Chris Horner pedaling into cycling history at Tour of Spain

Chris Horner pedaled back into the lead of the Tour of Spain on Sept. 2 with his second stage win in the season’s final Grand Tour. He’s still several mountaintop stages and nearly two weeks of racing away from the first three-week title of his nearly two-decade career.

But Horner, soon-to-be age 42, is back strong, just like has been so many times before after recovering from injuries.

Horner does not have a contract for the 2014 season, but it be would unique for Jens Voigt (age 42 on Sept. 17) and Horner (age 42 on Oct. 23) to continue their careers on the same squad next season.

Chris Horner has won two stages and is now in the race lead for the second in the 2013 Tour of Spain. Image courtesy Radioshack/Nissan, 2012

Chris Horner has won two stages and is now in the race lead for the second in the 2013 Tour of Spain. Image courtesy Radioshack/Nissan, 2012

Voigt recently announced he’ll end his career next season with the new Trek squad after the current RadioShack-Trek ends it tenure at the end of the 2013 season.

Horner’s participation in this year’s Tour of Spain is his 11th Grand Tour in a pro career dating to 1995. He’s completed six Grand Tours, including a career-best ninth overall in the 2010 Tour de France.

Horner originally finished 10th overall in the event, but was slotted in ninth after the disqualification via doping of dethroned race winner  Alberto Contador.

Despite his long, successful career, Horner’s best success came following his change of diet that included drastically reducing his favorite source of calories — junk food.

I contributed the following feature on Horner to USA Today just prior to the start of the 2011 Tour de France. He crashed out of the event, but returned in 2012 to finish 13th overall. This season, injuries have plague Horner again and he wasn’t selected to ride in the Tour de France.

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As recently as five years ago, Chris Horner’s training defied logic. He’d often ride his bike hard for 100 miles. Then he’d eat junk food, sometimes twice a day, five days a week.

Horner, who’s among a record-tying 10 USA riders competing beginning Saturday in the Tour de France, didn’t gain weight. But nor could he lose weight or reach the highest level of the sport.

“Changing my diet has been huge,” said Horner, 39. “But there also comes time in someone’s career when you just want do to everything you can. You want to do the maximum sleep, the maximum recovery, the maximum diet.”

In the middle of his 17 th pro season, a sleek Horner is a top-three overall contender in the 21-stage, 23-day, 2,131.6-mile race. The 98th edition of cycling’s biggest race begins with a 118.6-mile stage from Passage du Gois to Mont des Alouettes and ends July 24 in Paris.

“I could eat whatever I wanted,” said Horner, whose 10th overall was the top USA finish last year after now-retired RadioShack teammate Lance Armstrong faltered following several crashes. “The junk food didn’t affect my weight any if I wanted to stay 145 to 147 pounds. But if you want to stay in the 130s, you gotta do some extra work.”

Horner, at his leanest in several years and climbing at his career-best, hasn’t raced often this year, finished in second in Tour of the Basque Country in Spain in April. He then rode to a dominating title over teammate Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa in May at the Tour of California.

“I think it would epic,” said Horner of a potential top-three finisher. “I would love it, and I think I am capable of being on the podium. But certainly at the Tour you need everything to fall into place. I’m racing as well as I have and tactically I don’t make many mistakes.”

Raymond Poulidor of France, was the oldest rider to finish on the podium when he placed third at age 40 in 1976.

Alberto Contador (Saxo-Bank), 28, of Spain, winner of the Tour of Italy in May and a three-time Tour de France winner, will defend his 2010 title.

Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek), 26, of Luxembourg, second overall the past two years, will be among nine returnees from last year’ top-10.

Horner, riding for his 11th pro team, believes the overall title race will begin in stage 12 — the first of six high mountains stages.

“Alberto is the only guy I can’t climb with,” said Horner. “At this point, there’s no one who can beat him. He’ll have to make a mistake.”

To celebrate the event’s 100th anniversary of pedaling in the Alps, riders will climb the famed Col du Galibier in stages 18 and 19. The field will ride to the highest altitude in Tour de France history and finish the second of the two monstrous days at the equally renowned L’Alpe d’Huez.

Despite his late career resurgence, Horner is also a realist. A few seasons ago, he crashed out of four races, suffering a combined eight fractures.

“That reason alone could be enough for a guy not to be a good bike racer anymore as he gets to age 40,” said Horner, a father of three. “Because he’s just scared.”

“I believe I have the fitness to race until I’m 45, but can I avoid the accidents and injuries. That’s way worries me. Even if I lost a little bit of form, it doesn’t mean I’m not capable of winning stages. The thing that concerns me is staying off the pavement and I don’t want to descent as fast as I did when I was younger.”

Leipheimer, 37, of Santa Rosa, Calif., recent winner of the Tour of Switzerland, will join Horner on the RadioShack team. It also features title contenders Andreas Kloden, 36, the two-time Tour de France runner-up of Germany; and Jani Brajkovic of Slovenia, the 2010 Dauphine-Libere winner.

Christian Vande Velde, 35, of Lemont, Ill., who finished 4th in the 2008 Tour de France; Dave Zabriskie, 32, of Salt Lake City, a Tour de France time trial stage winner; sprinter Tyler Farrar, 27, of Wenatchee, Wa.; and Tom Danielson, 33, of Boulder, Colo., will represent Colorado-based Garmin-Cervelo.

George Hincapie, 38, of Greenville, S.C., competing in the Tour de France for a record-tying 16th time, and Brent Bookwalter, 27, of Albuquerque, N.M., will ride for California-based BMC. Tejay van Garderen, 22, of Bozeman, Mont., will make his Tour de France debut and will ride with Danny Pate, 32, of Colorado Springs, Colo., as one of his HTC-Highroad teammates.

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