Two weeks after he left the Tour de France following a crash replete with broken bones, contusions and uncertainty, Chris Horner is preparing for his next bike race.
It’s still a month away in a new seven-day race in Colorado. But even by its Aug. 22 start, the cyclist from Bend, Oregon, will likely not remember his fall in stage 7 and the resulting concussion, broken nose, fractured rib and a nagging calf injury. In fact, he may never remember.
But there are two certainties. Horner has returned to his bike and his sense of humor is intact.
“My nose is OK; Well, it’s not OK if I bump it,” Horner said Thursday when contacted from Italy at his home in Bend. “Sitting here talking to you, it’s fine. It’s very good. But if you’re playing around with the dog, you don’t want it to bump into your face. Then it would be quite painful.”
Soon after returning to Bend, Horner went for his first ride with his girlfriend, an accomplished road racer. Now, he’s riding alone again for as long as two hours.
“I don’t remember the crash, so that part not going to have any effect on my racing ability or anything like that,” Horner, 39, said. “It’s non-existent as far as I am concerned. It was probably the easiest crash for me to go through because I don’t remember it. So I don’t think that will have any effect on me.
“Certainly when you get older you’re more careful when you’re descending anyway, so that just more about age and getting more intelligent than anything else. I have plenty of time before Colorado starts. My weight is still good and my fitness, of course, coming from Tour, is really high.”
One of four riders considered potential podium (top-three) contenders for RadioShack, Horner entered his fifth Tour de France on July 2 in Passage du Gois, France likely in the best shape of his long career. He won the Tour of California near the end of May and for the next five weeks maintained his new lighter weight, didn’t race and trained in San Diego.
But the 98th edition of the Tour de France was immediately different. Crashes are part of the sport, the effects of which Horner knows more than most pro cyclists. But the small roads of the early stages, aggressive racing and bad weather resulted in more than 20 serious crashes in the first week.
“I can remember in the first few days of the Tour when other guys like (Alberto) Contador (the two-time defending titlist) and some of the Garmin-Cervelo guys had crashed,” said Horner. “I was doing interviews and saying, ‘Gee, that’s really bad luck on them. I hope it doesn’t happen to us.’ ”
It did. In addition to Horner, teammates Jani Brajkovic of Slovenia, Andreas Kloden of Germany and Yaroslav Popovych of Ukraine, all left the race via injury or illness. A fifth teammate, Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa, Calif., also crashed several times. He’s currently the team’s highest-place rider, in 18th position, with two stages of the race left.
“At this point, I think the sponsors would he happy if we could just get a little air (television) time,” said Horner. “I don’t think any other teams in the Tour de France have half their team left.”
While television cameras were focusing on other crashes (seven cyclists received medical attention during the stage), the severity Horner’s fall with about 25 miles left was at first unknown. Team personnel and the race physicians didn’t arrive for several minutes, with the cyclist only wanting to get back on his bike.
“I’ve looked at the tape; yes, absolutely,” said Horner. “I was knocked out for a long period of time. I wasn’t the best tape, but from what I saw, it looked like it was a pretty good hit. The fact that they let me continue doesn’t surprise me at all. They’re not going to know what the head injury was.
“When a rider is off the ground standing on his two feet and saying ‘give me my bike.’ Well, anyone like that who’s not bleeding, there’s nothing gushing out of their head or their legs or they’re not falling back down to the ground, you hand them their bike.”
Horner began the 135.4-mile seventh stage from Chateauroux to LeMans in 13th position overall and trailing former race leader Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervelo) of Norway by 18 seconds. The first of the race’s six high mountain stages, Horner’s specialty, was only a few days away in the Pyrenees. But the 17-year pro never got there.
Despite some controversy that he was allowed to continue, Horner finished the seventh stage last in a group of six riders, 12 minutes and 41 seconds behind Mark Cavendish of Great Britain, who claimed the second of his four stage wins.
Horner, speaking erratically, was tranferred to a local hospital. He had two brain scans, the first upon his admission, he doesn’t remember. The second test, like the first, was negative, and Horner was released. He remained at a teammate’s home for a few days then returned to the United States.
“They couldn’t see any damage,” said Horner. “But they knew I had a concussion. I have some pretty severe memory loss and I had a headache that didn’t go away for a few days. I tried to convince the doctor to release me to go back to the race, but he wasn’t having any of that.”
Horner was scheduled to compete in the San Sebastian (Spain) Classic on July 30, the first major one-day race after the Tour de France. Now, he’s waiting to heal before resuming more diligent training.
“That’s bike racing,” Horner said, reflecting on his crash and the deflated potential strong showing for his team. “We (RadioShack) won Tour of the Basque Country. We won Tour of California and we won Tour de Suisse and I’m sure we’ll win something else by the end of the year.”
(Originally published July 23, 2011 in the Bend (Ore.) Bulletin.)