Bend cyclist Horner, 41, in position to win Tour of Spain

Bend cyclist Horner, 41, in position to win Tour of Spain

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Radioshack Leopard's US rider Christopher Horner celebrates his Red Jersey on the podium on September 2, 2013 after the tenth day of the 68th edition of "La Vuelta" Tour of Spain, a 186,8km stage between Torredelcampo and Alto de Hazallanas. AFP PHOTO/ JOSE JORDAN (Photo credit should read JOSE JORDAN/AFP/Getty Images)

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by Associated Press

kgw.com

Posted on September 12, 2013 at 10:19 AM

Updated Thursday, Sep 12 at 10:28 AM

Riding against opponents who on average are 14 years his junior, 41-year-old American Olympic cyclist Chris Horner could become the oldest-ever winner of one of his sport's biggest races, the Tour of Spain.

Horner, known to fans in his Bend, Ore., home as the "Flying Smile" because of his big grin, is in second place with four stages left. The man to beat, 28-year-old Italian Vincenzi Nibali, wasn't even a teenager when Horner began his professional cycling career in 1997.

Horner, a father of three, is aiming to put down the same marker as other middle-aged champions and standouts: Jack Nicklaus with his 1986 Masters win at 46; pitcher Nolan Ryan with his 1991 no-hitter at 44; and, just last week, Diana Nyad, at 64 becoming the first to swim 110 miles between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage, to name a few.

Born when Richard Nixon was in the White House, Horner believes he's now got a legitimate shot at winning the 21-day Spanish tour's red champion's jersey, especially with a steep mountain ride Saturday that favors Horner's 5-foot-11, 135-pound frame.

"All I need is that small gap, and I'm in red," he told an interviewer for the Spanish race's website Wednesday.

Horner, who also lives part of the year in San Diego, doesn't appear to have time on his side.

One other rider in Europe's top division, German Jens Voigt, turns 42 next week, while Horner's birthday is in October. Of more than 500 riders at men's cycling's highest level, the average age is just 28.

For the record, Belgian Firmin Lambot was 36 when he won the 1922 Tour de France. The oldest Tour of Italy winner was 34, in 1955.

In the Tour of Spain, rounding out the sport's top three so-called "Grand Tours," Horner already ranks as the oldest man to win a Grand Tour stage, on Aug. 26.

All this for a guy who, for much of his 17-year pro career, was more famous for pounding McDonald's than his results.

Antonio Gonzalez, a professional bike mechanic from Boise, Idaho, on Wednesday recalled working for Horner in 2008 during Cascade Cycling Classic in Bend. They stopped for gas at a service station, just before a key stage.

"He ran in and pounded a sausage McMuffin," Gonzalez said, remembering Horner's race-day nutrition also included Little Debbie chocolate snack cakes. "It was comical, what he ate. His stomach was like a garbage disposal."

Recently, however, he's concentrated more on his weight and diet while representing the United States at the 2012 London Olympics - and seeking to extend a career spent largely pedaling in the shadows of bolder, brasher rivals like the now-disgraced Lance Armstrong.

How overlooked is Horner? In 2011, at the Tour of California, the biggest American race, he wasn't even invited to the opening press conference, a slight he corrected by winning the overall crown.

"He's no Lance, that's for sure," said Susan Bonacker, a Horner friend who with her husband, Gary, owns a Bend bike shop. "Chris, he's just a big grin, flying along, eating his hamburgers."

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