Everyone asks about Levi and Lance, the Astana teammates riding at the Gila for Lance's bike shop in Austin. The few people who ask about their Astana teammate Chris Horner are fans of US racing - who watched Horner when he dominated our events just a few years ago.
That's Horner at the front in the terrific Casey Gibson photo from VeloNews Online's Gila coverage.
At the Gila you could watch the "protected rider" in action. Levi did not see the front until the last miles of the road stages. Lance did more work in the first 90% of each stage, but he did not slave up there providing shelter for Levi, his red-leader's-jerseyed teammate. Horner did it.
Horner stayed at the front mile after mile after mile, going fast enough to discourage attacks, fast enough so guys felt they were already stretched and were reluctant to jump away. You could not see the effort on his face. He smiles, sorta, or holds his mouth in something very like a smile.
You think: That guy is enjoying his work.
And you think: Whatever he's paid, he earns it and he's worth every dime. Because you and I cannot do what Horner can do; we can't ride hard uphill and down, into headwinds and down frightening descents, without a break, without so much as easing off for a few pedal strokes.
On our best days, we could not sit on Horner's wheel in a headwind.
I remember at Redlands just after Y2K that Horner, racing for himself, could do whatever he wanted. He could wait as long as he wanted and jump away whenever he wanted, and none of our best riders could do anything about it.
He was head and shoulders the strongest. Everyone knew it.
Now he's moved up to the top level in the sport and he's no longer 28 years old. But he's still the same locomotive, still breaking guys' legs.
What's changed? Now he does it for his teammates. What hasn't? The smile; it's the same.