I caught up with Astana’s Chris Horner at the Merco Cycling Classic races held on the first weekend of March, in Merced, California.
The 36 year old Horner was just sitting on the sidewalk, finishing up his lunch and cheering on the women, including his girlfriend, racing in the criterium when I sat down and we held an impromptu interview.
Horner finished second in the Merco Cycling Classic Men’s criterium after his pulled his two breakaway companions for a few laps so that the trio could lap the field and set up a chaotic sprint. Getting back to crit riding was not a problem for Horner. “I’ve been a crit rider for my whole life more than anything. If you grew up in the States, that’s what you are, if you don’t ride crits then you don’t make a living.”
Lyne Lamoureux (LL): How are you feeling? (note: Chris was sick in Tour of California like a lot of riders)
Chris Horner (CH): Not as sick as I was anyways. Still a little sick, not too bad, doing okay. It’s the same, it’s never got really deep in the lungs, it’s there, coughing up some phlegm but it hasn’t affected the breathing a lot, it just causes a lot of coughing.
LL: So why are you in Merced?
CH: I’ve got a month in between California and Vuelta a Castilla y Leon in Spain so it was better to do another here in California because I knew it was going to be sunny here after the Tour of California so I came here, my girlfriend is racing here then I can race two days too and keep the legs a little bit fresher going into Spain.
LL: How was the form going into Tour of California?
CH: It was good, everything considered. I had a lot of problems, I had a knee issue and it was holding my training up a lot but I was down in San Diego since the first of January before (Tour of) California and the weather was really good up until (Tour of) California anyways. Luckily the last week before Tour of California, we had warm weather in San Diego so the knee pains stop and I was doing a lot of acupuncture and stuff and that seemed to help it. Acupuncture seemed to be doing the trick more than anything.
LL: Is this your first time with knee pains?
CH: No, it happens all the time. At the beginning of the season, it’s so normal. But it was a little more than normal or it lasted longer anyways.
|Chris Horner – Stage 5, ITT, Tour of California, Photo by Ken Conley|
LL: How do you feel about ASO not allowing Astana in the races?
CH: Its’ the wrong way to do it, it’s politics. So they’re letting politics get involved in sports and certainly there is no drug issue related to this team. This is a completely new team, it’s new management, it’s new riders, this is a sponsor that sponsored a team last year and stopped that sponsorship of that team and started a new one. Because we carry the same name they use that as an excuse but it’s politics.
LL: So what does this mean for you personally? It’s impacting your calendar tremendously.
CH: Absolutely affecting a lot of races. I had Paris-Nice, we shouldn’t even be here doing this interview, I should be home for a couple of days and then be flying to Paris-Nice right now and instead I love Paris-Nice, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Flèche Wallonne and Tour de France. That’s a big part of my program.
I am affected by this, one of the most. Some of the classics guys lost Paris-Roubaix and that’s a big impact, but that’s one day of racing. I lost 20, 30 plus days of racing or so, yeah that’s a big hole. But there are still a lot of good races, Tour of Suisse, Pays-Basque which is one of the best stage races in Spain and then Romandie and of course I got to do Tour of California too so….
LL: How do you stay motivated with all this going on?
CH: It’s not hard, staying motivated. I’m still doing Tour of Suisse, I’m still doing a bunch of good races. Without a doubt, I’d like to do the Tour again but it is what it is. It’s not too bad of a lifestyle to tell you the truth (chuckles), doing just California, Tour of Suisse, Pays-Basque and stuff like that, it’s a good program to stay motivated for so. But it does change… it does change when I’m flying out and when I’m flying back so it does change a bunch of things that way. So mentally you have to readjust.
LL: So, you’re not a young guy anymore….
CH: Yeah, I’m one of the old dudes (laughs)
LL: So how many more years do you want to keep on doing this?
CH: Two or three in Europe maybe. Maybe some back here in the States. I enjoy racing in the States. It would be nice to come back and race a couple of years back in the States so… I could be pretty far from retiring that’s for certain, but definitely I’m not far from being old (laughs) but I’m still kind of far from retiring but we’ll see.
LL: So age is relative.
CH: Yeah, it’s all relative. It would be nice to get two years in Europe, this year and next year. After that I’m not certain, but two would be good. I’d like to be home too and race in the States, I can keep on racing my bike and see my family more too.
LL: Tell me how hard it was for you to adjust when going to Europe
CH: It was a huge adjustment. Really I try not to adjust, I try to live the same lifestyle over there that I do here. I really do. I gave up trying to adjust a long time ago. When I did three years with Francaise des Jeux and I couldn’t adjust to the culture and language and just the lifestyle in general was too hard. Now I don’t adjust. I just go over there and I bring my computer and my movies and I have my cell phone, I have my own place over there and a car, so you have to a little bit, but I don’t have to adjust too much because when I have big blocks of time off, I fly back to the States. I think what makes someone very good at their jobs is knowing their limitations of what they can and can’t do. And I think one of my limitations is I can’t adjust living in Europe, so I know not to spend too much time there.
LL: What about food, especially as you are known for liking your burgers?
CH: (laughs) It’s hard to adjust that way. That is a difficult thing, but it’s not impossible. The food is probably one of the easier thing to adjust to, with the exception of when you’re racing and you’re at a hotel, because sometimes they don’t feed you too good in those places but aside from that, eating in Spain, the food is really good and you can find something to eat for sure.
