The Horner Conundrum: Just who is rider 15 anyway?

“Take the case of any pencil, sharpened by any woman; if you have witnesses, you will find she did it with a knife; but if you take simply the aspect of the pencil, you will say she did it with her teeth.” Mark Twain

Little Chris Horner sat in a corner and bemoaned the fact that he still – despite becoming the oldest Grand Tour winner ever when he romped to an unforeseen Vuelta victory – doesn’t have a contract for 2014. Is it his age – surely a 42 year old, Vuelta winner or not, is likely to prove a poor return on your investment? Or the price tag – a rumoured 1 million Euros with a guaranteed 2 year contract?

Or is it that Horner might just prove to be the kind of liability you wouldn’t touch with a very long pole?

First there are the pronouncements – he’s a one man three wise monkeys who claims never to have  seen, heard or spoken about doping in his long career, to have never seen PED use in the USA despite a well documented amateur doping scene exposed by the Joe Papp affair. Then there’s the performance – kicking out an estimated 6.83 watts on the climb to Pena Cabarga far exceeds the 6.2 watts generally taken to be at the limit of ‘human’ performance. These calculations are problematic – Sir Dave Brailsford condemned VAM performance estimates as ‘pseudo science’ during the Tour when they appeared to show that Froome’s performances outstripped those of the superdoping era and even the sulphurous Dr Ferrari, who pioneered the use of VAM, has reservations about the unknowns that can affect the calculation. Horner was also a fresh pair of legs – his closest rivals already had the toughest Giro in years under their belts when they arrived at the start line in Villanova de Arousa to face an equally tough Vuelta that culminated on the Angliru. But maybe the ‘pseudo science’ estimates of Horner’s performance at Pena Cabarga are not too far off the mark. Vincenzo Nibali, 13 years Horner’s junior, told Gazzetta dello Sport  “I can’t climb at 500 watts. I was going at 430 watts and that guy accelerated. What could I do?”

Maybe it’s just Horner’s demeanour – either loveably cornball or insufferably arrogant depending on your disposition to the grinning Pinocchio of the peloton. My partner says “oh, yes, he’s that smiling bald bloke who won some big race at the age of 573.” Images of Horner smiling effortlessly as Nibali grovelled just ahead of him didn’t help. Or statements like: “The media has been irresponsible. I keep reading that that Horner is in the best form of his career. This is not the best form of my career. I have won 80 races in my career. Maybe I haven’t had the opportunity to show it in a grand tour before but I’ve always been underrated throughout my career. I’ve not been given the responsibility when I think I should have.” But those who know him say the man from Bend, Oregon is a good guy, a nice guy, a cyclist who once gave a fellow rider – and his bike – a lift to the finish line after busting his arse for Levi Leipheimer in the Cascade Cycling Classic. He ‘inhales’ junk food like a greedy teen. He’s fun to be around. And he has one of the sharpest, smartest tactical brains in the business.

But the biggest question mark hanging over ‘Pappy’ Horner is whether he is ‘rider 15′ – and if he isn’t, just who the hell is?

Horner finally denied outright that he wasn’t the redacted name in the USADA reasoned decision, telling cyclingnews’  Bob Delaney “Well, I don’t know who rider number 15 is but I never had that conversation. So, it’s not me. USADA has never contacted me. Clearly I’ve never been in touch with the Puerto investigation, the Italian investigation, yada, yada, yada.” In doing so he denied he was the rider who told Levi Leipheimer “he was using EPO during his recovery from an injury in 2005 before the Tour de Suisse.”

Chris Horner placed 5th in the 2005 Tour de Suisse, winning the first mountain stage against the new Italian talent, Vincenzo Nibali. Tactics and race smarts beat the eager young Fassa Bortolo rider who remains 13 years Horner’s junior. In many ways it was a remarkable win – after a brief fling in the Euro peloton (he rode for Francaise des Jeux from 1997 – 1999), Horner had been racing on the US domestic scene ever since and had only just signed for the Saunier-Duval team. As he told cyclingnews “For me, I don’t know the riders, I haven’t raced with them much. It’s not like in the States.” But more remarkably, Horner – who had finished 16th at the Setmana Catalana despite a broken leg – had enjoyed only 3 weeks solid training by the time he took his stage win.  So when Horner pulled off his extraordinary Vuelta win a lack of training wasn’t unprecedented. What’s more problematic is that – at the age of 41, after major knee surgery and only 3 weeks training before he hit the start line at the Tour of Utah on August 6th – he was able to climb like a dream at the Vuelta a bare month later.

Time to apply some pseudo science – here’s a little something put together by the clever people at Velorooms. By the simple expedient of replicating the font size from the USADA reasoned decision and comparing to the 2005 Tour de Suisse start list replicated in the same font size he’s come up with the 9 most plausible candidates for the title of ‘rider 15’. The only one that fits the bill of an injured rider is Chris Horner. But just as we need to put our sceptic hats on when deal with disputed VAM calculations, can we truly put our trust in font comparison? If the font fits, do we convict?

