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Daniel McMahon / Yuzuru Sunada
At the beginning of the season things looked promising for Chris Horner. Having taken his greatest victory in September at the Tour of Spain, the American showed that when the stars align — a phrase Horner is fond of using — he is still, at 41, among the best stage racers in the world, age be damned. At the Vuelta, Horner became the oldest rider to ever win a Grand Tour by climbing as well as, if not better than, some of the top riders racing bikes today, notably runner-up Vincenzo Nibali, who’d won the Giro d’Italia three months earlier. And although his Trek team announced quite surprisingly that it was not renewing the Vuelta winner’s contract for this year, Horner managed to negotiate a one-year deal with the Italian Lampre-Merida outfit. That in itself was impressive, if only because Horner was likely looking for a robust salary and the team would have to shell out good money for a rider about twice the age of up-and-coming talents who’d sign for a fraction of Horner’s salary. And yet Horner, one of the oldest riders in professional cycling, secured a ride for 2014. After nearly 20 years racing pro, he was still kicking ass and taking names, as he himself might put it.
Yes, Horner faced some setbacks early in the season. He had tendinitis, for one, and abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya, races he normally likes to perform really well at. But he remained hopeful that with some good rest and recovery he’d be back to top form soon enough. And because Lampre is an Italian team, it looked as if Horner would be one of its protected riders at the Giro, a race he genuinely looked forward to preparing for with his new team. If that didn’t work out, for whatever reason, there was still the Tour de France to race and a Vuelta title to defend.
Things were looking pretty good.
But on Friday afternoon, April 11, in a small town near Lake Como, Italy, that season, so full of promise, was interrupted in a dark tunnel when a man driving a Land Rover struck Horner, knocking him clean off his bike and nearly killing him. “I’m retired!” was the first thing that Horner says he remembered thinking immediately after realizing he’d been hit. This week, as Horner spoke with peloton by phone from Italy about his difficult season so far, he characterized his hellish half-hour ordeal in that ill-lighted passage simply as “bad circumstances.”
Horner ended up in the hospital for several days with severely fractured ribs, a punctured lung, and cuts galore. A flashing few seconds put his career in doubt, at least for a while, and led many to wonder if his career was finally over.
Horner had been out on a long training ride near the scenic shores of Lake Como, where there are several tunnels that cut through the mountains in that area. Horner was enjoying his time in cycling-mad Italy and was looking forward to the upcoming races. As he entered one tunnel he saw there was some construction off to his right. Pretty quickly he also realized the tunnel he’d entered was “not necessarily for bikes,” he says. He had apparently misinterpreted a sign saying as much, albeit in Italian, a language he does not speak fluently. And though there were some lights shining as he entered the tunnel, the passage quickly grew darker as he pedaled along a narrow lane with plenty of traffic around him. His eyes didn’t have time to adjust to the darkness, and it quickly became a bad scene. Then, without any warning, Horner says “an older gentleman driving a Land Rover nailed me with his right side mirror, basically running up on my left side.” Horner ricocheted off the wall of the tunnel as the driver just kept going, never realizing he’d hit someone, so he later reportedly told police. Horner says, in his practical way, that his potentially career-ending accident was just a series of “bad circumstances.”
But having picked himself up off the ground, he wasn’t out of harm’s way. Because there was no cellphone reception in the tunnel, there was no way for anyone to call for help. Horner knew he had to get back on his bike and ride the rest of the tunnel. It was at that point he realized he was bleeding excessively. All he could think about was getting out of the tunnel as soon as possible.
Apparently, the few people who had stopped for Horner had some sort of miscommunication, in Italian, and Horner was left alone to ride out of the tunnel. All the while, traffic kept still moving at full speed. “Luckily I was thinking clearly enough to get up and ride my bike out of that tunnel, which was an effort,” Horner says. “As I exited, the people who had waited for me in the tunnel were there, and the ambulance showed up shortly afterward. The whole ordeal lasted about 25 minutes. And, man, it was a mess. It was pretty impressive.”
At this point Horner’s voice becomes more serious-sounding.
“OK, the first thought was, there’s blood everywhere. Then it was to get off the road in the tunnel as soon as possible. I was just hoping the cars were going to stop coming. Then I wanted to make sure I hand’t broken a leg or hand. It was a matter of letting my wife know what happened and then my team. As I was picking myself off the ground I was hoping I didn’t have any bones sticking out of my legs, which could be the end of your career. After you spend a few days in the ER you realize, ‘OK, this stuff will heal and I’ll be fine. Now we just gotta change the program.’ But as you’re lying there on the road, you start to wonder about the rest of your career.”
Horner knows how to handle his bike as well as the next pro. But when you’re riding along and a car hits you from behind, or from the side, there’s not much you can do about it.
Horner has been back in Italy for about 10 days now, having spent the past several weeks in the U.S. receiving further treatment for his injuries and recovering in Bend, Oregon, where his family lives and where he has one of his two homes (the other is in San Diego). In Como, he’s been doing big training rides again with no real issues, he tells peloton. But he’s still not quite able to train 100%. “I can’t really get on the power yet. I did a 100 miles yesterday and 100 the day before, so I can train pretty normally, but I don’t have power to really yank and pull on the upper body the way that would be necessary for top-end speed. The ribs were spiral fractures. The breaks were really sharp and pointy. But I can go out and ride the bike.”
It’s still too early to tell what Lampre’s summer program for Horner will be. The Tour de Suisse is coming up, but that looks a little too ambitious given the circumstances. Of course the Tour de France comes after that. “The ideal scenario is three weeks,” Horner says. “Two weeks is a little soon to be at Suisse. But honestly, I’ve never broken the ribs this bad. I mean, I’ve probably cracked ribs every other year if not every year of my career, but I’ve never had the spiral fractures and I’ve never punctured a lung before, so I’m not sure how long it’s going to take to recover.”
For the moment Horner knows he can go out and train, which, depending on how you look at it, isn’t bad considering things could have gone much worse back in that tunnel.
“I got a lot of faith in the team right now,” Horner says, “and they’ve got 100% faith in me. From the time of the accident to the time I arrived at the hospital, I had the team doctor and soigneur and others looking after me around the clock. They got to the emergency room before I even got there.”
Is defending the Vuelta title still the biggest goal?
“Yes, absolutely. I don’t think my accident will have an effect on the Vuelta this year. I’m not worried about it. The immediate thing is I’d like to get back to racing as soon as I can. If I can get back to the Tour, good. If I can get back to some racing before that it’d be even better. I’m already set to do Utah and the Vuelta, which is clearly far enough out that there would be no issue there. And actually my sense sitting on the phone with you right now is that I should be able to ride in the Tour de France 100%.”
As for next year, Horner says he hasn’t given it much thought. “You have to ride good in order to renew your contract. That’s basic knowledge. Clearly I’ve enjoyed the time with the team, and the team has treated me very well, so it’s a nice place to stay and a nice place to renew. I can’t speak for the team at this point, and of course just five weeks ago I was sitting in the emergency room. Right now it’s more about getting back to bike racing than worrying about what’s going on next year.
“I’d like to keep racing my bike. Of course you need to know you have the results. I just need to go into the next races and ride well and work out contract details later.”
If Horner is known for anything it’s his tactical nous and racecraft. Many say no one reads a race quite like him. And while Horner’s accident in a dark tunnel has proved to be a considerable setback, his greatest challenge looks like it’s still to come: climbing back to the top of pro cycling.