Greg Daniel flunked 10th grade P.E.
It’s not an indictment of the current U.S. road racing champion, just a fact. During his sophomore year at Cherry Creek High School in Denver, Daniel missed so much school that his Physical Education teacher gave him an F.
Of course Daniel missed class to race alongside the U.S. junior national program in Belgium’s cutthroat races — probably the world’s most physically demanding events for young cyclists.
“I tried to tell [the teacher] I was doing physical activity on my trip — I was representing my country,” says Daniel, now 21. “She said it didn’t count.”
The F in P.E. is just one example of the non-traditional childhood that Daniel led during his transition from suburban kid to America’s next great bicycle racer. Like other young racers, Daniel had to blend the often lonely life of a cyclist with that of an American teen. His passion for cycling created a social barrier with schoolmates and even his parents.
So instead, Daniel sought friendship from a group of 40-year-old masters racers, who in turn treated him like a peer. As Daniel progressed in the sport, his friendship with these masters helped him navigate his sport’s various hurdles.
“In high school, my friends were all married guys who were a lot older than me,” Daniel says. “These guys sculpted me into who I am on and off the bike.”
From local talent to group ride monster
As a 13-year-old, Daniel wanted to train for Ironman triathlons, after his uncle completed two of the distance races. Unfortunately, Daniel couldn’t swim. Instead, he took his bicycle to nearby Cherry Creek Reservoir, where he pedaled for hours on a 12-mile out-and-back road. At one point, Daniel rode 100 miles by himself along the windy stretch of pavement.
The mileage was impressive for a young teen — especially one with a disability. Daniel is legally blind in his right eye. He has learned to adapt to the blindness, but must wear protective eyewar at all times.
Daniel regularly rode behind groups of masters racers. One day, a racer named Alex Gillett, noticed that the youngster was able to keep pace, and invited him to ride with the men. The two became riding buddies. After several months, Daniel told Gillett that he wanted to try the local masters group ride. The South Denver Masters often race up Deer Creek Canyon, a 3,000-foot climb in the Rocky Mountain foothills.
“He asked me if I’d call his mom to see if it was OK,” said Gillett, 44. “At that point I asked her permission to take him on rides.”
Gillett introduced Daniel to other riders in the south Denver community, including Byron Nix, 49, who was the Masters 40-plus champion at the time. They took Daniel on rides and shepherded him at fast Tuesday night criteriums. They showed him how to descend — Daniel was a natural climber, but he was slow on the downhills. After several months, the two realized that Daniel had incredible physical gifts.
“This 14-year-old kid was riding 130-mile days on his bike,” Nix said. “I was like OK, this is not normal.”
Daniel began winning local junior races, and placing in the top 10 at junior nationals as well. Gillett said that during a Category 4 criterium, 14-year-old Daniel lapped the field, and then attacked the group again.
Often, Daniel’s most impressive strides came on the group rides against the seasoned masters racers. By the time he was 15, the strongest masters riders in the group no longer dropped him on the toughest climbs, even at full effort.
“We’d secretly crank down his brakes and he’d still catch back on,” Nix said. “After he turned 15, there was no more dropping Gregory. He was dropping us.”
A group of father figures
As Daniel’s riding progressed, he began to spend more time with Nix, Gillett and other adult riders. He often rode home with them, and ate dinner with their families.
“I was a weird guy. I didn’t have tons of friends in high school,” Daniel says. “My close friends were the guys I rode with.”
Both Nix and Gillett said Daniel felt less like a kid, and more like a social contemporary on the rides. He was stronger than many of the adult riders, after all. Nix said the men viewed themselves as father figures for Daniel. Gillett said he regularly forgot that Daniel was a teenager.
“We’re talking about wives and sex and adult stuff, and it’s like oh crap, Greg’s here,” Gillette said. “You just never thought twice about it.”
The strange social dynamic is not altogether uncommon in cycling, due to the small participation numbers and solitary nature of the sport. Cycling is not baseball or basketball, where participation gains a child an immediate friend group. Daniel’s teammate Adrian Costa said his friend group was the U.S. National Team members, most of whom lived across the country.
“Cycling requires so much sacrifice on the social level — you can see why a lot of kids aren’t willing to make that tradeoff,” Costa said. “In some ways it forces you to branch off.”
Daniel’s parents were divorced, and his dad lives in North Carolina. He said his mother, Loretta, was supportive of his cycling, if a little worried that Daniel would crash and hurt himself. Neither parent, however, understood the intricacies of bicycle racing, or the grueling process by which young cyclists make their way into the professional ranks. Both regularly steered him toward school, instead of cycling, Daniel says.
His friends in the masters racing scene, however, pushed him to pursue cycling. “My friends in the Denver [cycling] community had more faith in my abilities that I did,” Daniel says.
When friendships pay off
As Daniel began to show promise as a professional, Gillett said he and Nix began offering advice to the teenager.
“At a certain point it was like Greg, you need an agent, so we helped find him an agent and negotiate commercial terms,” Gillett said. “That’s the level to which it goes with us.”
The two men were also integral to Daniel’s win this June at USA Cycling’s national championships in Winston-Salem. Nix competed in the masters race, and was slated to fly back after his event.
When Daniel arrived from Europe, he was horribly unprepared. He had left a bag containing his race nutrition at home. His time trial bike didn’t show up until the day before the race. Even worse, he had no transportation to and from the airport, and no place to stay. Race registration ate up most of the $300 stipend he received from his Axeon Hagens Berman team.
“I just arrived there without a plan,” Daniel says. “At a certain point it was like I don’t think this is going to work out.”
Daniel’s team director Axel Merckx said the team decided not to fully support riders at U.S. Nationals due to limited resources. “We told the guys we’ll support you as much as we can, and then you figure out the rest,” Merckx said. “It’s part of the learning process.”
When Nix met Daniel in Winston-Salem, he saw that the youngster was unprepared and called Gillett. The two men booked Daniel a hotel room. Nix delayed his flight so that he could stay and buy Daniel meals and hand him bottles during the race. He amassed a collection of water bottles and race food for Daniel. Since Daniel had been cramping in his European races, Nix also put together a bottle containing pickle juice.
“I told him ‘Dude, if you win, we’re all going to start drinking this stuff,’” Nix said.
Best in the USA
Daniel’s talent did not guarantee results once he hit the professional ranks. He joined Merckx’s development team in 2013, and did not win any UCI races through 2014 or 2015. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Often Daniel attacked early and often in races, and was known for long breakaways.
Merckx said Daniel attacked too much during those first few years. He struggled with his weight, and also trained too hard at times.
“It was about giving Greg time to develop and make mistakes and learn from them,” Merckx said. “He had patience and it paid off.”
At the 2016 USA Nationals, however, things clicked. Daniel attacked relentlessly during the 187km race, joining the day’s first big breakaway. The day was hot, and Daniel was worried about cramps. So when he passed through the feed zone midway through the race, Nix handed him the bottle of pickle juice.
“It tasted awful, like vinegar — it was super hot and gross,” Daniel says. “I didn’t cramp.”
With 10km remaining, Daniel slipped off the front in a group of five. When the group passed under the 2km banner, he attacked, and held the gap to the line.
At the finish, Nix greeted Daniel with a big hug.
A few days later, Daniel set out on a celebratory group ride through south Denver. More than 40 local cyclists showed up, may of them friends from his days riding around Cherry Creek Reservoir.
“It was a bunch of people who have been by my side for years,” Daniel says. “That was so cool.”