LL: Have you noticed any changes in the racing in the US?
CH: It looks like it’s still the same. You have a handful, five, six big teams racing against each other, battling. Last year it looks like the competition was pretty deep and not one team dominated it all maybe it will be a bit different, but last year looked to me that way, at least on paper anyways. No one dominant rider, so a lot of teams sharing the victories. Looks like the pay is pretty decent in the States from what it’s been in the past, that might have changed a little bit. But aside from that I’d say it’s pretty status quo, it’s healthy but it could be better at times and it seems that one good race comes, and one good race goes.
There’s always just that handful of good races in the States. If you look at just when my career started, if all those good races were still around, you wouldn’t have to race in Europe, you could just stay here in the States, you’d be doing stuff like Tour of California every week.
LL: So do you think it will ever settle down in Europe, the UCI vs ASO?
CH: It has to, it really has to. There has to be, they have to allow x amount of teams guaranteed into the Tour de France because that’s the way you can go find the big sponsors. So, if you have, let’s just say the number is 15 instead of 20 like it was – it should be 20 in my book but you know there’s always difference of opinions – so let’s just say it’s 15 but there has to be a number that they guarantee to allow to be in the Tour de France because that’s the way you go get the big sponsors. But if you look at last year, Unibet, that was a good sponsor, it’s thirty jobs for riders, it’s 50 to 60 jobs total, now that sponsor is gone. Why are they gone? They weren’t guaranteed a spot in the Tour. That sponsor wasted all his money during the year, he didn’t get the races that he wanted and so that sponsor is gone. Now you have Gerolsteiner, their sponsorship is up this year and they have to find a new sponsor so they’re going to look for a new sponsor and they can’t guarantee a spot in the Tour, how do they ask for fifteen million?
You have Astana that had a really bad year last year, there’s no denying that, they had a lot of problems, but the sponsor changed everything with the team but stayed in the sport and is employing a lot of cyclists and a lot of people in the sport and now they’re not guaranteed a spot in the Tour, we probably won’t go and so how do you tell them, stay around for a few more years because this part is great.
So these are problems that have to be taken care of and they can get taken care so quickly but none of the riders will stay together, none of the teams will stay together and whatever team got into the Tour de France because they got our spot, they’re just happy to be there, and the big teams that are in there, are just happy to be there. As long as the teams don’t stay together, the riders don’t stay together then there’s never going to be…. it will never be the NFL.
LL: Will the riders ever get together?
CH: Some day they will. There has to be some kind of union at the very least. But right now, to be honest, one rider is happy to make 10 Euros more than the next, and as long as you’re happy to only make 10 Euros instead of ten thousands or hundred thousands or something like that because all the riders could be paid better, all the teams could have better financial support and could find bigger sponsors if they run the sport better. But as long as they keep running the sport the way they are, the things going on will continue to go on.
LL: It was very tough last year with the contracts…
CH: Yeah, by the skin of my teeth, I had a great season last year and I was really stubborn, I refused to sign for less than the minimum of what I thought I was worth and I’m telling the readers that I was signed for the minimum of what I was worth and I refused to take less and I was going to come back to the States if I couldn’t find anything. And then luckily, Johan (Bruyneel) came through really big time for me and he got me the money that I wanted on a team that I wanted to be on. But it was last minute, that was laaaast minute. The riders are funny because, as long as they keep fighting like they are, not being as one, what’s really going to suffer is that next year you’re going to have two teams possibly not in the sport and then you’re going to have another 60 riders unemployed. Even the ones who do get jobs are going to get less of what they could have gotten and then a lot of guys won’t get jobs at all.
That’s what the riders have to realize, everybody that has a job right now is happy but they can’t see that next year they might not have one. And they certainly can’t see two or three years down the line.
LL: Everybody keeps repeating that there’s no money in the sport….
CH: If the organizers start looking at it like a business… I mean I can’t believe at this point that the Tour de France, just the TV people don’t go up to the ASO organizers and go ‘no, we’re not going to have this, Astana will be in the race’. TV in general , just the people who are going to advertise are going to loose viewing people out of this. So why does one sponsor want to throw in a couple of million dollars to sponsor something on tv when there are half the spectators watching it because the Astana team didn’t get in. Because this is the most dominant Tour de France team for awhile, you can’t argue with Lance Armstrong, and this team is every bit as good as his team was in the past and of course, it’s run by the same guy so there’s probably a reason for that. It’s crazy to pull this team out, it just doesn’t make any sense. There’s no justification for it whatsoever, this is a new team.
LL: With all this going on, are you still enjoying riding?
CH: You kidding me (laughs) All this crap has been there all my career, this is nothing new. For the first ten years of my career, I tried to do the Tour de France and always missed it for one reason or another. And then luckily, I got to do it three times. And now I’m going to miss it for a dumb reason. I had opportunities with Mercury to do the Tour de France, and that team really should have gone, and they didn’t go. I had opportunities with Francaise des Jeux to go, and the first year I wasn’t fit, the second year I was injured and the third year I had a baby due, so I missed it for those. Then I got stuck riding in the States for more years that I really wanted to do, just because no one had any faith that I could go back over and ride in Europe. And then I get over to Europe and now we’re back to having problems again. But this is nothing for me, I’ve done my whole career with some kind of drama or another attached to it.
Chris Horner having fun at the Merco Cycling Classic Crit, Photo by Lyne Lamoureux