TORREY, Utah (VN) — Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is wearing the catlike grin he is famous for.
It’s been five months since the 42-year-old has toed the line at a race; he came to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah with only three weeks of training in his legs, after knee issues forced him from his bike and required surgery to repair.
So why is he smiling? The longer this race goes on, without it being overly difficult, the more time Horner has to find his legs.
“Every day that I can get another ‘training’ day helps my form. Clearly I wasn’t tired from yesterday; I’m not tired from today [stage 2] and it was 130 miles. It wasn’t a devastating day by any means. Every day I get better and better,” Horner said.
Horner is skipping the USA Pro Challenge and building toward the Vuelta a España. But a few serious efforts on the rugged climbs of Utah could see him battling for victory in the tune-up race. It’s still early, and Wednesday’s effort was mellower than anticipated, both because the terrain didn’t prove as challenging as it looked on paper, and the racing wasn’t overly aggressive.
An early break had BMC Racing controlling the field for hours through the sea of hoodoos along the stage 2 sweep through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the surrounding national forest land. Garmin-Sharp offered up little in the way of serious aggression late in the stage. Youngster Andzs Flaksis (Bontrager) took the initiative late in the stage when he jumped just one kilometer before the final Cat. 1 KOM line and drifted into the descent, building his lead to some 30 seconds. Still, it wasn’t long before it all came back together for a second bunch sprint in two days.
“I thought today’s stage would be a little bit more difficult, a little more selective, but really the climb was almost completely big chain ring. Clearly I feel pretty good at 350 watts when we’re at 9,000 feet,” Horner said. “But that’s what I try to stress to people: if we’re on a real climb at 350 watts there’s nobody left except for five or 10 of us. But when you’re on a four percent climb at 350, the same kind of wattage, the whole group is there. For me, it’d be really nice to get in one really good climb, but clearly I’ve got good form.”
And Thursday’s stage 3, which features the daunting climb of Mount Nebo, could offer up exactly what Horner is looking for. The highest mountain in the Wasatch Range at 11,928 feet, Nebo will loom on the horizon for hours before the peloton hits the climb.
“It’s a mostly flat day and could be extremely fast; typically in the summer there are strong winds from the south, which should push the race north,” said course director Todd Hageman.
The mountain has been featured at past Tours of Utah six different times. This year, however, the race traverses the entire mountain for the first time, rather than finishing atop the road’s high point. The climb features a 10km stretch with an average grade of 8 percent and crests at 9,300 feet, after which the peloton will have a twisting and fast 22-mile, 4,000-foot descent into Payson.
“There will definitely be some regrouping on the descent, similar to stage 2, but I think we’ll see more of a selection on Mount Nebo than on Boulder Mountain. Probably a select group of 20 guys coming in together,” Hageman said.
Though it may be the climb that Horner needs to fully shock the legs back to racing rhythm, it likely won’t reveal the strongest climbers in the field.
“I think all the favorites are waiting for Snowbird [in stage 5],” Horner said. “I mean, if you’re a climber why even have the jersey before Snowbird. So, honestly I think every day could be a better training day than the last. I have good form, which means I’m going to get better each day.”
If his word holds true, look for the grin to grow even larger.