The fifth time was the charm for Chris Horner in securing a spot on a U.S. Olympic team.
After being overlooked, sometimes controversially, by USA Cycling (or the U.S. Cycling Federation) in 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, Horner, 40, is headed to London next month for his first Olympic experience. Horner spoke to VeloNews hours after his selection was official on Friday about riding his first Games, the communication breakdown that has him on the outside looking in at the Tour de France and the tumultuous week RadioShack-Nissan has experienced.
Horner will ride alongside compatriots Tyler Farrar, Timmy Duggan, Tejay van Garderen and Taylor Phinney in London. On a five-man national team in an Olympic race run without radios, he will undoubtedly serve as road captain — one of the sport’s master tacticians, Horner is 19 years older than Phinney, and 17 years older than van Garderen.
After Horner, the next-oldest member of the team is Duggan, the new national road champion, who is 29.
“I’ll be there with a bunch of young kids,” Horner told VeloNews. “It should be fun.”
Horner acknowledged that he had never ridden as a teammate of any of the other four Americans, not on a trade team and not on a world championship squad, but added that would be part of the experience.
“That’s the fun thing,” he said. “We’re all Americans, we all chat during the races in Europe, we all would like to be teammates at some point, whether it’s at the world championships or Olympics. I’m just happy to be going. It should be a lifetime experience.”
Horner said he hadn’t yet spoken about potential roles on the team with USA Cycling vice president of athletics Jim Miller or national team director Mike Sayers (who is only 1.5 years Horner’s senior). On a tough course that features nine trips over the Box Hill climb, it is questionable whether or not sprinters like Farrar and Mark Cavendish will still be at the front of the race in the final kilometers.
“[Miller and Sayers] told me that there’s a possibility it won’t come down to a sprint, but in our discussion there’s been no real depth of what the tactics might be,” Horner said. “You have to know Tyler Farrar’s form coming out of the Tour de France. If he’s strong, he’s definitely our guy. With me, if he’s our best option, there is no doubt I will do whatever it takes for him to win a gold medal.”
News of his selection was the culmination of a rollercoaster week for Horner, who learned on Monday that he was not included on RadioShack’s long list for the Tour de France. His team manager Johan Bruyneel said that decision stemmed from Horner’s absence at the Tour de Suisse, due to recovery from a back injury following the Amgen Tour of California.
The following day, Horner’s teammate Andy Schleck announced that he could not race the Tour due to a broken sacrum suffered at the Critérium du Dauphinè; that fact, combined with a massive public outcry over Horner’s exclusion, thrust the American veteran back into a potential spot on the Tour team.
On Monday, Horner was under the impression that he would not race the Tour, with the Olympics an unknown. By Friday afternoon, it appeared he might race in both.
“It feels fantastic to have been selected [for the Olympics],” Horner said. “I’ve been waiting for it a long time. With my age, as you get older, you know you’re running out of years, and you want to go. That feeling doesn’t die down; if anything, it grows stronger and stronger. Here I am, 40 years old, going to my first Olympics.”
Olympic team selection is a career highlight for Horner, who, in April told VeloNews that he’d grown frustrated with the political aspect of the Olympic selection process.
Two months later, Horner is on the other side of the coin. He’s no longer worried about Olympic selection; instead his Tour selection and the future of his RadioShack team are in question.
On RadioShack, and the Tour
Horner said he spoke with Bruyneel at length earlier this week, and that both men accepted blame for a lack of communication regarding Horner’s desire to race the Tour. Bruyneel told VeloNews Tuesday that only riders racing the Swiss tour or the Dauphinè would be considered for the Tour team; Horner said he’d withdrawn from Suisse because he lacked fitness after taking a week off of training to allow his back to recover.
