POWDER MOUNTAIN, Utah (VN) — Tom Danielson doesn’t like the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. He loves it.
The precipitous climbs at altitude found in the Wasatch Range are tailor-made for the Garmin-Sharp rider’s lungs-on-legs physique, as highlighted by his dominance of stage 4 in which he took the victory by 57 seconds and moved into the yellow leader’s jersey.
“I would like to have more races that finish like this! Who doesn’t want to go up a 16 percent climb at 8,000 feet? I don’t know [laughs],” Danielson told VeloNews. “When I was out there, I was thinking this is really bad. It was sort of like Mount Evans, but harder.”
On a day in which the general classification was expected to blow like a powder keg, it erupted on the relentless ascension of Powder Mountain.
Some riders were terrified of its grade, based solely on stories they’d heard. Others were laughing in anticipation of what stood between them and the finish line of stage 4.
Danielson made it look easy, spinning gracefully in and out of the saddle. But it was anything but.
“It was the hardest climb I’ve ever done. Like Mount Washington back east but at 8,000 feet,” Danielson said, standing at the summit of what many have called the hardest climb in Utah. “The tough thing is that, at altitude, guys like Chris [Horner] and I climb a lot out of the saddle. You have to be really efficient because you start using your arms and it takes the oxygen away from your legs.”
For a rider who has had nothing but disappointments across much of the season — illnesses, ailments, and injuries — and whose form was a question mark coming into this week, Danielson proved any doubters wrong. He could win; he was the best climber in the race; he, in fact, should be considered the favorite, and was now the race leader.
How’d he turn it around?
“Do you want the honest answer? I went down to my home in Tucson; I know that Mount Lemmon is a really good place for me,” he said. “It’s kind of redundant in the sense that it’s one climb. It really forces me to work on my weaknesses there. I went down there, I had a lot of friends and family there, my parents came out, I had great support. I got up every single day at 4:30 in the morning because it’s real hot down there, but I knew I needed the heat too, because I knew it was going to be hot out here. And today was hot. I really focused and put in a lot of work, and when I’m happy, I have good form — and I’m very happy.”
On Powder Mountain, any weakness in Danielson’s form was hard to see. He dropped Horner (Lampre-Merida) with more than 5 kilometers to go and steadily drifted up the road. The grind to the summit was methodical, mechanical, and built upon the Tucson training of weeks ago.
“This type of climbing is my forte,” Danielson said. “[But in Tucson] I worked on more power stuff that helps me on this [type of climb]; it helps me with my hips and my glutes, a lot of stuff that helps me produce the same power I can on the steep stuff, but on flatter roads. OK, it was really hard in the end, but all day it was fast and I was able to stay really within myself, which enabled me to have so much left at the end.”
Horner watched him drift away, was joined by Ben Hermans (BMC Racing), and the two labored behind, losing nearly a second for every hundred meters they traveled. Meanwhile, Danielson kept tapping away, his sport director Bingen Fernandez coaxing him on as they crawled up the coarse pavement of the winter resort’s access road.
“On TV [it might have looked like last year’s stage to Snowbird], but it really wasn’t because it was all tailwind,” Horner said. “Danielson was in control the whole time. I just couldn’t get any draft the whole time and, of course, I got popped before the climb eased up so, at altitude you can either ease up and lose a minute, or blow up and lose five.”
Of course, Danielson was the first to admit that his Garmin teammates played a massive role in the effort, and in that control; they were as relentless throughout the stage as he was on Powder Mountain’s pitches late in the stage.
“Ben [King] had a shoulder that kept him up all night, he’s feeling bad, he’s got a saddle sore, and he didn’t even want to start this morning,” Danielson said. “But he was phenomenal today. To Phil [Gaimon], to Gavin [Mannion], to Janier [Acevedo]. Alex [Howes] was amazing in the end. That win was for the team.”
For Gaimon, the effort he put in on the second passage over the North Ogden Divide and through the valley leading to the final climb was about more than just teamwork.
“We knew Tom was the best climber here,” he said. “And I owe Tom a lot, on and off the bike. It was good to finally get a chance to repay him. He helped me get on the team; he worked his ass off for me at Tour de San Luis. I’ve owed him one for a long time. I was glad to cap it off and watch him nail it.”
With a 57-second lead, and what looks to be impeccable form, Danielson is in the driver’s seat for a second consecutive Tour of Utah victory. His team was able to produce such substantial time gaps that it should prove easier to control the race over the next three stages.
Stage 5 looks to be one where sprinters will have their final chance to duel. Stage 6, the Queen Stage, is almost a replica of the stage in which Danielson and Horner dueled for supremacy in 2013; on that day, Horner rode slyly to take the stage win, while Danielson solidified his place in the overall. And, of course, stage 7 will be a repeat of last year’s loop from Park City, through Wolf Creek, over the monstrous Empire Pass, and into Park City — a stage in which Danielson out-climbed nearly everyone except for Francisco Mancebo and Acevedo, who rode for 5-hour Energy and Jamis-Hagens Berman last season.
But Danielson knows it isn’t over until he crosses the line in Park City.
“Cycling is a really humbling sport and I’m too smart to know that there are no challenges around the corner,” he said. “I’m really just going to enjoy this victory; we’ll come up with objectives tomorrow and work on those, and then we’ll get to the other stages, and if we get there OK, then we’ll worry about it then.”
Gaimon, however, has no doubts about his abilities to repeat.
“If you know Tom, you know this [type of climbing] is his gem,” Gaimon said. “He’s great at training; I ride with Tom and I know that no one trains harder than Tom Danielson. I didn’t really question [his form] for a minute. If there’s anything Tom’s good at, it’s going up a 4K, 20 percent whatever the heck that was. No one can touch him on that, probably in the world.”