American pro cyclist Chris Horner's star began to rise after he won a stage of the 1996 Tour Du Pont, where another American, Motorola's Lance Armstrong, was winning his second consecutive race overall. The two racers' paths wouldn't cross again until 2004, when Horner finished third to Armstrong at the Tour of Georgia, a race Horner won in 2003.
Now the oldest racers on the Astana team, Horner and Armstrong have formed a brotherly bond going into the 2009 season, with Armstrong nicknaming Horner "Redneck". At the team's Santa Rosa camp in the lead-up to this weekend's Tour of California, we spoke to a relaxed, jovial Horner who appeared quite happy to be racing with Armstrong finally.
The 37-year-old Californian, looking comfortable in the team hotel after a 107-mile training ride in the mountains of Sonoma County, was enthusiastic about Astana's loaded quiver going into the 2009 season. He has raced every edition of the Tour of California, and after many years racing in the US and Europe, believes it to be just as high-profile for many reasons.
"I think it's great for American cycling in general," he said among the buzz of interviews around us in the hotel conference room. "For me personally, it means my family can come watch me race. I grew up in San Diego, just bought a house there, went to school there and have a history there.
"I'm primarily a European-based racer, so racing in California means my mom, girlfriend, kids and friends can see me race first-hand. The crowds are always fantastic. It's not a race that makes or breaks my career, but it's important. I've raced all three editions, twice for Lotto and once for Astana."
The super-domestique, known as a trustworthy all-rounder, helped Cadel Evans at Predictor-Lotto take second in the 2007 Tour de France while finishing 15th himself. He also helped Levi Leipheimer win his second Tour of California in 2008. But how does it compare to racing a week-long stage race in Europe?
"It's the same thing!" he said. "The Tour of California attracts the Europeans, who come and race at the same high level. Not like the Tour de France, but like the second tier races."
Getting ready to ride with the team in Santa Rosa, California
Our conversation moved to the question on many people's minds: does Astana plan to lead the race start to finish, and who is the designated team leader for California?
"No pressure to lead start to finish; just to win it," Horner said. "No one really cares if you lead it at the beginning, it's at the end that matters. We're going to work hard to win it; we have guys on the team who can win it, who have won it and are going to win it!"
Horner was equally enthusiastic about his race programme, a reflection of the faith his team directors have in his abilities to deliver the goods for the favourite riders.
"I have a great schedule this year," he said. "After the Tour of California it's on to Paris-Nice, Amstel Gold, Fleche-Wallonne, Vuelta al Pais Vasco, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Tour of Romandie, Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. I could take a good result at any one of those races and be happy.
"Certainly the goal is to help Lance win the Giro, and help one of our leaders win the Tour de France. If I could pick up a win along the way it's always fantastic.
"I already have a full plate at every race. We're racing to win the Tour of California with Lance or Levi; Paris-Nice, Alberto; Pais-Vasco, the biggest stage race in Spain next to the Vuelta, Alberto; I'll be hoping to do my own thing at Amstel, Fleche and Liege; Tour of Romandie, Andreas; Giro, Lance; and the Tour – well, I'm sure one of our guys will want to win that!"
Horner's machine, a Trek Madone 6.9 Pro with SRAM, SRM, Look and Bontrager kit
As Horner suggests, Astana has high aspirations for the year, reflected in their domination of nearly every race the team entered in 2008 after being snubbed by Amaury Sports Organisation, owners of the Tour de France and Paris-Roubaix.
"There's no rest for this team – we go into the stage races expecting to win," he said. "I went into the Tour of Lombardy last year looking for the win, but got seventh. At least my teammate Janez Brajkovic took second."
We've seen a few races in the US fall by the wayside as a result of the global economic downturn, and some smaller teams have folded. Horner's positive attitude and love for the sport helps him see through the muck and mire.
"The current climate worries me in general, but the sport of cycling will always exist," he said. "It might affect how much one gets paid or what sort of living one can make. The economy in general should worry everybody. The salary levels will change.
