Why do people like Chris Horner? Because at age 39, he’s not only an amazing rider but he’s generous with his time and has a terrific sense of humor. We talked to him by phone on a Saturday after the Tour of Califronia as part of an upcoming Cyclesport magazine article.
It was a fun conversation and Horner was laughing thru most of it. He’s candid, not afraid to speak his mind and always good for a chuckle. That makes him a pretty rare guy in a cycling world where riders are often too careful about what they say to anyone with a recording device.
TS: Chris, Tell me about Baldy. Just seems like it was poetic justice that a 39 year old bald guy wins the Tour of California on Baldy.
CH: I knew Levi and I were gonna win in California one way or another unless we had some bad luck. When I rode the Baldy climb, I was excited because it worked really well for the two of us.
TS: Lots of talk about the changing of the guard in US cycling but you’re not ready to ride to the assisted living retirement home.
CH: The press wants something new, I understand that. I mean those young kids are riding good, they have great results but the old guard has better results.
TS: That young guy Tejay was pretty vocal about aiming to win in California. Was that extra motivation?
CH: I had a lot of motivation to win but it wasn’t Tejay that gave me the deep motivation.
Tejay’s quote I liked. I thought it was good for a young kid to come out and say that. I think it’s good for his confidence. It’s good because sometimes you have to put some stress on yourself. I think that’s what he was doing. He’s gonna win Cali one of these days.
TS: Chris, you are almost 40 years old. How do you stay at such a high level?
CH: Everybody’s made a whole lot of things about being 40. Of course when you look at the past, there’s not too many guys who are 40 but it’s not unheard of either. Certainly it’s rare. First off, because the real champion guys who are 30, 35, winning the Tour de France, I think they just stop riding. I don’t think that they couldn’t win at 40, they just chose to retire because they got enough money in the bank and they can do whatever they want and they’re kinda burned out on cycling
Then when you look at the guys who aren’t at my category level that are paid less and they’re not getting quite the results, then they decide when they get in their 30’s, they want kids, they want to make the family bigger or make a little bit more money and so they decide to retire for those reasons.
You have to find a guy with the right combination. A guy who’s super motivated and who is making enough money to justify staying in cycling versus putting on a suit.
TS: You gotta have the love…
CH: What you have with me is, I love my bike, always have, there’s nothing else I wanna do. And I get good money to do it so I’m not putting on a suit to make more money and I’m certainly not going to like it as much. I have no reason to leave the sport, I love the sport.
TS: How long can you go, realistically, still riding at a high level, winning big races?
CH: Five more years. At this point in time, I’m getting faster and faster each year so I don’t think I’m gonna wake up and go slower. So I assume I’m gonna hold this form for a few more years then it will start to slow down. But I don’t see suddenly losing 100 watts off my SRM. I see doing five more years in Europe and then it’s time to start backing off.
The other factor is, do I have an injury, do I crash, do I hurt something that you just can’t recover from? I can’t predict that. If I break my leg and I’m not recovering from it real fast, maybe that’s when you call it because it takes you six months to recover. Assuming I’m healthy and have no accidents, I don’t see why I couldn’t go five more years.
TS: You’re a genetic freak. You’re physiologically gifted. Is there one thing that you can point to in particular that explains your performance at 39?
CH: I’m aware of what my limitations are. I don’t try to push over them, I don’t try to overtrain or drink too much or eat too much or go play around too much or hang out at the beach too much or barbecue too much. I’m aware of my limitations.
I’m 100% clear that there’s no room to go out and party all night and wake up and do a stage race. And I’m 100% clear that if I’m in the middle of a stage race, I don’t drink a bottle of wine that night and then race the next morning. There’s a lot of things that experience brings you and one of them is I know exactly what my limitations are.
I know if I wanna race my bike for the next five years, there’s gonna be some sacrifices. That when I was 25 or 30 I could party all night and still wake up and race good. Then you could get away with riding bad, too. Because the other things is, if you’re 40 and you ride bad for three races, all of a sudden, people are gonna say “whoa, the age is starting to get to him” versus hey, maybe I was just drinking too much. So you don’t want that to start happening either. Every race I go to, I ride good.
TS: It’s crazy, to ride the way you’re riding, it sounds like you have no limitations.