“We spoke for 30, maybe 45 minutes, and had a long conversation about the team’s selection procedure,” Horner said. “There was a real lack of communication. He truly believed my desire to go to the Tour just wasn’t there and that my back injury was worse than what it was. He was so busy with everything else that’s been going on, he didn’t pick up phone, and I didn’t pick up phone. The last email I’d sent to [team director Alain Gallopin], I told him that it wasn’t a choice not to go to Suisse, that I simply didn’t have the fitness to do Suisse. I got an email from Gallo saying that they were making the team selection from those two races. I read it as ‘Johan will call me, for sure he knows I want to go.’ When I spoke with Johan, he said he hadn’t heard from me. I said the same, I hadn’t heard from him.
“I told Johan, ‘I’m still training, and who doesn’t want to do the Tour de France?’ It’s an amazing experience, even if you’ve done it many times; every bike racer wants to do it. I’m riding well, and I’m not expecting problems with my back. I pleaded my case with him, and he’s going to consider it. We’ll see on Monday [when the team is expected to announce its final nine-man roster]. At least I’m back on the radar. Johan knows I want to go, I couldn’t have asked him any more times.”
A byproduct of the VeloNews story that ran Tuesday, in which we quoted Bruyneel saying that Horner’s decision to skip the Tour de Suisse was “the same… as saying, ‘I also give up on the Tour,’” led to Horner’s teammate, Andreas Klöden, sending out a series of messages on Twitter, agreeing with Bruyneel’s comments. Klöden wrote:
“If you want to ride a big Tour, you have to ride also some races with the team. Watch Team Sky, BMC… 3 weeks racing isn’t a one week race.”
Horner didn’t respond to Klöden on Twitter, but when asked about it, he said he found the German’s comments to be “unprofessional.”
“I was surprised,” Horner said. “I thought it was unprofessional for a teammate to talk badly about another teammate publicly like that. It’s certainly unprofessional for your sponsor to read something like that. Certainly there are times you ride with teammates you don’t like; it’s happened to me several times in my career, but I try to never talk about a teammate like that. It was disappointing to see, and it was very clear to see who it was addressed to. I was quite surprised to see a veteran of his age and experience write something like that publicly.”
In the context of a tumultuous week, which saw Horner’s exclusion and Klöden’s comments, as well as Schleck abandon the Tour and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency file an explosive doping conspiracy case against Bruyneel, Lance Armstrong, one current team doctor and several former team staff members, news has spread that the RadioShack team is on the verge of folding.
Media outlets have reported that Tour de France owner ASO might exclude RadioShack from the Tour, that team owner Flavio Becca is contemplating firing Bruyneel, that the Schleck brothers are signing for a new squad for 2013, and that team members are not being paid as promised.
Asked what he could share about the team’s status, Horner said “not much,” adding with a laugh, “Who knows, maybe I’ll make our Tour team just to get kicked out again [by ASO].”
“I don’t know anything,” Horner said. “I haven’t heard anything. I’ve read the same news stories as everyone else. At this moment, the team is in the Tour de France; that’s all I know. It would be a real letdown to miss the Tour for something that the vast majority of the team was not involved in. When you look at the way the [RadioShack and Leopard] teams merged, there are not a lot of guys related to the problems in the past.”
Horner said he and Bruyneel had not spoken about the possible departure of the Schleck brothers, as those reports hit after their conversation. He also said he and Bruyneel did not speak about the team’s spot in the Tour, either, adding, “Since [Bruyneel] was calling me about the Tour, I figured that meant it was still on.”
As far as the team’s financial stability, Horner said he’d been paid every month since RadioShack came on as title sponsor in 2010. “Sometimes I get paid on the first of the month, sometimes I get paid in the middle of month, but I always get paid. I’ve got no complaints. I’ve been on a lot of teams in my career, and the only team that actually paid me to the letter of my contract was Webcor [in 2004]. As long as I am paid during the month I’m supposed to be paid, I’m happy.”
That happiness is no doubt buoyed by the fact that he’s been selected to represent the U.S. in his first Olympic Games, and the fact that he may, again, be headed to the Tour de France.