, but when you see the management that was running Astana and see the management that is running RadioShack, and the riders we took from one team to the next team, it just feels like it’s the same team.

I’ve been comfortable here and I’ve stayed here four years now. It’s nice because they understand who I am. Certainly when I came over to Europe in 1997 with Française des Jeux and I’m asking for a Coca-Cola at the dinner table and everyone’s looking at me like I’m crazy, or the soigneurs and the directors aren’t even allowing you to have a Coke, like, No, no—you can’t have that. And you gotta argue with them that you can. So that’s the difference working with a team that has a lot of Americans, and certainly that’s the difference between being 40 years old and riding good, because at 40 they look at you and they say, He knows what to do. I’m 17 years professional; I’m riding at the top of my game. And so if I say I want a Coke or say I need a Snickers, they just hand it to me, versus when I was 24, 25 on Française des Jeux. I either had to force it from them or maybe sneak it and hide the wrappers under the bed so the directors didn’t see them. [Laughs] Do you ever feel like an outsider?

CH: In racing? Absolutely. You feel like an outsider a lot, because you gotta remember that I am an outsider. I’m an American kid in Europe. And I’m an American kid who grew up in San Diego, though I live in Bend, Oregon—a fabulous place. So when you come from places on the West Coast of the States and you’re going to Europe, it’s a huge change. OK, if I’m coming from the East Coast the difficulty is maybe half the difference. The weather you’re already kind of used to, the way the streets are set up on the East Coast are a lot like they are in Europe. But when you’re on the West Coast where you got these wide streets…. Everywhere you’re riding and driving in Europe, you’re lost. So do you feel like an outsider? Every day. You walk into a grocery store and you can’t figure out where the food is that you want or exactly what you’re buying in that box. I’ve been over there many years and it’s still there. It’s been reduced, the feeling, like versus when I went over there in ’97. You felt like an outsider every second of the day, but now it’s probably like every 20 minutes. [Laughs] What role has sacrifice played in your career?

CH: Sacrifice is another form of natural ability. In this sport you have to have multiple things: the natural ability to go fast and the natural ability to be able to sacrifice, too. You can train yourself to be a better bike rider; you can train yourself to learn to stay at home and sacrifice and not going to the party that night and not having 10 beers and getting drunk and trying to get up in the morning and train.

But there are multiple things you gotta do. I’ve seen a lot of people who have the natural ability physically but they don’t have the ability to sacrifice. I’ve seen a lot of athletes who a have natural physical ability and the natural ability to sacrifice but they don’t have the mental part of the sport, that when they’re really suffering to push through that pain level and go to that next level. Instead, they sit up and they quit, when possibly if they pushed through that pain level for 30 seconds they’d be in that front group.

Natural ability comes in many forms, and physical natural ability is just one of them. Sacrifice is huge; physical ability is huge. Those are the two main things. But there a lot of things you gotta do in this sport, and you’ve got to do all of them good to be the best. What’s your greatest asset as a cyclist?

CH: Knowing my limitations. That is the biggest asset that anyone as an athlete—as a cyclist anyway—needs to know. Limitations are simple. And there’s a wide range. There are limitations on how much food you can eat, how fast you can go on the bike, when to know when to attack, when to know if you should attack right now if you’re just going to blow up 10 meters after you get off the front of the group and come back and then get dropped.

When you know your limitations you can push yourself to the edge of your limitations. But if you know that going to train a thousand miles in one week is just too much, you’re over your limitations. So you need to know, what are your limitations on training, your limitations when you get to the race, your limitations on how many calories you can eat so you don’t get fat, or how many calories you can not eat so you don’t bonk. [Laughs] It goes across the whole spectrum of the sport. Know your limitations, and that will make you a fantastic professional. Over your long career you’ve won all kinds of races: criteriums, time trials, stage races, one-day races, even field sprints. How is that you’ve ridden yourself into the role of a Grand Tour contender?

Chris Horner: It’s a difficult question. Each year you change; your physique changes. So as a professional athlete, you’re always trying to change for the better, you’re always trying to get faster, find news ways to improve. Every year I’ve been trimming a little bit of weight here and there; I’ve been training good, eating good, resting good. So you just keep focusing on what you can do to make yourself better. I’m turning 40 this year and even at 40 you still got goals—hopefully you do, otherwise you retired already. [Laughs] So are you riding better now than you ever have?

CH: I’m riding faster than I ever have; I don’t think the power is better from three, four years ago. But I think the speed is faster because the weight is lower. The power is the same, because you take five pounds, seven pounds, sometimes as much as 10 pounds off—depending on what times of the season you’re comparing—and you’re going to go faster. Who are the influences in your life?

