SAN BENEDETTO DEL TRONTO, Italy (VN) – Chris Horner was all smiles on the final podium Tuesday at Tirreno-Adriatico. The RadioShack-Nissan rider stood perhaps one step lower than he was hoping, but his trademark grin was firmly in place.
Horner couldn’t quite answer the 27-year-old legs of Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale), who erased a six-second gap to Horner on the flat, 9.3km power course to claim the trident GC trophy by 14 seconds.
“I have no mixed feelings at all. It’s been a fantastic week and I’m super happy to finish on the podium of Tirreno-Adriatico,” Horner told VeloNews. “This is my first race in eight months. Tactically, we’ve raced a brilliant race. I’ve had fantastic legs. To get on the podium, I thought I could lose two spots on the podium, so to keep one has been really good. I only have one emotion, it’s the great feeling about how the team has treated me.”
Horner started last as the race leader in Tuesday’s TT along the Adriatic coast. The flat time trial covered surprisingly rough roads on an urban course, with tailwinds out of the gate and gusty headwinds coming back.
Nibali started third-to-last and quickly barnstormed down the course, pulling back 18 seconds on Horner at the intermediate checkpoint to ride into the “virtual” lead and driving home a 20-second gap across the line to claim the GC.
Horner limited his losses on the ride back against the wind, pushing Roman Kreuziger (Astana) from second to third to secure what Horner said is a morale-boosting podium ride in his first race since he crashed out of stage 7 at the Tour de France last July.
Horner later suffered a blood clot in his lung and was treated with blood-thinners through January.
The veteran American said he was unsure how well he would perform in his return to competition, but second place in Italy’s second most important race showed that Horner is back to his former level.
“There was a little doubt,” Horner said. “At 40, when you’ve been out of racing so long, when you’re wondering how the embolism is affecting me, people must have thought, ‘How is Chris? How can he come back? He’s too old.’”
Teammate Fabian Cancellara, who won Tuesday’s time trial, said Horner’s performance all week was inspiration to the rest of the team.
“It’s not a disappointment at all (that he didn’t win). It’s the opposite,” Cancellara said. “I said to him before the time trial, ‘You have not nothing to lose.’ Eight months ago he was almost dying, so to come back to Tirreno, he gives everything, and he almost wins.
“We are a classics team here. We helped him where we could, but he was on his own in the mountains. It’s always nice to win, but after what he’s done this week, it’s almost like a victory.”
Horner will take this momentum out of Italy and direct it toward his season’s major goals, which include the Vuelta al País Vasco, where he won in 2010 and was second in 2011, and the Tour of California, where he will start as defending champion.
He said his ride this week proved he could still race at the top level at 40.
“I’ve held the jersey in one of the biggest races in the world,” Horner said. “I’m coming out of here in one direction, and that’s very optimistic about the races to come.”