"Basically, if I can't find a job racing for someone, most likely there is no cycling!"
"I'm at the top tier of riding in the US and Europe. If something changes and I'm looking for a team, I could lead a domestic team or become a super-domestique for a European team like I'm doing now.
"Basically, if I can't find a job racing for someone, most likely there is no cycling. I might lose some money, but if I can feed the munchkins and pay rent, then I'm doing alright. If the economy really tanks, then we'll just all go fishin' and huntin'!"
Our interview with Horner took place after we spent the day in the Trek-Livestrong U23 team car with director Axel Merckx. So who was Horner noticing in the up-and-coming ranks of American racers?
"It's hard to say. There hasn't been a large number of riders coming up," Horner said. "Taylor Phinney and Craig Lewis come to mind. Lewis was 11th at the Tour of Lombardy – that's a big-time result. I don't think people fully understood the importance of that result. He has some talent for his age – the sky's the limit, and he's my favourite right now.
"I also raced cyclo-cross against Bjorn Selander a few years ago in Iowa – man, he puts out the power! He might be someone to keep an eye on. If he has the right director, we may see some good results.
"Some of the younger dudes from Slipstream are tearing it up as well. Daniel Holloway caught my eye a few times at Elk Grove in Illinois last year."
We move on to the inevitable question: Lance's return – good or bad thing for cycling?
"It's good!" Horner said without hesitation. "The Tour Down Under saw 100,000 more spectators who weren't there last year – how bad can that be?
"California will be unreal – Lance brings an incredible amount of people to whatever he does. He's affected so many people's lives through cancer, his motivational tool."
Horner (C) trains in Sonoma County, CA, with Armstrong (L) and Leipheimer (R)
We ask Horner about another race where he and Armstrong went toe-to-toe, the Alpine Valley stage of the 1996 Superweek Challenge in East Troy, Wisconsin. Did he win that stage?
"No, he beat me," Horner said with a grin. "Sat on my wheel, though... (laughs)! It was a spectacular race. Française des Jeux director Alain Gallopin (Astana's director) saw me light it up during a previous stage's criterium. He talked about my coming to Europe. Lance and Kevin Livingston came to the race. Lance broke the race apart, and I joined him the first time, and bridged the gap a second time. Alain noticed my effort and gave me the thumbs-up as I passed his team car. That's what got me my first big contract with Française des Jeux through 1999."
So, will Armstrong's comeback encourage more people to take up the sport?
"He's a month older than me, which makes him the oldest rider on the team," Horner said. "I think he's inspired people to ride more, but I can't vouch for how much he's inspired people to grab a license and race. He's certainly inspired people to buy more bikes – Trek would know that better than I!"
"Working for someone is a job, and if you like the guy you go deeper. I like Lance."
When we asked whether Armstrong inspires him as a rider, the outspoken California didn't hesitate to answer.
"I don't need him to inspire me!" Horner said with a huge laugh. "If he was here or not, I would still be racing my bike. I certainly love having him on the team. I got the chance to race my first Tour when he was racing for his seventh. As they say on ESPN, 'I know because I was there!'
"It's easy to work with people that you like – I normally don't need them to tell me what they need. Cadel Evans wasn't as vociferous about what he needed, but I knew what he needed. Working for someone is a job, and if you like the guy you go deeper. I like Lance."
In a sport where most riders hang up their wheels in their early 30s, 37-year-old Horner doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Even he doesn't know how many racing years he has left.
"I don't know. I love bike racing and I don't see any reason to stop and do something else," he said with a grin. "If something more entertaining comes along, I'd stop a moment to think about it, but I'm getting my best results, even after having my injuries last year. I'll leave that decision up to my legs!"
In typical Horner fashion, while the entire Tour of California Astana team drove from Santa Rosa to Sacramento on Tuesday, the enthusiastic super-domestique rode his bike over hill and dale, letting his legs do the talking.