FLORENCE, Italy (AP) — Americans Christopher Horner and Tejay van Garderen believe they have a shot at winning the road race Sunday at the cycling world championships.
And with a strong team supporting them, it's slightly surprising the U.S. riders are not considered a major threat.
"There's the obvious favorites like (Alejandro) Valverde, (Philippe) Gilbert, (Peter) Sagan, (Vincenzo) Nibali. We're not really having the pressure of having an outstanding leader," Van Garderen said Thursday. "But I think we have a good shot."
Van Garderen finished fifth in last year's Tour de France and at 25 is considered a rider capable of winning a Grand Tour one day. Horner just won the Spanish Vuelta at the advanced age of 41 to become the oldest winner of a Grand Tour — the trio of races that includes the Tour, Vuelta and Giro d'Italia.
The most difficult thing for the Americans might be deciding who will go for the win at the end of the 169-mile course that starts in Lucca near the coast and ends with 10 laps of a hilly circuit in and around Florence.
An American hasn't won the men's road race at the worlds since Lance Armstrong took the title in Oslo in 1993 at the beginning of his career. Greg LeMond won it twice, in 1983 and '89, and took silver in '82 and '85.
The grueling race should last more than seven hours, and it could be made even more difficult by rain, with thunderstorms forecast.
"We have a race strategy of kind of giving a lot of people their own chances and opportunities to win while its benefiting the team as a whole," Van Garderen told The Associated Press on Thursday. "So I think we'll work well together. ... It's always better to give yourself more opportunities to win."
Van Garderen seemed to take a step backward by finishing 45th in this year's Tour de France, although he won the Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge and posted top-10 finishes in the Tour de San Luis, Criterium International, Paris-Nice and Tour de Suisse.
"He actually had a really good season, he just had a bad Tour," said Jim Miller, the vice president for athletics with USA Cycling. "And a bad Tour can come down to just a few bad moments — because he didn't ride the whole Tour bad."
Still, this race provides a great chance to end the season on a big high.
"This is really motivating for him," Miller said. "Early on when he saw the course, he was like, 'I like this course, I want to prepare for it and I want to give it a good go.'"
Horner, meanwhile, took the unusual step of flying home to Bend, Oregon, after the Vuelta concluded earlier this month and wasn't due to arrive back in Europe until Friday.
"It doesn't make sense but it's Chris Horner and he's 41 and he's been doing this for 20 years," Miller said. "He says he wants to go home and he'll come back and be good and don't worry about it, and it's probably the truth."
Horner won two stages in the Spanish race and took the lead late from Italy's Nibali.
"I think Chris will be fine," Miller added. "Clearly he was awesome in the Vuelta and there's no reason to expect that the form isn't still there. He feels like he recovers better at home so, 'Go home and recover.'"
Horner and Van Garderen will be supported by a group of riders that includes: Andrew Talansky, who finished 10th in this year's Tour de France; Peter Stetina of the Garmin-Sharp team; time trial specialist Taylor Phinney, who wore the leader's pink jersey for several stages at last year's Giro; national road race champion Freddie Rodriguez; and Alex Howes.
"At the end of the day you're probably going to look at a small selection of less than 10 guys in the last group, and anyone with numbers is going to have the opportunity to race," Miller said. "So we would like to have a couple guys. We think Chris, we think Tejay has the possibility to be in the final selection, and we're hoping both of them are."
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