Interview: American road racer Tom Danielson

'Next big thing' reborn

It’s been a long road back for Tom Danielson, the rider once considered the next big thing. The American tells BikeRadar how he’s finally got his confidence back heading into the Vuelta a España.

Rise and fall

If you were in Granada on a balmy September afternoon in 2006, it was difficult to see anything other than a career on the rise for Tom Danielson.

The then-28-year-old had just won his first stage in the Vuelta a España, powering into the Andalucian city with new overall race leader Alexandre Vinokourov and thundering home, arms aloft.

Danielson had already taken some big victories including the overall classification in the tours of Georgia and Langkawi, yet it was this Vuelta which underlined that he was a bona fide Grand Tour contender. Seventh the year before, the 2006 edition saw the Connecticut native step up to a new level.

Some had previously questioned if he had the necessary killer instinct but, in winning in Granada en route to finishing sixth overall, it was clear that he’d gained grit, grinta and confidence. An even bigger future seemed destined.

Lance Armstrong congratulates Danielson after his general classification win in the 2005 Tour de Georgia

Yet reason doesn’t always bear out. The predicted upward trend in his results stuttered several months after he placed second in the mountains classification at the 2007 Paris-Nice. Danielson crashed out on stage one of that year’s Vuelta, breaking his shoulder and herniating his L5-S1 disk. Both injuries combined to give him back problems which persisted for some time.

Of even greater frustration were ongoing and mystifying stomach issues which – after months of tests – were finally diagnosed as the results of a parasite called giardia. This was successfully treated but the issue reoccurred again this year, further delaying his return to form.

Somewhat fittingly, it was Spain where things came right again. On 8 August he won the 15km time trial at Ribera del Duero, netting his first individual European triumph since that Vuelta stage victory almost three full years earlier. He also took the race leader’s purple jersey, and while he lost it the next day on the final, mountainous stage, Danielson ended the race a fine third overall.

Some would have been crushed not to have retained the lead but, ever the optimist, he could see some benefits in what transpired. “I made some mistakes on the last day, and I lost some time here and there at the beginning of the race,” he told BikeRadar. “But I think in the long run it is good that I made some mistakes that I can learn from, and also that I leave the race hungry.

“I’m really happy with how the race went as a whole. Winning a stage and finishing on the podium is a great confirmation [that he is back ed.], but at the same time it is good to continuously learn and to have some things in the back of my mind so, when I cross those paths in the future, I know how to react.”

Danielson and Alexandre Vinokourov during the final stage of the 2006 Vuelta a España

Danielson argues that even when he was on top form in 2006, it would have been difficult to have achieved what he had done in the Burgos event. Yet while it’s clear that his progression has been interrupted in the years since that Vuelta win, he counters that he’s grown a lot as a rider and a person because of the difficulties he has gone through. Most of these were on the bike but he also had some big changes in his personal life. Now he’s fully focused once again.

One thing he dismisses as a factor is the presumed stress of being known as ‘the Great White Hope,’ the rider some hoped would step up and fill the void after Lance Armstrong retired. Not so, he insists. “I think a lot of people misinterpret that from me,” he says. “From the outside maybe it looked like I cracked a little bit for a while from the pressure… you know, I think it is fair for people to presume that. But I never once thought that I had anyone’s shoes to fill, I never really felt that pressure.

“That said, I definitely got disappointed when I would read on the internet when people said, ‘ah, there’s Tom, he is a failure’. That definitely made me feel bad. I think the hardest thing is feeling the pressure from yourself. If you have got good results, if they came somewhat easily, and then you have taken a few steps back because of injury and problems that you have been forced to deal with, then that is tough.”

Garmin Slipstream CEO Jonathan Vaughters said this thwarted internal drive to deliver on his talent was hard for Danielson to deal with. “Tom's a very sensitive person, psychologically, so he had to really retrain his mind after all the downtime he's had the last few years. His confidence was really affected,” he said. “So I'm very happy Tom is having fun racing again... it’s great to see. He's a very intelligent and kind person. It’s been tough watching him struggle.”

Garmin Slipstream CEO Jonathan Vaughters has been coaching Danielson since November

Missing out on the Tour

It seems hard to believe but Danielson, this strong climber, time trialist and stage-race rider, has ridden five Grand Tours but never the big one, never the Tour de France. Problems with the parasitic infection messed up his chances of making the Discovery Channel selection in 2007, then his on-off form saw him passed over by Garmin Slipstream in 2008 and again this year.

