Commentary: Three years after his Vuelta win, Chris Horner is still racing. But why?

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With the Vuelta a España underway, it’s worth remembering that just three years ago, American Chris Horner became the first American to win the race, at age 41 — the oldest Grand Tour champion in history.

Since then, Horner’s career has been in sharp decline; he hasn’t won a stage race since that day in Madrid. He finished 17th at the 2014 Tour de France, his last appearance at the sport’s biggest race.

Battling what he said is an antibiotic-resistant lung infection caused by the bacteria pseudomonas aeruginosa, Horner has only cracked the top-10 twice this year — eighth on stage 4 of the Vuelta Independencia Nacional Republica Dominicana in February and ninth overall at the Tour of Gila in May. Both top-10 placings came at UCI 2.2 stage race races, several levels below a WorldTour stage race, let alone a Grand Tour. He was 13th overall at the Tour de Beauce, in Quebec, and has been a DNF at several races this year, including the national road championship.

Yet Horner continues to race, at age 44, for lower-tier Continental teams that have not been invited to the most important races in the United States. In 2015, it was Airgas-Safeway. This year, it’s Lupus Racing.

But why? With a lung infection, a weak team, and a lack of results, isn’t it time for the elder statesman to finally hang up his wheels?

According to Horner, it’s not. Not yet.

The question was posed to him at the 2016 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah pre-race press conference: How much longer will you compete?

Sat next to Joe Dombrowski, an American GC rider nearly 20 years younger, Horner looked side-to-side with a confused look on his face, ultimately arguing that he had good form, while seemingly contradicting what it takes for an athlete to perform at a high level.

“No, I’m not struggling to find form, I’m struggling to find health,” Horner said, drawing a line between the two while describing how his lungs failed him on the Snowbird climb last year at Utah. “I don’t have a problem finding form. The legs are fantastic. I just can’t get the lungs where they need to be.”

One could argue that if a rider “doesn’t have a problem with finding form” and his legs are “fantastic,” then he should be at the front of the race, racing for the win.

It didn’t happen in Utah. Horner finished 15th overall and never factored into the GC battle on the mountain stages. He told CyclingTips his lungs “weren’t good” the last few days of the race.

When Horner signed with Airgas-Safeway, after a 2014 season spent with Lampre-Merida, it was assumed his palmares would guarantee invitations to the biggest races in the U.S. That didn’t happen. The Amgen Tour of California, a race Horner won in 2011, did not invite Horner’s teams in 2015 or 2016; last year, he said he “couldn’t believe it,” adding “They’ve obviously done harm to the race by not bringing me.” Airgas was also not invited to the 2015 USA Pro Challenge; Colorado stage race was not held this year.

The Lupus Racing squad, including Horner, will take the start of the UCI 2.1 Tour of Alberta next week. Thus far, the team’s best result in 2016 was a stage win for Bryan Lewis at the Canadian stage race Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay, a race Horner started but did not finish.

Asked if he feels he’s occupying the spot of an up-and-coming rider by riding for a small Continental team, Horner said that wasn’t the case.

“No, I’m not taking anybody’s place, because nobody does what I do,” Horner said after the final stage of the Tour of Utah. “Nobody has the tactical skills like I have. I teach the young kids, I ride in the front group, I speak well with the press, as you know, so when someone says I’m taking someone’s job, they’re stupid. Nobody does my job. I’m one of the few that do it.”

There’s no question that Horner is tactically astute; countless riders have cited him as one of the peloton’s savviest tacticians.

There’s also no question that Horner’s results have declined the past few years — he was second overall at Utah in 2014, and fifth overall last year. Several rounds of antibiotics have not helped with his lung infection, which has persisted for two years. Father time is no longer on Horner’s side.

It’s been three years since Horner beat Vincenzo Nibali to win the Vuelta a España — a victory that raised questions about how a 41-year-old, who had never before reached a Grand Tour podium, could beat a Giro d’Italia champion 13 years younger. His last stage-race podium finish was at the 2014 Tour of Utah.

In July, in an interview with The Bulletin, the local newspaper in Horner’s hometown of Bend, Oregon, Horner said he’s contemplating retirement, but “not yet.”

“At this age, you wake up in the morning and it’s always hard getting out of bed,” Horner said. “You go out and mow the lawn and the next day it’s hard getting out of bed. I’m factoring in all these things daily. On the bike I could be factoring it in every 10 minutes. Am I ready to retire? Nope, not yet. Maybe. Not yet.”

Given his passion for racing, and wealth of knowledge, perhaps it’s time for him to become a team director?

“You could put in resumes, but you don’t always get the job,” Horner told CyclingTips, when asked about the next chapter in his career. “Everything in life is the same way.

“A lot of people think sports is different, but it’s really no different than real-world politics,” he continued. “Someone’s got to have faith in you or you got to be someone’s buddy. I’m not good at politics, and I don’t want to be good at politics. I’m not good at schmoozing and kissing ass, or brown-nosing, or whatever you want to call it. I say it like I see it, like good friends and all that kind of stuff. You know if find someone who wants to hire someone like that, then I’m your guy.”

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