MADRID (VN) — The stars lined up for Chris Horner during the Vuelta a España en route to becoming the oldest rider in history to win a grand tour at age 41.
But now, just when he should be on top of the world, Horner finds himself lost in space, without a firm deal to race next season.
And instead of planning out his 2014 campaign, the first American to win the Vuelta is pursuing a contract, certain he has two more years of racing in him, but facing the prospect of retirement.
Several factors combined to put Horner in this unsettling situation.
No Shack, no Alonso
First, Horner finds himself caught without a deal because he thought he already had something in the bag.
Two events in September combined to shape Horner’s fate. First, ongoing discussions with RadioShack-Leopard changed when he started rocking the Vuelta, thus upping his value. And second, Formula One driver Fernando Alonso stepped up to save Euskaltel-Euskadi from oblivion.
Alonso was set to take over Euskaltel’s license, planning to keep most of the team’s riders while adding some new ones. His interests and Horner’s quickly converged. Sources told VeloNews that Horner was poised to join the team, and at close to his asking price; one said Horner was asking 1 million euros per year with a two-year guarantee.
But just as quickly, things soured between Alonso and the Basques, and the deal was scuttled in mid-September. Alonso vows to regroup and form a new team for 2015, but Horner was left hanging.
By the time the Alonso deal unraveled, it was very late in the game for any rider without a contract, especially one who was in his 40s and asking for a lot of money.
Asking too much
Price was an issue in Horner’s negotiations with RadioShack, which will be rechristened Trek Factory Team in 2014.
Alberto Contador and Bradley Wiggins are the highest paid riders in the peloton, with annual salaries reportedly north of 4 million euros per season, so Horner’s million-euro asking price was not unreasonable for someone who had just won a grand tour.
Still, a million euros is a lot for any team. A few big names, such as Chris Froome and Fabian Cancellara, are correspondingly big earners. Lesser lights, such as the Schleck brothers (who reportedly have taken a steep pay cut going into 2014) or Joaquim Rodríguez, can earn between 1 million and 2 million euros per season. And a core group of a few dozen riders draws 400,000 to 800,000 euros per season.
But the numbers drop off quickly from there. On every team with two or three big earners, the other riders are paid considerably less.
RadioShack general manager Luca Guercilena told VeloNews last week that price was the breaking point in the Horner negotiations. Guercilena also confirmed that Trek’s roster for 2014 is closed, so there’s no chance for Horner to cut a final-hour deal with the team.
40s are not the new 30s in cycling
There’s no peloton for old men — not for those asking for a paycheck with a lot of zeros at the end, anyway.
Horner’s age — he celebrated his 42nd birthday last month —certainly doesn’t help. And he himself admitted that one bad crash could end his career. Younger riders have time to overcome injuries and make a comeback. A rider in his early 40s lives and races for the here and now.
Age is not a handicap that cannot be overcome. Riders are competing longer than ever, thanks to better training, improved recovery, and fewer race days. Horner is living proof of that.
In fact, Trek re-signed three other veterans — Jens Voigt, Haimar Zubeldia, and Danilo Hondo — for the 2014 season. The charismatic Voigt is almost a brand unto himself; the strength of his personality and experience brings added value to the team.
Other older riders prove helpful as experienced road captains, among them Karsten Kroon, who re-upped with Saxo Bank to help in the classics. But those riders are earning dramatically less than what Horner is hoping for.
Another stumbling block in Horner’s path toward a good deal is a glutted marketplace.
Several major teams hit the skids, including Euskaltel and Vacansoleil at the WorldTour level, leaving dozens of pros scrambling for rides.
The 2008 Olympic champion, Samuel Sánchez, is among those facing early ends to their careers. Juan Antonio Flecha and MIkel Astarloza both decided to call it quits.
By the time Horner was lighting up the Vuelta in September, it was getting very late in a transfer season that was overrun with riders desperate for a deal.
Teams had already locked up their top recruits and stars, so if there was any money left, it was typically going into picking up riders on the cheap (Thomas De Gendt, who rode to third at the 2012 Giro, said he took an 80 percent pay cut), or signing younger riders with future prospects.
On top of that, teams are also slowly ratcheting down the number of riders on payroll, especially with a trend toward fewer race days over the coming few years. Most teams are settling around 26 to 28 riders, resulting in two to four fewer spots per team.
No WorldTour crunch
Another twist in the Horner tale is that the UCI points he earned for his victory in the Vuelta are largely useless as a bargaining chip.
Riders’ points are an important part of how WorldTour licenses are doled out, and so teams ordinarily court riders packing lots of them.
Horner ended the 2013 season ranked 13th, with 257 points — ahead of such riders as Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Bauke Mollema (Belkin) — and typically, those points would prove invaluable to teams looking to secure a place in the 18-squad WorldTour league.
Indeed, had Horner won the Vuelta a year ago, he could have taken his pick of teams.
This time last year, squads were desperate for points to secure a WorldTour license, which includes start guarantees in all the big races, the biggest being the Tour de France. Teams like Euskaltel-Euskadi were even poaching riders from the Pro Continental league as they scrambled for points to help push them over the top.
What a difference a year makes. The collapse of both Euskaltel and Vacansoleil-DCM, two WorldTour teams from 2013, and the decision by Pro Continental teams IAM Cycling and Team Colombia to not make a bid for the WorldTour, means that there is no competition for one of the 18 licenses.
Without that dogfight for a WorldTour license, Horner’s UCI points have lost most of their monetized value.
And finally there are nagging doubts about Horner’s past and present.
Some just couldn’t get their heads around how a rider pushing 42 could win the Vuelta. Others wondered about his past. Horner raced throughout the EPO era, and, fairly or unfairly, anyone who rode in those days is under suspicion.
To combat those doubts, Horner released his biological data in a move to quash the gossip.
Whether this helped or hurt Horner’s cause is difficult to say, but teams are vetting riders more than ever.
Speaking of questions: What’s next?
Securing a contract each year is a bit like musical chairs. Sometimes riders are caught out, and that’s what’s happened to Horner this year.
It’s not too late to sign a deal for 2014, and Horner is certainly still hoping to find a ride. He told VeloNews during the Vuelta that he believes he can race at least two more seasons at a top level.
At this point, Horner would be willing to join just about any team that would offer him a ride, including second-tier Pro Continental teams with a chance to ride some choice European races.
Horner is a popular and endearing character, the ultimate survivor, adapting and evolving with the times. His racing acumen and savvy tactics put him in elite company, and his Vuelta victory was a crowning moment of his legendary career.
A few weeks ago, he publicly vented on Twitter about his inability to secure a deal, recounting how he was forced to race on pauper’s wages to stay in the peloton, even racing as a freelancer.
Unfortunately for Horner and his legion of fans, he won’t be allowed to race the Tour as a privateer.