Chris Horner (RadioShack) proved that he is here to win the Amgen Tour of California after he triumphed atop Sierra Road, winning stage four by over a minute ahead of his nearest rivals. The American is confident that he will be unbeatable on the ‘queen' stage seven that includes the second and more decisive mountaintop finish on Mt Baldy.
"In the last five weeks I was on a mission to come here in the best fitness of my life," Horner said. "I think I put together the best five weeks of training ever in my career, with diet, rest and training. It's been a hard five weeks and it was an easy five kilometres to the summit."
With four stages to go, Horner is confident that he can hold on to the overall lead but showed slight concern over the stage six 24km time trial in Solvang. However, some of the pressure was absolved by the fact that his teammate and three-time overall event winner Levi Leipheimer is close behind in the overall classification. Leipheimer came to the race as the odds-on favourite to win the time trial, after winning it on three previous occasions.
"The only exception, not fear, that I have is the time trial," Horner said. "It is a questionable section but I think I am on my top form and when I am top form I normally win time trials. I don't think I will lose sleep over the time trial but I certainly believe that if there is any vulnerable part in my fitness or ability it would be there. I think that is a small dent in the armour and whatever time that I should lose there, I don't think I will lose the jersey there, but if I do, I will gain it back on Mt Baldy."
Sharing the overall classification duties with Levi
RadioShack announced that Horner and Leipheimer would be attending the Amgen Tour of California as co-race leaders, both in top form to contest the overall victory. Horner's commanding performance on stage four's Sierra Road indicates that he is in prime form to win the title. He won the stage by 1:15 ahead of runner up in the Tour de France last year Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) in second and Rory Sutherland (UnitedHealthcare) in third. Leipheimer finished in fourth place and an optimal second card to play in the overall classification.
"We came into this race as co-leaders," Horner said. "Of course, Levi had the majority of the team with him and I had Markel [Irizar] and Matt [Bushe] always with me. I was always protected and well looked after. In the mishap at the end of yesterday's stage, I had fantastic teammates devoted to me and also to Levi. I was never without a team and Levi was never without a team. We will go into the rest of the Tour of California with the same tactics."
It is no secret that Leipheimer is eying a fourth overall victory at the Amgen Tour of California. When asked if it mattered to the team which rider won the title, Horner replied, "It makes no difference. Though my whole career, and I have had a long one, the first priority is always the team. If the team wins that is the number one priority. I don't care if it's Levi, I don't care if it's me and I don't care if it's Matt Busche. The first objective, as a professional, is always that the team wins. The second objective, of course, is that you wish it could be you."
Horner insulted by career under appreciation
Horner is undoubtedly a world-class racer whose decade-and-a-half career includes a victory at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, second overall at the Giro di Sardegna, seventh place at La Fleche Wallone, eighth place at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, tenth place at Amstel Gold Race, and fourth place overall at the Amgen Tour of California, all in 2010. His most memorable accomplishment last year was securing a tenth place overall at the Tour de France. This year, he placed second overall at the Vuelta Al Pais Vasco and fourth overall at the Volta a Catalunya. During the Amgen Tour of California stage four post-race press conference, he expressed his disappointment in the race organization and the media for, at times, being under recognized.
"I think in my career I have been under appreciated," Horner said. "When I arrived here at the Tour of California, I found it quite insulting to not be invited to the press conference. I think the press should have known, I have won the Basque Country and I was second at the Basque Country. I've been fourth here at the Tour of California before and I found it insulting that I wasn't invited to the press conference."
"Throughout 16 years of professional bike racing, I've been underrated many, many times," he added. "I've done a lot of domestique work and sometimes I see where the press can lose me in the lime light. When you have teammates like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, you can't have five RadioShack or Astana riders up here. At the same time it is easy to see that my form has been with the best of the best in the world and with the exception of Alberto Contador, I don't think there is anyone that can drop me."