THOUSAND OAKS More than 15 years into a career scattered with victories from Langkawi to Georgia and Switzerland to Monterey, Chris Horner saw his racing life change dramatically last year.
Sleek and fit and competing in a sport in which slight adjustments of ounces, millimeters and body fat count exponentially, Horner was a pro cycling enigma. He loved junk food hamburgers to candy bars to soft drinks.
But about a year ago, Horner, 5-foot-11, 140 pounds, changed his diet. And now five months shy of age 40, he is riding at his career best, including claiming the overall title Sunday at the Amgen Tour of California.
Horner of Bend, Ore., who finished fourth overall last year, claimed the sixth annual event by 38 seconds over RadioShack teammate Levi Leipheimer of Santa Rosa after finishing 65th in the 82.3-mile eighth stage.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Cervelo) of Boulder, Colo., finished third overall, 2:45 behind. American riders claimed the top five positions.
Matthew Goss (HTC-Highroad) of Australia was the final stage winner in a mass sprint in 2 hours, 56 minutes and 39 seconds.
"It's fantastic," said Horner, now in his second season with RadioShack, the 10th pro team of his 17-year career. "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.
"I see no time in my near future when I plan on retiring. I believe there's at least five good years left in my legs."
The eight-day race was scheduled to begin May 15 in South Lake Tahoe with a route around Lake Tahoe to Northstar-at-Tahoe Resort. Eleven inches of snow the night before and morning of Stage 1 forced organizers to postpone the start at the last minute.
Stage 2, which became the opening stage May 16, was also shortened because of the inclement weather and switched from its original start in Squaw Valley to Nevada City, which hosted the overall race start last year.
"Lake Tahoe didn't work out because of factors beyond our control," said Andrew Messick, president of AEG Sports, the race owner. "But Lake Tahoe has a place in the race, and we'll be back."
Promoted as an 800-mile race, the actual mileage was 763. The stage adjustments reduced the mileage to 587, with a starting field of 144 from 18 teams.
It was the addition of two mountaintop finishes just outside San Jose in Stage 4 and in Stage 7 atop Mount Baldy that differentiated this year's event from previous editions. Horner assumed the overall lead with a decisive win in Stage 4.
Leading Leipheimer by the eventual winning margin at the start of the seventh stage, Horner, 10th last year in the Tour de France, was the strongest again. After several teammates took turns paving the way at the front of the field, Leipheimer and Horner rode together at the front over the final two miles and to an elevation of 7,930 feet, the highest in race history.
Leipheimer claimed the stage, his first road stage victory after five Tour of California time trial wins. Horner, solidifying his overall title, eased at the line, acknowledging his teammate with a pat on the back and slight push. The two riders clasped hands just after the finish.
"He (Horner) has definitely sort of come into his own in the past couple of years," said Leipheimer, who has won the Tour of California three times and also finished sixth, third and now second. "After 16 years, he's figured out a few things, like his diet, for one thing. He's had a great last couple of years, and I don't want this to sound bad, but he's more professional with his diet and everything. So you're seeing the result of that."
Leipheimer, making his comments with Horner next to him, at one point turned to his teammate and said, "You're like what, half the size you used to be, right?" Horner responded, "Yeah, I'm a little smaller."
Chris Horner's solo attack in Stage 4 against some of the world's best climbers. It was quick, relentless and determined the race's outcome with four stages left.
The cancellation of Stage 1 at the last minute in South Lake Tahoe. The decision could have been made hours earlier.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"It was bittersweet. If you win three times and you then don't win when everyone's expecting you to. But I've won a stage, and to have the team take home the victory is almost as satisfying. Chris was the stronger rider, and he deserves it." Levi Leipheimer.
Eighteen riders left the race, via illness or injury.
Alex Hagman (Jelly Belly) was the 126th and last finisher.
Prize money is divided by team members, but the winner's share of the $184,800 purse was $19,280. Stage winners earned $4,820.
The average speed was 24.69 mph.
Race organizers reiterated that the 2012 Tour of California will be next May, with the opening stage in Santa Rosa.