Friends: Over 250 people, as many as the Trek store in Highland Park, an affluent suburb north of Chicago, could accommodate, turned out last night on less than 24 hours notice to listen to Chris Horner, fresh back from the Tour de France, chat with Robbie Ventura, former Lance teammate and commentator for Versus, about his tenth place finish at The Tour, the highest placed American.
I was among the crowd thanks to an email alert from Skippy in Europe, who had received a Twitter alert of the event. One had to register to attend. There were only thirteen spots left when I signed up.
Just as he races, Horner held nothing back as he vividly recounted his Tour experience. I was as thrilled to be listening to Horner as I was to gaze about at this enraptured audience of Americans stone-cold mesmerized by his highly detailed, insightful tales of riding the cobbles and the Tourmalet and the hills of the Ardennes and what its like on the team bus with Lance. I felt as if I was back in Europe re-experiencing my three weeks of following The Tour.
It was exciting to be part of this audience and to know that I'm not as much in a minority as I once was as a devotee of the sport. I'd been going through Tour withdrawal since my return. This was greatly helping to appease those pangs. Just as American racers have been measuring up to their European counterparts for the past decade, there are increasing numbers of American fans who can compare to those on the other side of the pond.
Horner transported us to the peloton as he told of being along side the Schleck brothers on the crash-filled stage two when they began a treacherous descent. "Andy looked at me and said, 'Let's not get carried away here.' I replied, 'You don't have to worry about me.' We came around a bend and there were bodies everywhere. Usually in Tour crashes there's just one big pile of bodies. On this one for a hundred yards or so, there were bodies everywhere. I slowed and guys were crashing behind me and sliding past. A motorcycle was down. When we came around a bend it was more of the same. I've never seen anything like it."
Horner didn't agree at all with Cancellera's edict to neutralize the stage and have everyone just roll across the finish line without battling it out. Nor did he agree with the condemnation heaped on Cavendish's teammate Renshaw for head-butting Garmin's Julian Dean three times in the Stage Eleven sprint. He thought the headbutts were an incredible bit of racing, helping him remain upright as Dean cut in along side him.
But he did acknowledge that Renshaw deserved to be ejected from the race for aggressively cutting off Dean's teammate Tyler Farrar after the headbutts, preventing Farrar from latching on to Cavendish's wheel. He said he has been a lead-out man himself for the best sprinters on the North American racing circuit, so knows how it is done. The lead-out man's job is to make a subtle sweep behind his sprinter's wheel after he peels off to prevent another racer from following, but Renshaw's sweep was anything but subtle.
On the day of cobbles, Horner said it was his assignment to ride on Lance's wheel to prevent anyone else from coming up behind him and cutting into him on the corners. The Radioshack team scouted out the cobbles just before they arrived in Rotterdam for the start of The Race. Lance had ridden them before but he and Leipheimer and Kloden and others on the team hadn't.
The team's strategy was to be at the front when the cobbles began towards the end of the stage. Eight of the Radioshack guys were among the first 25. Everything was going just fine until Kloden had a flat and then later Lance. Lance lost over a minute. "Lance was extremely upset after that stage," Horner said. "The tension in the bus was really intense."
Horner described how his role evolved over The Race from being a support rider to being able to ride for himself. He said if he had been a protected rider from the start he was certain he could have finished top five. "Schelck and Contador are in a class by themselves, and Menchov was really strong finishing third. I don't think I could have finished ahead of him, but otherwise I was as strong as anyone."
He said on the final climb on Stage Eight in the Alps after Lance had crashed three times, effectively ending The Race for him, Lance gave him permission to go on ahead. He legs were good, allowing him to storm up the mountain, though no one saw it on television since he was well behind all the leaders. But his efforts didn't go unnoticed. He said, "The next day a Liquigas rider came up to me and complimented me, saying he thought I'd had the best time of anyone."
He talked for ten minutes about the stage in the Pyrenees where he and Lance finished fifth and sixth and were in a ten-man break for the last half of the stage. The stage began with an immediate category-one climb. Lance was feeling great that day and just wanted help getting into a breakaway group. There was another big climb immediately after the descent from the initial climb. Horner said that his work was done for the day after those first two climbs. He fell back into the third group, but on the Tourmalet, about halfway through the stage, he moved back up into the first group and stuck with Lance to the end.
They knew there were three sprinters stronger than them in the group. He and Moreau did most of the work towards the end. Horner was hoping Moreau would let up once they caught the lone breakaway rider ahead of their pack with one kilometer to go. "Then we could play some cat and mouse games so Lance could get away," he said, "but Moreau kept riding hard as he had a teammate in the break too."
He said he would have finished in the top three at the Giro d'Italia last year if he hadn't crashed out. He came into his own at the Tour of the Basque country earlier that year with "the best form of my life." He crashed out of that race, but recovered and felt the same at the Giro.
He presently ranks eleventh in the UCI standings. He's in town for a local race and then will take two weeks off the bike, resting up for the rest of the year. He'll do a couple of races in Canada and then return to Europe for Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy. The Paris race is a sprinter's race, so that's just to get some extra racing miles into his legs, but he's going to Italy for the hilly Tour of Lombardy intent on winning it, and ending the season in the top ten.
He came out of The Tour with a slight calf injury that still has him limping. He had only one crash in The Tour at the end of the first stage and was lucky to land on another racer so he had no road rash. He did wrench his back, leaving him with back issues for three or four stages. He injured his calf later in The Race after pulling a hamstring when he accelerated out of a corner on an easy stage when he wasn't drinking enough. The hamstring injury forced him to ride one-legged leading to a strained knee, which led to the calf problem. He could barely walk for a couple of days, but was okay on the bike. Still he feared having to quit The Race.
But he's used to all the aches and pains. "During The Tour I only feel good between hours two and three on the bike each day," he said "The rest of the day, I'm screwed. You have to take the bad with the good, and there's more bad than good."
The evening concluded with the auction of the jersey Horner wore on Stage 18, the stage between the Tourmalet summit finish and the time trial, along with the number pinned to the jersey from that stage and a laminated copy of the stage route that he carried in his jersey pocket. The bidding began at $500 and ended at $1400.
It concluded a remarkable evening of Inside Racing. It was amazing to see such racing interest here in America. There was no time for questions from the audience, as the few that Ventura was able to ask kept Horner going for well over ninety minutes. Ventura spent nearly half an hour recounting his Tour experience even before he brought on Horner. One of his highlights was being halted by a gendarme as he was riding The Tour route and being rescued by the Radioshack team physiologist, Dr. Lim.
If you wish for more of Horner's take on The Race, go to http://oregonlive.com/Horner for his daily dispatches to his hometown newspaper.