Another variable in the ‘rider 15’ conundrum is just where the Leipheimer conversation took place. It was almost certainly in Girona, a mecca for American cyclists since Johnny Weltz, ex-rider and DS for Motorola, US Postal, CSC and Garmin, decided it would make a great training base. He was absolutely right – nestled between Barcelona and the Pyrenees it’s a gorgeous town with a ‘live and let live’ attitude to its lycra clad population, making it popular to this day. It’s also a convenient location from which to access all the major European races. Back in 2005, Lance Armstrong and his Discovery team were resident in Girona – and so was US Champion Freddy Rodriguez, Tyler Hamilton, Levi Leipheimer – and Chris Horner. It’s not difficult to imagine a friendly chat at a cafe on the Rambla de la Libertat or maybe a few companionable words whilst waiting for results at the blood lab in Girona where Bruyneel sent his riders before every race. Tom Danielson also recalls undergoing tests with Michele Ferrari there in 2005. In such a tight knit ex-pat community of interest, it’s difficult to imagine Horner, the wise monkey, seeing and hearing and saying nothing. Difficult – but not impossible.

Matt deCanio was once the next big thing in waiting – in 1996 he was 16th in the World U23 road race and the best finisher on the US team. He was rewarded with a contract to race in Italy and that’s when the trouble started. He described the team house as a ‘crack house’ it was so full of needles. Disillusioned, he went back to the US but cycling lured him back and by 1998 he was on Britain’s Linda McCartney team. Then came the Festina Affair  and a return to the US domestic scene – he was on the Mercury team in 2001 with Chris Horner – where he teamed up with David Clinger. Then came the EPO, then the self disgust, then Stolen Underground his extraordinary website that hurled what were then seen as baseless accusations of PED use at Armstrong and his team. In an interview with VeloVeritas earlier this year, DeCanio was typically unguarded. He claimed that Phil Zajicek (who was handed a lifetime ban from the sport in 2011) had told him that Horner had tried to force him to dope with HGH and EPO on the Saturn team, that Horner had claimed ‘if everyone is doing it, it aint doping.’  He said he was as inspired by Horner’s victory as by a ‘stink bug crawling on my wall’. It’s compelling, in the same way that Landis’s emails were compelling. However, like Landis, DeCanio suffers from a credibility problem because, like Landis, he was a doper and how can we trust a doper not to lie and lie and lie again. Of course Lance Armstrong is, ironically, proof positive of that.

The UCI have recently announced that all 598 in and out of competition tests from the Vuelta were negative, as were the 622 tests from the Tour de France. The French tests included 198 biological passport tests (though only 18 were for Human Growth Hormone and 2 for blood transfusions) and 179 urine samples, of which 113 were for EPO. Blood testing for EPO was down on 2012. In Spain, 200 tests were out of competition, the remainder taken during the race. Claims are made that the testing is better targeted, more dynamic and unpredictable. Francesca Rossi of the CADF said “Normally you test the yellow jersey, the winner of the stage and you test at random. But this year we changed our strategy. We were in the hotels in the evenings more.” But not necessarily at the right hotels – The US anti doping agency ordered a test on Horner after the final stage – their counterparts in Spain, it is claimed, went to the wrong hotel resulting in a missed test for the American and a farce worthy of the Keystone Cops. In fact, Horner has never been tested more than 10 times in any given quarter by USADA, and that highest figure was in quarter 2 of 2013.

Maybe the testers are finally winning or maybe the peloton is running scared. Two ‘clean’ Grand Tours in a year should certainly give hope to those who desperately want the sport to regain its credibility post Armstrong, to be able to remake the romantic myths of the past on the exploits of the present without the taint of doping. But the hits just keep on coming and the fear is that – without some form of truth and reconciliation commission to deal with the skeletons still rattling in the sport’s closet or some other Herculean cleansing of the stableful of shit that has been procycling in the modern era – they will continue to do so for some time yet.

So we are still no closer to learning the identity of ‘rider 15’. Horner flatly denies it, whilst the circumstantial evidence continues to point to him as the most likely candidate. Like Twain’s pencil, we are left with what is and what appears to be. With Horner, the question will likely remain – which truly is which?

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4 thoughts on “The Horner Conundrum: Just who is rider 15 anyway?

  1. Has anyone ever considered that maybe young Chris isn’t doping and his only advantages are experience and a bionic knee implant?

  2. The VAM is an incredibly weak methodology for calculating power output. It doesn’t take into account rolling resistance and surface conditions which are going to have a huge impact on the solution. I’m not sure if anybody has published an experiment or study on it but I would pity the author during the peer review process.

    Also, I don ‘t think USADA is going to spend a lot of time figuring out who Rider 15 is. If the only “evidence” they have against this rider is the word of a guy who cheated for his whole career and got 6 month suspension for it in exchange for his testimony then they might conclude that proceeding with a case would be a waste of time. Moreover, if Levi did name Horner, then the star witness is not only a guy with a credibility problem but an ax to grind to boot.

  3. Good article. All we really have is speculation and it depends on your level of paranoia/care/skepcicism as to how much a person will let it get to them.
    Personally, I think cycling is way ahead of other sports when it comes to testing. The amount of testing an athlete recieves is huge. This isn’t the Armstrong-era when they did little testing and couldn’t test for much. That isn’t to say nobody is cheating, but the testing is finally becomming more trust worthy.

    Horner may or may not have taken drugs in this years Vuelta but without being the sort to deal much in paranoia or skepcicism, until Horner fails a test now or retroactively or gets caught up in some fresh scandal, I have to give him the benefit of the doubt and I’ll only worry much about it — and only until which point he recieves his suspension — if and when that happens because all the drug talk aside the race was bloody entertaining.

  4. Pingback: Looking for a contract: Cycling’s Expendables | Sykose Extreme Sports News

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