PLATEAU DE BEILLE, France (VN) — The top-ranked American in the Tour de France, Tom Danielson, found himself in trouble Saturday on the final climb in the Pyrenees of this year’s race. Garmin-Cervélo’s surprise GC leader held tough, though, losing almost a minute but moving up the leaderboard heading into the final week of the Tour.
Danielson rode the base of the 15.8km finish climb in second wheel, tucked in behind teammate Christian Vande Velde, who drove hard to keep the group in check. The Garmin veteran, fifth overall in the 2008 Tour, was one of just two domestiques left when the yellow-jersey group rolled through Les Cabannes after five categorized climbs.
“It’s always a big acceleration at the bottom,” Vande Velde told VeloNews. “There were a couple of guys going off and there weren’t many people left to pull. There weren’t many teammates that people had. I know Tommy likes it steady and hard, so I just tried to keep it fast and keep the momentum going.”
When Vande Velde slowed after a few kilometers, the first attack from Leopard-Trek’s Andy Schleck dislodged him and put Danielson into danger. The cramps in his legs told Garmin’s GC leader that he wasn’t right. The confidence Danielson felt upon arriving to the climb faded.
“I just got dehydrated or something,” he said. “I felt great all day and I felt really good in the beginning and then all of a sudden I just ran out.”
Danielson fell off the pace on a 9-percent ramp 10km from the summit and turned his focus inward. He entered the day hoping to go on the attack, saying before the start that he would turn his mind off and talk with his legs on Plateau de Beille.
“I think by the time you get to the last part of the race, there’s not really too much thinking you can do,” he told VeloNews in Saint-Gaudens. “Your legs dictate it all, so it’s probably a pretty good idea to just tune out the brain and go with the flow.”
Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters hoped the same a day after his sports director Lionel Marie set his sights on a top-five for Danielson. As Danielson, who started the day 10th overall, at 4:35, faded from the maillot jaune group, with Vande Velde already gone, Vaughters urged his rider on.
“It’s not that frustrating. I knew I was dehydrated or whatever. I started to cramp and I knew it was going to be a long climb for me and (I had to) fight all the way,” said Danielson. “Luckily Jonathan was in my ear saying, ‘Go! Go! Go! Go!’ and honestly as a rider, that’s really encouraging because GC is all about day-to-day effort and it’s not one day.”
Twice top-10 at the Vuelta a España, Danielson hung tight, even making contact with the group again with 7km remaining. Andy Schleck again attacked as he returned, though, and from there, it was up to Danielson to ride in behind the podium fight and limit his losses. He said he knew that every rider has a bad day in a grand tour — he has gone through similar at the Vuelta — and he fought on over the open upper reaches of the Tour’s final summit in the Pyrénées.
“I really had to struggle to the finish line,” he said. “But if that’s my bad day, it’s not that bad of a day and I did what I could with what I had to work with. I wanted to try and be aggressive today; I felt good, but I had trouble with the heat in the end. I just have to adapt and today was part of that process, I guess.”
While he missed the yellow-jersey group as they rode away over the final 5km, Danielson actually moved up a position in the overall with Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) turning his focus to the green jersey — the Belgian national champion surrendered 17 minutes along with his ninth overall position.
“He did what he could,” said Vaughters. “We’ll keep fighting for it. He said he was on a bit of a bad day. Everyone has a bad day on the Tour; we all know that. So if this is his bad day, hopefully he gets a little better.”
Danielson will enter stage 15, a mostly flat sprinters’ affair to Montpelier, in ninth, 5:46 behind Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and 32 seconds ahead of Quick Step’s Kevin De Weert, with whom he finished on Saturday.
Vaughters said afterward that the team, which has already won three stages, would continue to focus on the top 10 for Danielson.
“Our stated goal is top 10, and we have to stick to that,” he said. “One of these days, maybe this team will be fighting for top-five overall on the Tour.”
In his first Tour de France, 33-year-old Danielson has gone a long way toward confirming the promise of his decade-old professional career. On a bad day in the mountains, riders can lose minutes by the handful and he was optimistic as he bundled up to make the ride out of the Pyrénées for the final time in this Tour.
“It’s 21 days and to lose a minute to those guys today under those circumstances, or 55 seconds, that’s really not that bad,” he said. “I guess I can be happy with that, or I guess I will be happy with that, and I guess I’ll keep going on this adventure and see where it takes me. So far it’s been really good.”