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When Floyd Landis and David Zabriskie are among your compatriots in the peloton, it's quite an achievement to earn a reputation as one of the most colourful characters in the American delegation at the Tour de France. Colourful, though, is exactly how you describe Saunier Duval's Chris Horner who, at 33, is the oldest Tour dbutant in this year's race.
This isn't the first time that Horner has been to France. At the beginning of 1997, Horner was coming off a bumper, eight-win season with the American Nutra-Fig outfit and appeared to have found the perfect vehicle to launch his European career at the ambitious, newly-founded Francaise des Jeux team. Three years later, Horner would return to the States with no victories but several harshly-learned lessons to show for his time in pro cycling's university of life. One anecdote from a reliable American source sums up the Japan-born Horner's experience in France: "You know what, they all speak French," he apparently said after one particularly frustrating day.
Now having his second bite of the European cherry, Horner's linguistic skills may not have improved, but his results so far this season indicate that his resolve has toughened considerably. "Nobody knows what goes on in my head because I don't speak Spanish properly," Horner, speaking to procycling before the Tour's third stage, joked in La Chataigneraie this morning. "I'm sure everyone thinks I'm just really quiet or dumb, like they did at Francaise des Jeux. But if I sign a contract in Europe next year, I'll sign up to a Spanish class when I go back to the States."
Horner's last sentence is indicative of the former Tour de Langkawi champion's new-found confidence in his ability to cut it in the European elite. In June, Horner had been back in action for just over two weeks after a three-month absence with a broken leg when he won a mountainous stage at the Tour of Switzerland. It was this win which ultimately left Saunier Duval boss Mauro Gianetti with little choice but to hand Horner a long-awaited Tour de France dbut.
"I'm having a great time," Horner beamed this morning. "There's so much going on. In the time trial on Saturday [Horner finished in 53rd place, 2-01 adrift of winner David Zabriskie], it was hard just to zone in and ignore what was happening at the side of the road. And yesterday, after the break went, if it had been any other race you would have spent the rest of the day at the back and just cruised on in. Even the leaders would be chatting at the back, having a Coke, then moving up with around 30km to go. But this is the Tour, and as you saw yesterday, it's just curb-to-curb warfare all the way for 180km because everyone wants to be at the front to avoid the crashes. But then that's also what causes the crashes. It's a bit dumb when you think about it."
Horner, an accomplished rider on all terrain, has been given carte blanche at the Tour by a Saunier Duval team with no obvious candidates for overall success. "The team is going to let me do my thing until the first mountain stage then see how my legs are. If like they were at the Tour of Switzerland, I'll aim for a high finish on GC," Horner said today. "A high finish means top 10. If I started slipping out of the top 10, then I'd go for stage victories and start being more aggressive on the flat. Unfortunately, I'm sure we'll lose more time tomorrow [in the 67.5km team time trial between Tours and Blois] and I'll probably be around five minutes down going into the mountains. But then they might let me get away in the mountains and if I win a stage, I'll start moving up the GC again and you're back in the race."
With countryman Zabriskie the star of the race so far alongside Tom Boonen - and Lance Armstrong looking menacing - a good performance from Horner could be the gilt on a golden Tour for US cycling. Thus far, Horner is far from surprised at Zabriskie's and Armstrong's fast start.
"Dave showed at the Giro how he can time trial. He should have been on most people's list of favourites. He certainly looks like the future star of American cycling, but then that's been the case for a few years. I can remember how tough he made it for me when I won the Redlands Classic in 2000. He beat me in the time trial and came out of nowhere with great climbing legs the next day on the mountain top finish. I can remember saying then that he was America's next cycling superstar. It just took the guy a bit of time. People don't realise what we Americans give up to come over here and race. It seems like Dave has finally found his niche at CSC. If he had stayed at Postal, I don't even know if he would be here.
"As for Lance, I'm not at all surprised by his performance in the time trial. Look at the form he had in Georgia and consider that he still had two months to get ready for the Tour. You can do anything with your form in a month and a half, as long as you have the base, which Lance always has."
Horner went on to tip Discovery Channel to win Tuesday's team time trial.
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