Chris Horner doesn't sound like an athlete who has been sidelined by injury for four months.
When we talked last week, I could barely follow the chipper, fast-talking pro cyclist—he was that excited. In there somewhere were comments about doughnuts and early season races, knee pain and watching the Tour from home, his contract, the upcoming Cascade Gran Fondo, the Tour of Utah and Vuelta A Espana or The Tour of Spain. Most of what I gleaned is that he's happy to be back on his bike and pain-free.
Horner, a part-time Bend resident, is a 41-year-old stage-race and climbing specialist with Team RadioShack-Leopard and one of America's fastest and most accomplished professional road cyclists. But his 2013 season has been hampered by a left knee injury that forced him to pull out of the Volta a Catalunya in March and skip the Tour de France in July, as well as a number of other spring and summer races. In June, he had surgery to correct the problems that stemmed from iliotibial (IT) band friction syndrome. Now, after weeks of recovery and couch time, he is back to riding big miles. When I caught up with him, he was at his other part-time home (in San Diego), where he had just wrapped up another 550-mile week and was looking forward to returning to Bend.
"I'm trying to get some fitness back in the legs," Horner said. "I'm ready to start racing. I've got the Gran Fondo (in Bend, Aug. 4, see "Our Picks," Page 17 for more information), then the Tour of Utah on Tuesday..." he added, his voice trailing off and then picking up again, all in a twitter about other upcoming races.
But wait? The Tour of Utah? As in the climbing-intensive, six-day race against some of the world's best riders? For a guy who hasn't competed in four months, that could be more than daunting—that could be downright scary, especially considering Horner's contract ends this season and he's heard nothing of renewal. But he's not that concerned. And if his early-season fitness is any indication of what he's still capable of, he shouldn't be.
In early March, racing against climbing specialists Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, this year's Tour de France winner, Horner finished sixth in Tirreno-Adriatico, a hilly seven-day race across Northern Italy. In 2012 Horner was second at Tirreno-Adriatico, but this year's finish, against such a star-studded field, was almost sweeter. It proved that the 5-foot-11-inch, 140-pound rider could climb with the best.
"For me the big deal was riding with the [Team] Sky riders," admitted Horner. Team Sky is home to Froome, last year's Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, and a number of other heavy hitters. But the Italian race, which was steep and torturous, was often rainy and cold, and Horner thinks it was there that his left knee took a turn for the worse.
What followed was months of frustration for Horner. With time, his knee would feel fine off the bike, but after two hours of pedaling it would again become inflamed, which meant more time off. This July, Horner watched his teammates race the Tour de France from his couch—a sorry state of affairs for a man who helped his RadioShack-Leopard crew win the team overall at the 2012 Tour de France. Horner, ever the selfless rider, said he was happy to help secure such an important, and much-needed win for his team sponsors—Trek is taking over as title sponsor next year—but he's certain he could have placed higher than 13th had he not been on orders to help his teammates through the mountains.
"Froome, Wiggins, Nibali, even [Jurgen] Van Den Broeck—those guys were on a different level," Horner admits. "But I definitely believe I could have been fifth at the Tour de France."
Such a result would certainly help him land another contract. But Horner said he's not too worried. Maybe it's because he knows he'll be able to pop a big result at the Tour of Utah or the Tour of Spain. Or maybe it's because he knows that teams will recognize the value in signing a likeable, easy-going rider with 19 years of professional racing experience.
Either way, Horner is more looking forward to the Cascade Gran Fondo, a charity ride of varying distances he hosts that's open to citizen racers and pros alike. Horner said he regrets not being able to spend more time with Bend's cycling community and is looking forward to doing so again on Sunday. He's also looking forward to the Central Oregon treats he's come to crave.
Infamous for his unorthodox diet of Coke, hamburgers, fries and assorted pastries, Horner's body shows no signs of such foods and said he still eats what he wants when logging back-to-back-to-back 100-miles days. But let's not mince words here—what he's eating is junk food and he knows it.
"When training hard, there's still room for junk food, like sodas and donuts," said Horner wryly. "I always like Richard's Donuts, The Sisters Bakery and, of course, Nancy P's.
"Sometimes I'll ride two loops—two hours with my wife [Megan Horner, a retired professional cyclist] then go for my own ride after," he said. "There's always a good reason to stop for a good pastry."
McKenzie Pass Chris Horner said, with its extended climbs and changing environmental zones—from high desert, to lava fields to virtual rain forests—McKenzie Pass is one of his favorite road rides in the area. Horner likes to ride from town, but mortals should park in Sisters at the Village Green and ride both sides of scenic Highway 242. It's a 2,000-foot climb from Sisters and a 4,000-foot climb from Highway 126, east of the McKenzie River Ranger Station.
Paulina Peak Another Chris Horner favorite, this paved climb south of Bend can be ridden from town or from the intersection of Highway 97 and Paulina Lake Road. Take Paulina Lake Road 13 miles to the top and be treated to stunning views of Paulina Lake and the mountains beyond. There's a small store at the lake that has snacks and cold drinks.