Last season he gave a long interview to BikeRadar’s sister publication Cyclingnews.com, saying that while he was not in top condition, he still thought it was ‘a mistake’ not to bring him. He stopped short of criticising the team, but his frustration was obvious.

Now that he’s back in good form, he can look back at things in a more objective way. While he says that his recovery might have been quicker had he been able to lay out his own programme, he recognises that he is one part of a very big setup. “I am part of a business, I am part of a cycling team,” he said. “They really can’t wait, they can’t say ‘Tom, you are not quite 100 percent so we are going to give you exactly what you need [in terms of schedules]’. I still had a job to do and while I wasn’t winning races, my team-mates were."

So what effect did that have? “I definitely had to grow a lot to mentally deal with not performing as well as I wanted to and also learn how to do the different [supporting] roles better,” he said. “But in the long run I wouldn’t change anything – I think I needed that time to appreciate the sport and to grow as a team-mate.”

Vaughters told BikeRadar that he has been coaching Danielson since November last year, making dietary changes and helping him to get back on track. The rider is appreciative of what has been done. “Jonathan has been really supportive,” he said. “Maybe sometimes I haven’t quite seen that, maybe sometimes I have misinterpreted things and gone off the deep end and thought maybe one thing or another, but at the end he really has been supportive.

“I am very happy to be part of this team and pleased to be going well for them now. I would like to continue that, and hope to be with them again next season.”

The best way to do that, and to prove he’s fully back on track, will be a strong performance on his old stomping ground.

Danielson rides with his new team-mates at the launch of the 2008 Slipstream/Chipotle squad

Vuelta-bound

Two days after his Vuelta a Burgos podium finish, Danielson headed out and bought a new scooter. No, he wasn’t suddenly embracing a mod lifestyle or taking up Italian-style posing, but rather it reflected an intention to ramp up his workload prior to the Vuelta. “It is so good for training, especially where I am up the mountains,” he said, referring to his European hometown in Spain.

“I used to do it quite a bit, then ever since I came over to Europe, I didn’t get to do it so much. But when I was back in the US, I did a lot of my training with a motorcycle. If anything, it just helps to have someone there, constantly pushing you. You are able to put the Powertap unit on the scooter as it and the Garmin work wirelessly, so the driver can actually see how many watts you are doing.”

That helps to keep the rider working hard, but also to prevent sadism on the part of the pilot. “Sometimes it is easy for the driver to get a bit carried away behind the scooter. I see this certain look on their face… especially when my wife Stephanie drives, sometimes she likes to see me suffer!” he said. “So I can use the Powertap as an excuse – ‘look, it says that you should be going slower!’”

Joking aside, he knows that a big performance in the Vuelta would set him up nicely for 2010. He doesn’t want to tempt fate, though; he’s got goals, he’s laid out targets, but they’ll remain private for now. “I am fully focused on the Vuelta now,” he said. “I don’t want to make any predictions or do anything other than continuing to do what I am doing – staying healthy, staying strong and staying happy and motivated.

Danielson returned to racing in 2008 with Slipstream-Chipotle, now Garmin Slipstream

“That will lead to a good Vuelta. I don’t want to say what a good Vuelta would be for me, I don’t really think that is important, because you can say all you want but once the race starts, reality sets in. All I can do is my best to prepare and show up at 100 percent. As I said, to be happy, have a big smile on my face. I think it will be good.”

Vaughters is also taking a wait-and-see approach. Danielson will most likely head into the race on equal footing with Daniel Martin, a 23-year-old Irish rider who was second overall in this year’s Vuelta a Catalunya. This means they will both share the pressure, rather than one or other being stifled under the burden of expectation.

“I think the race will show us who is strong,” said Vaughters. “We aren’t big race favourites for the Vuelta so we can afford to play both options. Both of these guys are wildcards for the Vuelta, one because he's young, and the other because it’s been a while since he's been at the top level. So, we'll take care of them [at the race start] in Holland and then go from there.”

In a nice parallel with the last time he performed well there, this year’s race once again heads to the mountains around Granada. More than anyone, Danielson knows there are no guarantees in a sport as tough and unpredictable as this one. But if he’s got the legs, if he’s got the luck, expect him to seize the opportunity and finally return to the rider he once was.

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