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Chris Horner interview

Chris Horner
James Stout
12 Oct 2015

Chris Horner, winner of the 2013 Vuelta and veteran of the US Pro scene, talks to us about bikes, pizza and why he isn't a typical winner.

Cyclist: How did you get started with bike racing?

Chris Horner: I started riding at 13, then at 20 I started racing seriously. My first club was Cabrillo Cycling but sadly they aren’t around any more. At 24 I bought my pro licence for $150. I would travel to races alone, just me and my bike in a box, flying or driving to all the biggest races. I liked it because at that time anyone with the self-belief could try it. Can you imagine that now? Just buying a licence for Philly?

Cyc: How did you manage riding those early pro races without support?

CH: Well, that’s a fun story. Mostly I would rely on fans and other teams for feeds. At the US professional championships that first year, I began with two bottles for 140 miles. On the first lap I noticed a couple of children on the side of the road before the feed zone pretending to be soigneurs by holding out red plastic cups – you know, like party cups. I laughed at them at first – it seemed kinda silly when we were going so fast. Well, a few laps later I was out of water. The children were at the base of a climb and I just took a chance and grabbed two cups from them, and the next lap I did the same. And every lap, because there was only one knucklehead grabbing these cups, the kids would be screaming, ‘Here he comes!’ and the father would be helping them and every lap I got two cups from them. Man, that was a beautiful era in the sport. 

Cyc: You’re pretty well known for your dietary choices. What’s the oddest thing you ever received to eat in a race? 

CH: I guess that would be two Taco Bell burritos. Some people think it’s weird but I have that all the time – the soigneurs know I like that stuff so they put a couple in the musette for me. At the Tour one of my old team directors always brings me something. One time I was riding through the cars and I heard him say, ‘Quieres pizza?’

It took a second for me to translate, but then I thought, ‘Hell yeah!’ So I slammed on the brakes and I grabbed some pizza. Now he always brings me some chips [crisps] or a Snickers because I love chocolate.

Chris Horner portrait

Cyc: Which bikes from your career have really stuck in your memory?

CH: The best was the Madone 6.9, no doubt – I loved that bike. But the worst was the bike I won the Vuelta on [Trek Madone Series 7]. I hated that thing. Every bike is different and you don’t know what it’s like until you’ve ridden it – I mean until you’ve really slammed it into a corner at 70kmh down a mountain. I like them not too stiff and very predictable. I like my Marin now  I know it always behaves how I want it to. 

Cyc: You don’t ride with what people might call a ‘pro fit’. Why is that? 

CH: I think I had 46cm bars at the Vuelta, and on those climbs they were great. I use 44s now.  Nobody stands on the climbs like I do, and with those bars I could breathe just fine and I could ride all day standing. And it’s not like you’re ever really shooting through any tiny holes at the Vuelta. I was having so many back problems, so I set it up like that to be comfortable. I had spacers under the stem and the bars set high all that season. It changes so much every season depending on the injury I’m coming back from or how my body is feeling. 

Cyc: It seems like you’re not one to do what everyone else says you should. Do you think that’s why you’ve been shuffled about by teams so much in the last few years? 

 CH: Well, I haven’t been moving that much. I mean, I rode for different versions of that same Astana team for years – the same team just different sponsors. And I was really happy there. They looked after me really well.

Cyc: After 2013 it seemed like it was harder for you to find a team. Was that the Armstrong fallout?

CH: It’s an age thing. I was a Grand Tour winner and I couldn’t get a job the next year. I should have been getting $800,000 and I was lucky if I could get $100,000. I don’t think it’s Lance, it’s just the age. Look at Joaquim Rodriguez – he struggled to get a one-year deal, and Samuel Sanchez took a pay cut at BMC after he came sixth in the Vuelta in 2014 with no support. Look at Cadel Evans. I know Cadel – he says he retired but I know that guy and he’s all about the bike. They didn’t make him another offer. I mean, man – look at Jens Voigt! Nobody was more dedicated on the bicycle than him. I know Jens. I know if someone came with the money he’d be racing. Some riders take it personally and walk away from the sport, but I love racing too much. I took a great offer from Airgas Safeway to race in the US, which let me be home more, near my kids. I had a baby coming in December, I had to get something squared away. 

Chris Horner interview

Cyc: So you’ll be staying in the US. How will the racing compare?

CH: Well first of all, the racing isn’t hard enough in the US and the young riders need to train more as the races aren’t as long. They need to do those hard training rides of five or six hours to get ready for Europe, where the level is just higher. US cycling has these big races like California and Cascade but there’s nothing to get riders ready for them. So you have to train harder now.

Cyc: Talking about the training, how do you stay motivated?

CH: I just love riding my bike. There’s nothing I love more. Sometimes training is hard when it’s hot or cold or you have a hot girlfriend at home. But the racing is always great. The day you aren’t excited about the racing you need to retire. But I’m more sensible now, I rest more and I’ve changed my diet a lot. I don’t go out with a plan – I just know when to ramp it up. I still ride a lot, and hard, but I’ve never done an interval in my life, never ridden up the same hill twice. I can’t imagine how unenjoyable that would be. I use the power meter, but not to direct my training. It just tells me what my legs are like on a big climb after five hours of riding.

Cyc: Tell us about your Vuelta win…

CH: Oh man, that Vuelta. There was nobody there, not one sponsor. Nobody at dinner, nothing. I tell you what – I rode the home bike [the training bike] until Stage 17 without a spare. I was coming off a knee injury and a broken bike would have meant being forced to ride another bike that didn’t have the right set-up. That would have destroyed me. But in that race it was just me and the guys, just racing, and I was the strongest on the climbs.

Cyc: How about Europe – did you like it there? 

CH: There are things I missed about the US. I can eat what I want, when I want when I’m in the US, and I can drive my big-ass truck and park it wherever the hell I want. But yeah I miss some of those European roads and races. I miss the Tour of the Basque Country – that’s the most beautiful race outside of the Grand Tours and those people love cycling, and the roads are great. But one of the best rides I have ever done was that day when they wouldn’t let me do the Vuelta [in 2014]. I went out and I just did a six-and-a-half-hour ride in this forest. Maybe five cars passed me all day. I got to thinking, ‘This isn’t so bad.’ Sure I can’t do the Vuelta but I can still ride my bike.

Cyc: Are you bitter about not being able to defend your Vuelta title? 

CH: Well that whole year [2014] was just a disaster. It was just one more disaster. I got hit in a tunnel before the Giro, then I was recovering but I had to go back into hospital. I was in hospital with a lung infection six weeks before the Tour and I still came 17th. Without that, and if I wasn’t working for my team, I would have been top 10 easily. 

Cyc: So where do you see yourself in a few years?

CH: I’ll race masters if that’s where I’m competitive. If I’m getting my ass handed to me at Utah I won’t keep going but we’ll see. I think I’ll be good. 

Cyc: And would you take a pay cut to go back to Europe? 

CH: Yes, yes I would to race those big races again. But I will have to see how I do here in these races and then I’ll start talking to people.

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