CH: My kids influence me every day. I got three kids, two girls and a boy. They’re fantastic. I always like to tell everyone they are absolutely the first thing I miss when I reach the end of the driveway; the moment I step in the home when I get back they are the first thing that gives me a headache. [Laughs] My girlfriend has a huge influence on my life. Just to be a better person, to be a good parent, a loving dad. I love my girlfriend. Those are the biggest influences.

Have there been other riders who have influenced me? Certainly. Racing with Jani (Brajkovic) has always been a good influence. You see his diet and how it’s working for him and the results he gets. I take little bits and pieces from other guys, too. I’m always paying attention in the race to what people are doing. And when we go to the dinner table I’m paying attention to what people are eating and seeing what’s working for other riders. What has having children taught you?

CH: Having kids has taught me that I love kids. Before I had kids, I didn’t think I wanted kids. And so when I had my first baby, I knew I wanted more kids. It’s also taught me that … well, it stressed me out more the finances and stuff. And especially being a professional athlete, it stresses you out more in terms of if you feel an injury coming or something that might affect your career or might affect your salary, and how you’re going to take care of your kids. When I didn’t have kids, I knew I could just go live in my RV. [Laughs] If you didn’t get paid one month, you stop renting your place, give the house back to the bank, jump in your RV and park it out in the desert and life was good still. But when you have kids that’s not an option. Kids bring an incredible amount of love into your world, and they bring an incredible amount of stress. You always seem to be wearing a smile, so you must be the guy telling jokes at the dinner table or on the team bus.

CH: [Laughs] No! I can’t tell any jokes—I have no jokes. I’m not a jokester; it never comes out. I smile a lot, and maybe people think I’m funny, but I’m not. I’m always happy, but I’m not always funny. Are you more laid-back these days?

CH: Personally, I don’t think so. You have to ask someone else that question. I think I’ve always been pretty laid-back. Actually, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become grumpier. [Laughs] Certainly if you asked my girlfriend that that’s what she’d say. Do you believe in karma?

CH: Not so much. It’s there a little bit, certainly. I want to believe in it; I always think about it being there. But nah, not so much. Is there any karma in the professional peloton?

CH: You mean if there’s one bad guy and then he crashes in the next corner? No—that’s why I don’t believe in it! Because if karma was really true, we’d see some crashes in the next corner.

Armstrong, Contador, and doping Is cycling a cleaner sport these days?

CH: Yes, for sure. You see the differences…. The fans in the States can see it with all these young kids getting results over in Europe. And you see them, they’re riding so good and so strong. And you can see the speed differences in Europe in the field. So I think it’s a great time, it’s a fabulous time, as a youngster to be a cyclist. What do you think about the ongoing investigation of Lance Armstrong and also Alberto Contador, with the trial for his 2010 Tour positive now pushed back until after this year’s race?

CH: The case against Lance is almost 10 years old. I think it started back in 2000. It’s not much of a case now. Whatever this case does, it’s never going to change what Lance has done for the sport. He’s done amazing stuff. He’s had amazing results in the Tour; he had an amazing result when he won the world championships so young. And he’s done amazing stuff for cancer.

Then you look at the Alberto side. The way I see it—from amongst the riders and from amongst the fans—is that a lot of people don’t know what to think about Alberto, myself included. We don’t know if he took something. Even though he tested positive, we don’t know. Did he actually really take that? Because if you pop on Google, you Google “clenbuterol,” first thing that comes up is farmers feed it to their cows, people eat the cows, people test positive. It’s guaranteed; it’s undeniable. And so a lot of fans say—and this is my biggest problem; I hear this all the time—fans say, the ignorant fans, they say, Professional athletes know everything going into their bodies. They monitor every piece of food that’s going into their body. We have no idea what kind of food we are putting into our bodies! We didn’t grow the cow, we didn’t slaughter the cow, we didn’t prepare the meat, we didn’t even serve the meat. All we did was eat the meat. That’s it. Do we know what’s going into the body in terms of do we take the choice of chicken, steak, or a candy bar or a Snickers? Absolutely. But did I prepare any of that stuff? Never. Do I prepare the bottles during the Tour de France? Never. Do we take water from the side of the road from the spectators? All the time. Do we take a Coke from the spectators? All the time. Can Alberto have taken something on purpose to cheat? Absolutely. Did he? None of us know.

