How he relentlessly counters every attack by Nibali on that horrible Angliru, in the style of a young boy, a bit gawky on the pedals, with those slightly to wide handlebars. How he smiles from ear to ear when he rolls over the finish line. How he throws himself onto the ground in exhaustion, while his face only shows utter happiness. That’s not the way 41 year old men win. That’s the way boys win.
His passport may say he was born on October the 23rd 1971. But Chris Horner isn’t 41. Because this is the story of the Curious Case of Christopher Horner. The cyclist who doesn’t decline, he only gets better. Because he doesn’t get older, he grows younger. F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written this story. It all comes together.
Christopher Horner is born as a very old man in the hospital of Okinawa, Japan. He is elderly but vital, like old people in Japan tend to be. Strikingly enough his legs are muscular and bold as a baby’s buttocks. Hoping to find out what’s wrong with their son, mum and dad Horner take him to America. Once they’ve arrived in Bend, Oregon, the first thing Chris does is grab a bike and ride it. He rides it endlessly.
The old young cyclist feeds himself with typical American food: hamburgers from McDonald’s, pizza’s and candybars. It’s perfect racefood for him. That good even, that he decides to turn pro. In those years it was very easy to do so. You just bought a pro license “for 150 bucks”, as Horner explains in an interview. With this license in his suitcase, he takes a plane to Pennsylvania to race his first pro race. The newbie on the bike stands out, with his strong legs and long beard. A long beard, indeed. Google for old photos of Chris Horner and you’ll see it with your own eyes. A frizzy old men’s beard. In the years that follow, Horner cuts his beard more and more often and in the end he shaves it off totally – and looks lots younger instantly.
Professional teams are interested in the rider who has suddenly made his appearance in the peloton. In 1997 he signs his first real pro contract, with Française des Jeux. The first years of his career are full of injuries. His knees are troublesome. It takes him long to recover from crashes. The team doctors are puzzled. But decline comes with age; recovering from an injury just takes longer if you’re older.
In his years as a rider for Astana, in 2008 and 2009, his teammates nickname him The Smiler, because he just doesn’t stop smiling – even if he suffers like a dog. It makes sense though. He feels his powers grow. Same for his endurance. More and more he feels like the young man he is becoming.
This year it all comes together, in the Vuelta. He never climbed likes he does now. He never felt as fit. He is in the form of his life, they say. And that’s correct. Even his bald head gets more hair day after day. Just pay attention when he takes off his helmet: at the top his skull still shimmers, but a bit lower you see a ring of hair. His babyface shines like never before. Next year Chris Horner will not only win the Vuelta, he’ll also win the Tour. And the Giro. After that, we’ll never hear of him again. Because he’s become too young to race.
Published in Dutch daily newspaper Trouw, Monday the 16th of September
Photo: wikimedia commons