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A conversation with Tom Danielson: Back on track

By Andrew Hood

It's been a while.

It’s been a while.

Photo: Graham Watson

Tom Danielson was back in the winner’s column last weekend with victory in the individual time trial at the five-day Vuelta a Burgos in Spain.

It marked Danielson’s first European victory since 2006 and the end of a long comeback from the injuries that nearly derailed his career.

The Garmin-Slipstream rider ended up third overall at Burgos, a promising result that indicates the worst is behind Danielson as he turns his attention next to the Vuelta a España, a race in which he’s already twice finished in the top 10.

VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood recently chatted with Danielson from his home in the Spanish Pyrenean town of Puigcerda. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: Congrats on the stage victory, what were your emotions on the podium?

Tom Danielson: I was stoked. It was an awesome experience. I’m really happy about it. You prepare yourself to do it, but until you really do it, then the mind makes the connection with the body and then you start to believe that you can do this all the time. But you need that breakthrough and then your body follows your mind. It’s a nice feeling after so much hard work.

VN: This is your first win in Europe since the Vuelta stage in 2006, right?

TD: Right, and it’s also my first big time trial win. I’ve won the time trial at Qinghai Lake in China and I’ve won time trials in America, but this is my first big time trial win in Europe. I’m really happy to be up there, against guys like Valverde and Sánchez, both who are in good shape for the Vuelta. I was focusing on the key riders from the Vuelta and gave it my best shot. The bigger thing than who was there was really what happened in the race, the way that I looked at it, understand it and how to race it. The key to winning a time trial is not really all about pure power; it’s a lot of about where you put the power and how you do it. I’ve been mentally preparing for these experiences and working on it a lot for a long time. To actually do it in competition was great.

VN: How did it feel to wear the leader’s jersey of a fairly important European stage race with the decisive climbing stage still to come?

Danielson took over the lead after a strong time trial.

Danielson took over the lead after a strong time trial.

Photo: Graham Watson

TD: As soon as I took the race lead, I joked to myself, I wish the race was over today! Then I said to myself, I’ve spent so many days the past two years training for this, to be in a leader’s jersey of a big stage race, to be racing against guys like Valverde on the climbs, I thought this is a pretty good life experience. This is what we dream about when we race our buddies up the climbs or why we train so hard. As soon as I put on the purple jersey, it felt great.

VN: Talk us through the final climbing stage on the Lagunas climb…

TD: I knew Valverde is one of the best in the business in the last kilometer steeps. There’s no one who’s better than him, so I knew I couldn’t allow him to be totally fresh in that final kilometer. My goals were to try to isolate him from his team and then to try to see how he was in the climb. If we were evenly matched, then I would try to use the other guys in the race to make him work to make him more tired than me in the final kilometer. From the race book that we studied before, it looked like it was steep all the way to the finish, but we found out with 2km to go was dead flat. It got steep again in the final kilometer, but I didn’t know this or expect this. I attacked with 3km to go.

I dropped Rodriguez and isolated Valverde, and I thought I would drive this all the way to the finish, so if he drops me, he’s the strongest man. Then I turned the corner, and bam, it was flat, almost downhill. Then I had to think fast and make a decision on how I could do this. (Xavier) Tondo (Andalucia Cajasur) got back on, so I thought, why don’t I swing off and make Valverde chase Tondo? Valverde just looked at me, he said, ‘there goes your race.’

‘No,’ I said, ‘there goes your race!’

The last stage came down to a fight with Caisse d'Epargne.

The last stage came down to a fight with Caisse d’Epargne.

Photo: Graham Watson

VN: Wait, did you speak in Spanish? Did he finally go?

TD: I think he spoke to me in Spanish and I spoke to him in English. I was pretty focused on the race at that moment. We had a little argument and then we basically coasted until 1km to go. That flat section was not what I wanted at all, but exactly what he needed. He jumped me hard, with maybe 500-600m to go, he did one of his Super-Valverde, SuperMan jumps and he gapped me. I went as hard as I could. That part of the climb was so steep, it looked like I was close to him and that gave me motivation. He has more high-end power than I do, but when it’s that steep, my lightness allows me to stay at the same velocity going uphill. With 200m to go, the gradient went down, it went from 12-15 percent to 6 percent, and as soon as it did that, his phenomenal power showed and he just took off. I did everything I could to keep it within those five seconds. It was close, but he’s one of the best guys in a finish like that.

