Old dogs may struggle with new tricks, but they ruled this year’s Tour of California.
The winner of the eight-stage race, which just finished its sixth go-around, was a 39-year-old veteran. The second-place rider was two years younger, and a 33-year-old took third.
Chris Horner of Team RadioShack entered Stage 4, which ran 80 miles from Livermore to San Jose, trailing in 21st place.
But Horner dominated this 80-mile mountainous section, outriding the competition over Mt. Hamilton and up the Sierra Road ascent. He beat second-place contender Andy Schleck of Leopard-Trek by a full 75 seconds and, in doing so, launched himself into first place. He did not win another stage, but his huge Stage 4 victory cushioned his lead to the finish line of Stage 8, in Westlake. Horner became the oldest rider yet to win the tour, finishing in 23 hours, 46 minutes and 41 seconds—just 38 seconds faster than teammate Levi Leipheimer, 37, who won the Tour of California in 2007, 2008 and 2009.
Leipheimer also won Stage 7, beating Horner by a mere microsecond. Team Garmin-Cervelo’s Tom Danielson took third place in the Tour.
Following the race, Horner told reporters that the boosted difficulty level of this year’s tour—widely considered the most difficult edition yet with its two mountaintop finishes, in stages 4 and 7—gave him a shot of courage.
“As soon as they added the summit finishes, I made it one of my personal goals to finish high in the race,” Horner said.
Cycling has historically been a playground for relatively old athletes. Lance Armstrong began compiling his greatest victories and accolades late in his 20s—even after his bout with cancer. He won his seventh Tour de France at 34 years of age and took third place in 2010’s Tour de France. In the 1980s, esteemed cyclist Greg LeMond was also on a pace toward 30-something stardom when he developed health issues—probably related to an accidental gunshot wound in 1987—and had to retire at 33.
Getting older, in fact, can work in a cyclist’s favor.
“Cycling is an endurance-based sport, and age can sometimes mean more durability,” explained Eric Wohlberg, a local amateur racer who drove a support vehicle during the Tour of California. “There is definitely a level of muscle maturity that older guys sometimes build.”
Many races even honor young cyclists who perform well against weathered and experienced veterans. This year, Tour of California officials awarded the HTC-Highroad’s team’s Tejay van Garderen, 22, with the Rabobank Best Young Rider Jersey.
Wohlberg—himself a 46-year-old racer on the FORM Fitness Cycling Team in Palo Alto – sees future potential in Garmin-Cervelo’s Andrew Talansky and Team RadioShack’s Matthew Busche, both in their 20s and both of whom performed well in the Tour.
But Wohlberg believes Horner, who turns 40 in October, will remain a powerful force in pro cycling.