THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (AP) – When Chris Horner first rode through the verdant hills of Ventura County nearly two decades ago, he never imagined returning for the biggest victory of his cycling career. For one thing, the Tour of California didn’t exist way back then.
He also probably wouldn’t have believed the circuitous route he traversed to get right back where he started.
Horner won the Tour of California with a solid performance in the final stage Sunday, holding off RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer by 38 seconds.
Garmin-Cervelo’s Tom Danielson finished 2:45 behind Horner in third place, and teammate Christian Vande Velde was fourth.
The 39-year-old Horner was the oldest rider to complete the race, crossing the finish line with both hands thrust into the air near the back of the huge peloton. The 16-year pro racing veteran finished in 23 hours, 46 minutes and 41 seconds after leading the overall standings for each of the final five days in North America’s most prominent cycling race.
“It’s fantastic,” Horner said. “I’ve done this race every year they’ve had it. I’ve helped Levi win many times … and I’m just glad I got the chance to do it this time.”
With his title all but assured by his impressive performance alongside Leipheimer in Saturday’s climb up Mount Baldy, Horner waxed nostalgic during the uneventful final stage, recalling thousands of training rides on the same hills. The Bend, Ore., native has trained in California for much of his adult life with various teams and trainers.
“My career started in Thousand Oaks,” Horner said. “I’ve done so much training up here on these roads, maybe going back as far as 1991. I’ve really built my career training here. This Southern California area has been my stomping grounds.”
Horner wasn’t a favorite when the Tour of California started last weekend, but he’s used to being underestimated.
He joined two European teams from 1997 to 2001 with little success before returning stateside for a strong domestic career. He finally earned moderate European success during the past decade while working largely as a domestique for bigger stars, but Horner has picked up his best results in the last few years of a career which he intends to extend until at least 2016.
He finished fourth in California and won the mountainous Tour of Basque Country last year, while his 10th-place performance at the Tour de France was the best American finish. He came in second in the Tour of Basque Country last month, and he’s hoping this California performance will propel him to the podium in France in July.
“I see no time in the near future that I plan on retiring,” Horner said. “I believe there are at least five good years of racing left in my legs, and I don’t think I’ll stop any time soon after that.”
In a sport that can’t escape the stain of widespread doping, Horner credits his late-career improvements to weight loss and improved diet. Leipheimer has noticed the changes in his teammate, joking after Saturday’s decisive mountain stage that Horner was half the size he used to be.
Horner rode most of the final two stages alongside Leipheimer, the three-time race champion who eagerly helped Horner to victory after his teammate moved into the lead.
“He’s definitely come into his own over the past couple of years,” Leipheimer said of Horner. “In the past 16 years, he’s figured out a few things.”
Matthew Goss won the 80.2-mile final stage starting in Santa Clarita, outsprinting Peter Sagan and his fellow leaders on the final lap. Goss barely edged out Sagan, who ran out of room to pass along the barriers with just a few feet left in a finish that put a little excitement into a final stage that held only a foregone conclusion for Horner and Leipheimer.
The RadioShack teammates all but clinched Horner’s win when they held off every challenge on Mount Baldy on the way to the highest finish in Tour history, crossing the line with their clasped hands raised in victory.
“It’s bittersweet, of course,” Leipheimer said. “If you win three times, all the expectations are to win, but to have the team take the title is great. Of course I’d want to win myself, but Chris was the better rider. He was stronger, and he deserved it.”
Leipheimer won the race from 2007-09. Last year’s champion, Australia’s Michael Rogers, didn’t ride this year because of an illness.
Horner claimed the overall lead Wednesday in the Bay Area hills, pulling away from Leipheimer and Tour de France star Andy Schleck in the final two miles during the first mountaintop finish in Tour of California history.
“As soon as they added the summit finishes, this race really became a goal for me,” Horner said. “The crowds throughout California and on the summit finishes were epic.”
After finishing second in the Tour de France the past two years, Schleck finished eighth in California, failing to make a weekend run at the title.
The Tour ended for the second straight year just west of Los Angeles on the suburban streets of peaceful Thousand Oaks, the hometown of biotechnology company Amgen, the tour sponsor.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)