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Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Horner climbs his way into Cali lead

By Bonnie D. Ford
ESPN.com

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The sun isn't supposed to shine on the careers of 39-year-old cyclists. Chris Horner defied that logic Wednesday to score one of the biggest wins of his lengthy career as the weather curse of the Tour of California finally lifted.

Well-protected by his RadioShack team throughout Stage 4 of the eight-day race, Horner accelerated out of a small group of leaders -- including his teammate, three-time Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer -- with about 2.5 miles to go on the finishing climb of Sierra Road. The steep ascent winds around cow pastures carpeted with waving grass and wildflowers and yields to a breathtaking view of the South Bay area at the top. It is barely 10 miles from downtown as the crow flies but seems worlds away.

Horner pulled away easily and put 1:15 into the next-closest riders: two-time Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck of Team Leopard-Trek, Australia's Rory Sutherland of the UnitedHealthcare team and Leipheimer. He has the same gap on Leipheimer in the overall standings, with the remaining riders in the top 10 all within two minutes.

Chris Horner
Chris Horner, who finished 10th overall in last year's Tour de France, holds the overall Tour of California lead after Wednesday's Stage 4.

The result reinforced the fact that this race will come down to the brutally difficult Mount Baldy uphill finish in the San Gabriel Mountains above Los Angeles on Saturday.

Leipheimer, who has never lost on the Solvang time trial course on tap for Friday, could gain some ground on Horner there, but the time gaps among the top riders are likely to be modest and could evaporate completely on the climb to Baldy. If Horner displays the same form he had Wednesday, he will wear the winner's yellow jersey after Sunday's finish in Thousand Oaks.

The hard-luck organizers of this race, who saw three of their first four host towns stiffed by wintery weather in Lake Tahoe and Squaw Valley on Sunday and Monday, got exactly what they wanted for this stage -- blue skies, a picturesque backdrop and a difference-making course.

However, they were taken to the woodshed by the voluble Horner, who came into the race declaring himself one of three valid candidates for the overall win and said he found it "insulting" he wasn't included in the group of riders invited to the pre-event news conference.

AEG Sports president Andrew Messick said Horner's absence from the news conference was an omission that shouldn't have been made. The race chose to feature Leipheimer, several other Pro Tour luminaries including Schleck and four young American riders whose stars are rising.

One of them, HTC-Highroad's Tejay Van Garderen, is leading his team at the tender age of 22. He is a legitimate dark horse for the podium based on his recent results in European stage races, with a trajectory going nowhere but up for the past season and a half.

"I think I've been underappreciated," Horner said. "I found it insulting not to be invited to the press conference ... I've done a lot of domestique work. I can see why you'd lose me in the spotlight."

But Horner has always seemed to run on his own special brand of manic energy rather than vengeful vibes. "I'm not really an angry man," he said a few minutes later. And he said he doesn't anticipate any tension between himself and Leipheimer, who could be jockeying for podium positions.

Horner said he and Leipheimer came in as co-leaders, and that the team planned to let the action on the road be dictated by who had the best legs as opposed to any predetermined pecking order.

"My whole career, and I've had a long one, my No. 1 priority has been team," Horner said. The eventual winner, he said, "doesn't matter to me, doesn't matter to the team and I can't imagine it matters to Levi."

Years ago, Horner also used to run on fast food and seemed to revel in his image as a maverick personality in the U.S. peloton. He spent three miserable seasons racing for a French team in the late '90s before returning to the domestic circuit. Continually tagged as one of the best American riders not racing in Europe, the father of three from Bend, Ore., professed himself content racing closer to home, and for a while it looked as if his competitive journey would play out there.

Then, the Spanish Saunier-Duval team gave him a shot in 2005, and Horner was able to make things work with a series of top-shelf team overseas. His best racing has come after the age of 34, and he says he pays more attention to fundamentals, such as proper nutrition, now that he's on the cusp of 40.

"My poor dog hasn't been walked enough," Horner said of his training block following two top-four finishes in Spanish stage races this spring. "My girlfriend has had to deal with a grumpy guy -- I've been hungry a lot. It was a hard five weeks and an easy 5K to the summit."

Van Garderen wasn't able to stay with the small group of top riders chasing Leipheimer and faded late, finished 2:05 behind Horner and is now 11th in the overall standings with a number of strong, experienced riders ahead of him. It wasn't a disaster by any means, but Van Garderen sets the bar high for himself and didn't try to conceal his disappointment.

"I think toward the bottom, I tried too hard to stay with the favorites," Van Garderen said. "I used too much energy. We all knew Horner was going to be in good form. He skipped the Ardennes classics to prepare for this. We knew he was motivated."

HTC wasn't able to provide Van Garderen with multiple escorts in the late going.

"We probably should have done more recon on this stage," team owner Bob Stapleton said. "It was much harder than I thought."

Garmin-Cervelo's Canadian star Ryder Hesjedal went out on a two-man breakaway on the tricky, undulating descent of Mount Hamilton three-quarters of the way through the 81.8-mile stage, which obviated the need for his team to work at the front in the short, flat section leading to the base of Sierra Road. RadioShack formed a flying wedge with 25-year-old support rider Matthew Busche setting a torrid pace at the front, blowing up the group and putting Horner in position for his successful attack.

Garmin's tactics paid off, as well, as the team has four riders sitting in the top 10.

Bonnie D. Ford covers Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.