CH: ( LAUGHS) No limitations in how fast I can go but lots on limitations on plenty of things. I can’t go out motorcycling with the kids all day long. If I take the kids motorcycling, I start the bikes but then I hang out at the RV while they’re toddling around. Once they crash, I pick their bikes up again and get them started instead of getting on my own bike and doing an hour and a half of moto-ing and then trying to train the next day.
TS: Been reading about your improved diet. Radio Shack physiologist Allen Lim said you used to be the Big Mac guy. When was the last time you were at Mickey D’s?
CH: I can’t remember the last time I had a Big Mac. I had an In & Out burger after the Tour of California.
TS: You were lean and mean in Cali this year.
CH: I don’t want to stay this thin the whole year. I wonder if there are side effects to it. I don’t think it’s good to be this thin in the winter. After the tour, there’s no more big 20-30k climbs. There’s nothing on my radar that’s super, super important.
My goals for the season were clear: I wanted to win the Basque country, have a very good classics campaign and I wanted to do the Tour de France good. Then the team said we’d rather have you really good at California. So I said I can’t do the classics and then my program changed to trying to win Basque country, trying to win Cali and trying to win something at the tour. So I’ve achieved my first two results and now I’m after the third. The rest of the reason I can go back up to 143 pounds where it’s not as difficult to diet — at that weight I think you stay a little healthier.
TS: People always mention your enthusiasm, your joy as the thing that keeps you keeps you going. Can you tell me what that feeling is?
CH: Just being outside, just riding under the sun on my bike. I don’t want to be on a bike when it’s raining and miserable but if it’s sunny, I don’t’ need a training partner to go out and do a six hour training ride. In fact I do most of my training by myself all year. I can go out 5-6 hours and just be calm and relaxed.
TS: Is that a sense of freedom, happiness, the free bikes…
CH: I thinks it’s calm. I think a lot of times during the day people wonder, what they’re doing in the world, you know what I mean? That’s what you’re asking yourself but when you’re on a bike, you’re never asking yourself that question.
TS: After winning the Tour of California, you’re were pretty cocky in the media with the Tour de France predictions…
CH: (LAUGHS) No, not cocky — I was just telling you what was gonna happen.
TS: Yeah, okay, so tell me true, the deep secret you haven’t told anybody else. How high can you go?
CH: With 100% confidence, top five. Yeah, absolutely. I don’t think anybody can go as fast up a climb as what Alberto can do. And I haven’t seen anybody go as fast up a climb as what Andy did in July. Any other time of year, any other period in Andy’s life, I’ve never been afraid of riding against Andy when we’ve reached the climb.
I’ve never been like “Oh God, I’m gonna get dropped, there’s Andy.” Last July, I was like “Oh God, I’m gonna get dropped, there’s Andy.” With Alberto, no whatever what time of year, it’s like “Oh my God, I hope he’s not on form or I’m gonna get dropped.” That happens at 99% of the races that Alberto is at.
But there’s nobody else that I worry about. There’s nobody else that scares me. There’s nobody else that attacks and “Oh God, I can’t follow that.” There’s nobody in the mountains that scares me other than Alberto and Andy in July. So I think a podium spot is available. If I time trial really well, the podium is definitely available. If not, the top five’s available.
TS: You skipped the US championships to do some sponsor work. So what, you were giving people rides in the new Nissan Leaf?
CH: I’m waiting for Nissan to send me the GTR and then I’m gonna ride it around my neighborhood so everybody wants to buy one. The GTR is their fastest production car ever — it’s the opposite of the Leaf. It’s a monster that goes zero to sixty in like three seconds.
TS: So okay, nothing too exhausting …
CH: I had to fly over to Michigan and have dinner with some of the sponsors and then they have one of their engineering centers there. So they got 100 riders and me and Levi together and we rode for 40 miles with them and then we flew back. It was really quick and easy and harmless. Nissan knew we had the Tour de France coming up so they kept it pretty short and sweet. It was really just to give their engineers a chance to hang out with us before the Tour.
TS: Last question. You’re 39, talking the big talk about top five, maybe a tour podium. What’s your message for those of us in our 40’s and 50’s who love to ride?
CH: Watch this July. I’ll give you all the inspiration you need.