At 40 years old, Chris Horner makes his Olympic debut this Saturday in the men’s road race in London. Horner, who last week finished 13th overall and won the teams classification with RadioShack-Nissan at the Tour de France, is the elder statesman and road captain for a U.S. National Team packed with young talent.
The squad, directed by Horner’s former teammate Mike Sayers, will look to the California native and shrewd tactician to develop its on-the-road plan of attack in what should be an extremely fluid race on the Box Hill circuit.
Horner spoke with VeloNews Wednesday morning to talk tactics, his role on the team, and its chances for Olympic glory on the Mall in London.
The end goal, Horner said, is that, “we’re going be working with (Tyler) Farrar for the finish, for the sprint.” That is, if Farrar, with the help of his four teammates — Taylor Phinney, Timmy Duggan, Tejay van Garderen, and Horner — can make it over nine runs up the Box Hill climb, a potential stumbling block for many of the peloton’s pure sprinters.
If [Farrar’s] feeling really good during the race and he comes up and says, ‘Hey, Chris, I’m fantastic, I can get over this climb,’ it would be my job, our job, Taylor’s job, to look after Farrar and make it for a field sprint.”
However, Horner is prepared for other eventualities as well.
“It really depends on how the riders feel on the day of the race,” he said. “If Farrar says, ‘I just don’t have any legs,’ then of course Tejay and I…we’re going have to get away from the group.”
On their way to the hoped-for field sprint, the five riders face three unique challenges in the 250km Olympic road race: they are a group of only five, not the usual eight that race the one-day classics on the World Tour; they will race without two-way radios; and they have never raced together at the same time — against each other, yes, but never before on the same team.
Pre-race planning, which Horner says has not yet taken place, will be an essential part of on-the-road tactics.
“We have a great director here with Sayers, so I certainly believe that Mike will sit us down, we’ll have a discussion on what the plan is, [how] we believe the tactics are best for the U.S. team, and we’ll try to stick to that,” said Horner.
Honesty with the team will be key and Horner says that if a rider’s legs desert him on the day, “[he’s] got let the team know so we can adjust accordingly on the road… we’re in a group of five; everybody’s got to be real honest.”
Another key to good communication will be proximity on the road. “It’s a bike race, so you’re not always next to each other the whole time,” Horner said, “but certainly we’ll be close to each other.”
“Without radios,” Horner said, “it can get confusing really quickly.”
With Farrar as the designated man for the finale, the team will try to keep at least one rider with him at all times. No radio contact diminishes the ability of riders to communicate quickly in the instance of a mechanical mishap or a crash, particularly to the team car behind them in the caravan. This means that in the instance of a late flat tire, a wheel hand-up will more likely come from a teammate than the team car, particularly if the U.S. car is not at the front of the caravan.
“If you hear a big crash, you need to be smart enough as a professional to sit up and look around and see if you have your four other teammates with you,” he said, adding, “there’s no way to know if he goes down and nobody saw him.”
Horner was receptive to the suggestion of communication with on-course staff members — a common practice in motor racing — saying, “Certainly it would be nice… if, say, Farrar flatted someplace and we didn’t see it, or if he crashed someplace and we didn’t see it, Sayers would have to call ahead to the soigneurs or mechanic or someone that’s on the side of the road, so that he can be able to tell us, in theory that’s a great plan.”
At 40 years old, Horner’s experience will also help him in working with Sayers, who is just two years his senior. The two were teammates at Mercury a decade ago.
But with three-fifths of the U.S. men’s road team — Horner, van Garderen, and Farrar — fresh off the Tour de France, there has been little time yet for strategizing. The full team rode the course for the first time on Wednesday.
“We haven’t had a meeting yet with Sayers to discuss what our goals, what our strategy will be for plan A or plan B or plan C,” said Horner.
The best strategy in the world, however, won’t win the race if riders do not have the form to execute it. To that end, Horner said, “my form’s fantastic.”
“I think we [have] got a fantastic group here representing the U.S.”
American cycling fans, here and in London, will certainly hope so.