VN: Well, those guys have a home road advantage. What was going through your mind as you were up there duking it out for the overall win with the leader’s jersey on your back?

TD: I did as much research as I could on the Internet. I even went on YouTube to try to find a video of the climb, to see if someone had downloaded a video of the climb, but no one had. It was an exciting battle for sure. Tactically, maybe I made some mistakes, but my frame of thinking was good. It was a great lesson learned. I had a great time and it was a lot of fun to be there, to be attacked, having everything thrown at me by Rodriguez and Valverde, so it was good to be in the mix.

VN: What did it mean for you personally and professionally to get the stage win and finish on the podium after some of the troubles you’ve had the past few seasons?

TD: There’s no question that the past two seasons have been quite a struggle and have been difficult. When you win, you almost forget all the things that you went through to get there. That’s why it’s all so much sweeter. Cycling is not easy, it doesn’t come overnight, it takes a lot of hard work.

VN: When did you start to turn the corner?

TD: It was the end of the year last season, with the Tour of Missouri and the US pros, when I started ride again with the better guys in the TTs and on shorter climbs. I was fifth at the Tour of Missouri, helping Christian win the race. I started to put it back together. I wasn’t 100 percent yet, and I didn’t really feel on top of my game, but I was trying very hard. That’s cycling. If you miss a year at the top level, you’re at a big disadvantage. The sport at this level is that hard. I had to rebuild. It took me awhile.

VN: How was it for you on your new team at Garmin-Slipstream?

TD: My responsibilities didn’t go away. It was important to help Christian at Missouri, to help Zabriskie at California and Castilla y Leon. At the Giro, I was riding for Tyler and then to be good in TTT. Even though I wasn’t 100 percent, I still had a job to do and had to perform in different areas that I wasn’t used to, to chase down breakaways or the team time trial. Then after all that was done, now it’s time to put the finishing touches and haul ass uphill. It’s not a magic show, it doesn’t come overnight.

VN: Did you learn anything during your troubles that can help you now?

TD: In hindsight, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The last years of experience have made me a much better cyclist. I’ve been in races where I have not been strong and I had to be in the peloton. I had to do jobs that I never had to do. I’ve been dealt with disappointment, and I‘ve realized how important this sport is to me and how to deal with disappointment. I’ve also realized that my family is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter what people say about you. It doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day. It was very difficult. Sometimes, I really had a hell of a time.

VN: Who was there to help you get through it?

TD: My wife, Stephanie, was a savior. She really spent a lot of time with me and really worked hard with me on everything. There were some close people – I don’t want to start naming names because they know who they are – certain people who reached out to me. I owe them a lot. I have my family, my wife, her family and other close friends who stood by me and didn’t allow me to go the other direction. Stephanie was the key person in all of this. She said, ‘Tom, you can do this; this other guy is not you.’ I was getting confused, maybe I am not a good climber, maybe I cannot win races? They said, no, you have to keep working.

VN: Did you ever consider quitting cycling?

TD: I never thought about quitting. I got frustrated sometimes. Some days I would come back from a big training ride and wish I was further along than I was. Then five minutes later, I was already thinking about my next training ride, about my next race. It’s in my blood. I’m not going to walk away from it. It’s an adventure for everyone. I can say I’ve been through this or that, but the other guys in the peloton can all say the same thing. This sport is crazy hard. Just all the stuff that happens in one race – parked cars on the side of the road, you hit a pothole and almost crash, a dog runs out on the course, you’re tired and cramping and then you start getting attacked – it’s just chaos! The ones who are good are the ones who can ignore all the chaos and focus on the finish line. The champions are the ones who can manage all the crap. I am getting better at that, to manage all the negative things that come with being a pro cyclist.

VN: How would you characterize your form right now compared to how it was, say two or three years ago?

TD: That’s all relative. I can only say what I see from my perspective and then you can see it on the race. Everyone can make their judgment in the race. The key thing to focus on is that I am happy, I am strong, and I have great people around me. I am in a good place right now. If you want to compare that to before, I am in a better place now than I was then. I don’t want to make any goals or expectations. We’ll just start the prologue in Holland and then see what happens.

VN: You’re going to the Vuelta without any specific goals besides doing the best you can?

TD: I’ve got my goals. Every athlete has their goals and aspirations, but I don’t feel like I have to say anything. It’s just all numbers any way. I am just going to go to the race in a good mental place and good physical place, part of a great team and see how it goes.

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