When I look at it—and I’ve had plenty of time to think about this—a lot of people are like, What do you think should happen? Well, first off, I don’t think he should have won the Tour de France for that year (2010). Because I believe if you did test positive for a performance-enhancing substance like clenbuterol, then you’re out of the race. But I don’t know at this point in time if I believe that you should be suspended. Certainly, you need to leave the race; you need to have that result taken away. But I don’t know if you need to be suspended. Because I can’t control what kind of meat I have.

So when I look at what Alberto’s doing for the sport, in some way I think what is going on with Alberto right now is a positive thing, because if it would’ve been me, then I wouldn’t have fought the system. I would have just taken the positive and retired, and that would have been the end of my career. And it would have been a sad way to end it. But because it’s Alberto, he has the money to fight it. He has the money to possibly change the way they do controls in the future, where USADA, WADA, and the UCI have to acknowledge that it is possible you can have this drug in your system. Therefore, they need to find out how much is possible to have in your system at what levels so that if you took it at this level, it’d show up at this level, if you ate it, it’d show up at this level. So if you ate it, you’d be OK. Maybe they’d send you home and out of the race, but you could still race, as soon as your body is clean of it, and then you’d keep going. But it’s a bad way to end an athlete’s career.

You gotta remember, this is not just … we’re not just racing for fun. I love cycling. It’s brought me incredible joys my whole life. So I do race because I love it, but it feeds my family. So if I ate some farmer’s steak and I tested positive, I’d hate to think my kids are going without food because of that. What do you consider your greatest victory?

CH: You can go back to the Oakland stage (of the Tour DuPont) in 1996. You can’t really narrow it all down to one but that was the start of all of it, for sure. After Oakland, the wins started to come. I can answer your question many ways, because my favorite win would be the Olympic trials in ’96. But then I could say the Tour de Suisse stage was my coming out in Europe because finally no one could say, Well, he didn’t win anything in Europe. Then I could say Basque Country as being an epic win. And I can finish off this question simply with the Tour of California, because of the exposure and the quality of the filed. What does it mean to be a successful cyclist?

CH: It’s a difficult question. The simplest way to think of yourself as a professional athlete is you have a salary that can support your family. Once you’ve done that, you’re a success. The goals that you have for personal success, of course, are completely different—and that is, you want to be a winner. Because people always ask me, Oh, you’re a professional athlete? Yes. So you make money off that? Yes, they pay me to do it. The next question they follow up with is, Are you any good? So personally, you wanna be like, On my day, I’m the best in the world.

For me it was when I finally did the Tour de France. It was the one thing missing in my career and my resume. I don’t feel that I have to win the Tour de France to finish my career off and say, Man, I was one badass cyclist. But for me, I’d been a professional for so long—I’d won everything there is to win in the States—and I needed to know, before I retired, that I did the Tour de France. I don’t think professionally as a cyclist that you can finish your career off without doing the Tour de France. You’ve had a difficult time trying to get to the Olympics. Would you like to ride in London in 2012?

CH: I’d love to go to the Olympics. It’s been many years now. I think I’m going on the fifth time that they’ve had selections, ever since ’92 and I was in the sport. Certainly since ’96 I should have been on the Olympic team and every year they’ve had it since. Will this be another let-down year that the national team doesn’t take me to the Olympics? Well, that’s something you’ll have to ask the national team coach, or we’ll have to wait till the Olympics to figure it out. But I think it’d be a shame. And I don’t have a problem saying this: I’ve been one of the most dominant and successful U.S. riders around, and I certainly believe my spot is deserved on the Olympic team. Whether they pick me, I don’t know if I have a whole lot of faith but I’d still like to go, and hopefully something clicks in somebody’s head and I get the call. But I don’t think I’ll lose any sleep. Since ’96 I’ve gotten used to that let-down and now it doesn’t have the same effect on me as it had in ’96. In ’96 it was devastating; now I would just call it the standard quota that the national team usually treats me with. Let’s go back a bit. Give us your brief history of Chris Horner and the Olympics.

CH: [Laughs] There is no brief part about it! … Well, OK, here goes.

In ’96 I was certainly one of the most dominant riders in the US. I was on a small team; we were making $280 a month salary for eight months out of the year, not 12. Most of the time we had no soigneur and no mechanic showing up at the race. Half the time I had only two good teammates who were reliable, and I still managed to win 13 of the biggest races in the U.S. I still finished off the season ranked the No. 1 U.S. rider. If I wasn’t first, I got a list of seconds, thirds, fourths, and fifths longer than my arm. So, did I deserve a spot on the Olympics? Absolutely.

