The Horner Conundrum

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09/9/2013| 2 comments
by Neil Browne
Chris Horner in La Vuelta a Espana 2013 Unipublic

The Horner Conundrum

Chris Horner is over 40 and could win a grand tour. Let's take a deeper look.

I'm going to address the elephant in the room. I'm going to say what quite a few of you have been thinking.

Here I go.

I'm serious – I'm going to say it.

Here goes....gosh this is awkward.

Chris Horner has had a suspicious past. There - I said it.

I know lately Horner is the hero among master category racers – a 40 plus rider fighting for the podium in a grand tour. He's an American beating the Europeans at their own sport. It reminds us of the good old days when...oh wait...never mind.

Yes, Horner makes for an exciting narrative which undoubtedly sells a few more magazine issues or generates a few more page views on cycling websites. I don't get any pleasure in pointing out a few interesting issues, but we can't keep burying the past like the three monkeys - “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”

It is widely speculated that the former Saunier Duval, and now RadioShack rider, is “Rider 15” in Levi Leipheimer's redacted USADA testimony. In his testimony the now retired rider said, “In 2008 Rider 15 told me that he was using EPO during his recovery from an injury in 2005 before the Tour of Switzerland.”

This matches up to Horner who was suffering a knee injury and also participated in the Tour of Switzerland.

Then there's the odd statement Horner made about performance enhancing drugs: he didn't hear about doping, didn't see any doping, never spoke about doping. Also, he continued to speak very highly of Lance Armstrong saying he didn't believe the now disgraced rider had doped. Now when asked about Armstrong he refers the interviewer to RadioShack staffers. Not a whole lot of transparency - just good political skills.

So if Horner was dirty why didn't he suffer the same fate as Christian Vande Velde, Dave Zabriskie, Tom Danielson, and serve out a six month suspension or slink out of the sport with a retirement? Perhaps Leipheimer's statement couldn't be verified? Just because one person said it doesn't make it true.

Regarding Horner's statements about doping those can be attributed to him being a good “company man” and not saying anything that would make his boss, Armstrong, angry. We've all seen what happens to people that cross Armstrong, and Horner has kids, a mortgage, probably a car payment or two, so a steady paycheck is a good motivator to not be too forthcoming. Remember, Horner already knows how it feels to be stiffed for money from a team. Back when he was racing for the Mercury team in 2001 he had to go to the UCI and demand his paycheck from the squad which was never resolved. Not fond memories for Horner or Floyd Landis as both got screwed by the implosion of the Mercury team.

In a December 2012 interview with Cyclingnews Horner was coy about doping which the reporter said left him, probably the reader, as well as Horner, frustrated. And that's where we are still - frustrated that a guy that is seemingly beating the odds against Father Time and is less than 30 seconds from taking the lead in the 2013 Vuelta a Espana. Keep in mind, this performance is after a five month layoff from training due to surgery for an IT-band issue that exacerbated a knee problem. Then, after a three week block of good training starting with the Tour of Utah, he's back at his fighting weight and ready to start his battle for the podium at the Vuelta a Espana.

In a recent interview Horner recognizes this frustration about his coyness regarding the doping issue and said so. But where does it leave the tifosi that know more about the recent history of the sport in contrast to the more casual fan that has grabbed onto the human interest story headlines of a 41-year-old beating younger riders? For one, we can't go “Salem Witch Trials” and persecute anyone on just speculation or on a statement that can't be verified by another independent source. However, if Horner wants to earn the respect of all cycling fans he can't stick his head in the sand, wish the doping era never happened, and refer difficult questions to the team mouth pieces.

Of course it's too late for him to raise his hand and say, “Yeah, back in the day I doped. But in 2006 I stopped...” An admission like that now isn't going to give him any leniency with USADA. Also his contract with RadioShack/Trek ends this year, so Horner needs an extension or at least a new deal somewhere.  Admitting to doping now would scuttle any leverage he might have in a negotiation. “So yeah I did dope, but I swear I'm clean now and you won't have to worry about any positive doping results coming from me ever. I swear!”

So far Trek, the owners of the RadioShack-Leopard team in 2014, haven't offered him a contract. As noted in a previous post, Trek is putting all their marketing eggs into the Fabian Cancellara basket for the spring classics. While the Schlecks are kitting up in Trek colors next year, not many people are giving the Luxembourg brothers a serious chance against the stage race machine that is Team Sky (though I previously declared 2014 would be the year of the Schlecks). With Fabian, Trek wisely saw their opportunity to back someone who has a much better chance of winning something of note as well as pushing a few Treks out the bike shop door. So where does that leave Horner?

Horner is a tactically smart stage race rider who has won the Tour of California and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, along with numerous high GC placings, and stage victories along the way. Horner himself argued that he was in with a real chance of winning the 2011 Tour de France until he crashed out. But here's the dose of reality. In 2014 Horner will be 42 years of age. At that age, top-end speed, recovery, and strength all are diminished. Sure he's tearing it up now, but what about next year? Can he repeat his 2013 performance in 2014? Cycling history is littered with one-year wonders. Could the knee issue flare up again after a torturous Vuelta and ruin his 2014?

If you're an owner of a team and you have a fixed amount of money, do you spend it on a younger rider with a bright future or gamble on the older guy who might have one more year in the tank? Cycling teams don't have the luxury of deep pockets like other sports we might be familiar with.

But while those physical attributes are diminishing with the tick of time, there is one thing that gets better – wisdom. Horner can read a race like no one else. Also, perhaps the Fountain of Youth that Chris has found is he hasn't raced as much as his competitors and is fresher? Horner could be effective to a team in a more selective manner - have him suit up for only the most import races, say a grand tour and America's important stage races: 2014 Tour of California, Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado? That must be of use to some team? And let's say by August 2014 Horner is toasted from one too many knee surgeries. Stick that guy in a team car! Like I said earlier, he could run tactical circles around many a current Directeur Sportif.

Speculating, I think Chris will finish this year's Vuelta a Espana on the podium and be offered a contract extension with the rebranded Trek team for 2014. He'll be able to shrug off any and all doping accusations because there’s no smoking gun. If not Trek in 2014, I hear Cannondale is looking for an American...

Now let's talk about Jens Voigt...

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Neil, thanks for expressing what I've been thinking...and what I've NOT seen written anywhere else. Horner comes across as a likeable happy-go-lucky guy who is well spoken after the race. But it has always worried me that he has improved when he should be on the decline (which coincided when he linked up with the Johan/Lance juggernaut). And his answers regarding Lance not being a doper were ludicrous.

Steve O'|

Five years ago or so, no one would cheering more loudly for a Horner GT win.

Today, all I can think is: not normal.