Chris Horner held forth on cyclocross, Basque headwear and the 2010 Tour de France on Friday during a San Diego fund-raiser for World Bicycle Relief.
The RadioShack stalwart joined retired Kelly Benefit Strategies pro Neil Shirley for a meet-and-greet and raffle at B&L Bikes before regaling a $200-per-plate dinner crowd at the Farmhouse Café with his tales from the road.
After breaking eight bones in 2009, Horner stayed healthy this season, and it showed. He won the Tour of the Basque Country and finished 10th in the Tour.
Horner said he had long “dreamed of the funny hat,” referring to the txapela rewarded to the winner of the Basque Country tour, a race he first did in 1997. Horner had raced the Tour of Flanders the day before, and after enduring several flights and a 1 a.m. arrival in Basque Country, his was an inauspicious debut.
“I got dropped like 30 miles into the race,” he said. “I ended up getting dropped after stage 3 and I dropped out. So I’m watching it on TV and I’m seeing (Laurent) Jalabert wear this funky hat and I was just like, “That looks cool — I want one of those!’”
Horner had high hopes for the 2010 Tour, too, but they would be dashed. He recalled that coming off Jani Brajkovic’s Critérium du Dauphiné victory, an enthusiastic RadioShack squad arrived four days ahead of the Tour to do reconnaissance runs on the cobblestones of stage 3.
“What I saw there was a really strong core group of guys and a fantastic Lance on form and just ready to go. I’m 39 now, racing 40 next year. I understand that when I see what we saw in training, that we were going to go on to having a fantastic three weeks. It was going to be stress-free. It was going to be a great race. It was going to be like clockwork. We were completely badass.”
Unfortunately, Horner added with a wide grin, those training rides were “the highlight of the Tour. … Everything really started falling apart on stage 2.”
Remembering the mass wipeout on the Stockeu, which took down nearly every top GC rider in the field, Horner said he was about 15 riders back, next to Levi Leipheimer — ”perfect spot” — when the field started the descent.
“They started going really fast, and I’m like, ‘Nope, not going to go that fast.’ I know this descent. You are not going to make it down this descent. Somebody will make it down this descent, but we are not all going to make it down.”
When the crashes began, “it was like a bomb exploded,” Horner said. Leipheimer was taken out from behind, but Horner was still somehow upright when “bikes without riders are passing by me! I kid you not. They are sliding by me and now all I’m thinking is, ‘Okay, here it comes, somebody’s going to hit me from behind and I’m going to go down just like Levi did.’”
The impact never came, and Horner said he picked his way through a tangle of bodies and bikes, helped Armstrong remount and located their teammates. After that, Horner said Fabian Cancellara and the lead group simply stopped racing, and the stage “went from all total chaos to all of a sudden, calmness. Imagine just absolute total chaos happening in this room and then just stepping outside to a whole another universe. That’s how that stage felt.”
When more bad luck — crashes, broken spokes, and punctures — fractured both the field and the RadioShack squad on the following day’s stage through the cobblestones of northern Belgium, Horner said he was delighted that Armstrong had lost only 50 seconds to Alberto Contador.
But Armstrong was furious. “He was like, ‘We lost the Tour,’” Horner said.
“No way,” Horner told Armstrong. “You can’t lose the Tour by 50 seconds. Just stay motivated. Keep it together. We’ve got a great squad. We’re going to make it happen, don’t worry. This 50 seconds won’t cost you the race.”
But as misfortune continued to sling arrows at the team, morale suffered, Horner said.
“Riders were getting angry at each other quicker during the race. Management wasn’t happy —nobody was doing their job. The stress level was building every stage.”
Horner said he and Brajkovic were put in the unusual position of working at the beginning of stages, protecting RadioShack’s team GC placing by marking attacking sprinters on the flats.
“When we are covering these big guys it’s incredibly difficult,” Horner said. “Jani and I, we were just dying. We were doing everything we can for the team. Everything for Lance. Everything for Klodi. Everything for Levi.”
At one point, Horner said, team director Johan Bruyneel came into the team bus and gave the team an inspiring talk.
“A good director’s meeting with all the positive things he can: ‘Let’s try and win a stage. Let’s stay focused. Let’s win the team classification. And then if we can let’s help Lance win a stage.’” Shaking with laughter at the memory, Horner added, “I was like, wait, I thought we were!”
With a disastrous Tour behind him, one might think Horner would have had enough of the bike by now. But while most pros go straight to vacation in the off-season, he said, “Me, I go to cyclocross.”
And this year, he’s gone there in a big way — Horner won Orange County’s Spooky Cross and San Diego’s Storm the Beach, and he has his eye on the national championships in his second hometown, Bend, Oregon.
“The day that ends, though,” he said, “I’m on vacation!”
Editor’s note: The San Diego fund-raisers were sponsored by three local racing clubs — the Swamis Cycling Club, the San Diego Bicycle Club and UC Cyclery-JW Flooring. Hubert Otlik of the Swamis estimated that the evening would clear at least $15,000 for World Bicycle Relief. For more on the organization, see www.worldbicyclerelief.org.