When you look at the Olympic trials they had in ’96, we had five races. And because it was only US riders allowed to race in them, it cut my team down and we lost Harm Jansen, who was really strong. When you look at what I did and what I won during the Olympic trials and what I had to fight against, all the big pro riders and their salaries and those guys having four guys in the final break, when I was there all by myself and picking up points and still winning at Seattle in ’96. When I won there I had to beat out Frankie Andreu and Kevin Livingston, two guys from Postal Service, and I still won outnumbered. And I still didn’t get selected.

My personal take on why I didn’t get selected? I didn’t come up through the national team. The coach decides who’s going to the Olympics, and how can a coach decide who’s going to the Olympics if it’s a rider he didn’t actually coach? There’s a huge conflict of interest in the past years on who goes and who’s not when you have a coach picking. Last time it was a selection committee of certain riders, and evidently they weren’t very educated and they picked other riders to go. And this time you look at it and maybe it’s they don’t look at me because it might be a field sprint. But certainly I have shown that I can do field sprints, I can do lead-outs, certainly I’ve shown in my 17 years of professionalism that I will work for a sprinter, and I will work for the best interest of the team, and I’m not selfish. I might not be afraid to tell you why I should be there, but I’m also not afraid to help someone to win the race, either. It’s been one of the devastating downsides of my career, not being selected, but I put it down to politics, and whenever politics is involved, you’re always fucked. You won the Tour of California so dominantly. Now you’ve earned a spot as a co-captain at the Tour with Levi.

CH: On RadioShack we don’t have co-captains but we got quad-captains! [Laughs] So we’ve got plenty of guys on RadioShack to ride good. If it ends up I crash or I go bad, we got Jani; if something happens to him, we got Levi and we got Klodi. So it’s really a positive time to come into the Tour as a RadioShack rider because you’re going to be given help from the other riders to look after you, and you got a shot at going to the podium at the Tour de France. It’s a fantastic year.

Years past, when we had Alberto (Contador) on this team, you knew exactly what you were doing going into the Tour. There was no chance that there was going to be an opening, that you were going to win the Tour de France or even win a stage of the Tour de France, because you gotta remember, when you got a guy like a really big hitter, like Alberto—who I raced with for two years—when you show up at a race for him, you know realistically you don’t even have a shot at going for the stage. Your sole job is to be a workhorse and get the job done and look after Alberto.

Versus now.

OK, even if I don’t meet my objective, my goal of going podium, even if I don’t meet my goal of going top-five, or you crash in the first stage and you’re down 10 minutes, you change the goals and you start going for stage wins. So now you’re 10 minutes down, you’re going up Alpe d’Huez, everybody’s looking at each other, they know you’re 10 minutes down, you attack and win a stage up Alpe d’Huez. So would I be disappointed if I don’t go top 10, top-five, or podium but get a stage win? I’d be quite satisfied. What do you see as your greatest challenge at this year’s Tour?

CH: The biggest challenge of course is just going to be what kind of fitness does Alberto (Contador) and Andy Schleck have coming into the Tour de France. Everybody racing to win the Tour de France, who wants to win a stage at the Tour, who wants to podium, has to ask themselves that question: What is Alberto’s form going to be like? What is Andy’s form? Because right now, there’s no doubt in my mind—off the form they had at last year’s Tour—no one’s capable of going that fast. That’s your first question.

Second is, Have I gotten faster to keep up with them? That’s the only thing that’s going to change. If they’re going the same speed as last year and you’re going the same speed as last year, you’re not going to beat those two. Not without an accident or an injury or something; that’s out of everybody’s hand. But that’s the question: What is Alberto’s form? What is Andy Schleck’s form? In your view, what is so special about the Tour de France?

CH: It’s the biggest race in the world—most viewed, best athletes. All the best cyclists meet up in July. The only other race I know on the calendar that all of the best athletes meet up at is Liège–Bastogne–Liège, a one-day race in Belgium. That’s it. Other than that, you look at the Dauphine. You had a third of the good riders at the Dauphine. You had a third of the good riders at the Tour de Suisse. And you had a third of the good riders at home training still, because they just got done leaving the Giro, or they’re like myself and finished with Cali.

So when you’re watching the Dauphine, are you watching the best riders in the world? No. You watching some of them? Yes. Every race, aside from the Tour de France and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, you’re only watching some of the best riders in the world. But when you get to Liège and get to the Tour, you are watching the cream of the crop. It is the best and the hardest race, and that is what makes it so big.

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