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By Andrew Hood
Tom Danielson will line up Saturday as an outright protected team captain for the first time of his career, poised to improve on his seventh place finish in last year’s Vuelta a España.
The 28-year-old says it’s all systems go for a three-week Vuelta laden with mountains and short on time trials, a recipe that could serve up Danielson with the chance to become just the second American to stand on the final Vuelta podium.
Fresh off his first European victory at the Tour of Austria, Danielson will lead a strong and motivated Discovery Channel team keen to make up for disappointment from this year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood recently caught up with Danielson to reflect on the Vuelta, why he pulled out of the Giro and on critics who say he’ll never win a major European grand tour.* Here are excerpts from the interview:
VeloNews: You’re going to be a team captain for the first time, you must be excited about the opportunity?
Tom Danielson: I am excited about, but I am past the being excited part and more into the job frame of mind. I feel like I am ready. I feel like my training is there. My experience is coming along. I’m really focused on the race and I feel like I can do well. Just having the team believe in me and trust me is important. Instead of putting pressure on me and throwing me off the deep end, I feel like they’ve let me progress evenly. It’s like building the house from the foundation, not trying to put on the roof first.
VN: Of course you want to do well in GC, but how would you define success in this Vuelta?
TD: For me, a good Vuelta is to climb faster than I’ve climbed all year and time trial faster than I have all year and ride with the most confidence I have all year. If I put all those together, I would be happy. I know I am capable of being one of the best climbers in the peloton and now I want go out and show it. You can’t quantify that with a result. I want to perform well.
VN: Some people think you might be too soft for the big tours? How do you react to such critics?
TD: I hear that all the time. I know where I am in my career. I know my age, my body and my team knows. I’m doing this because I love it. What people say about me and their expectations of me are their own business. Grand tours are very, very, very hard; harder than people think. This is the reality. People say, if he doesn’t do well in the Giro this year, he’ll never do a good Giro. The book says (Ivan) Basso is 28 years old and he won the Giro and people wonder if you’re 28 and you haven’t won a grand tour, you’ll never win a grand tour. You know where I was when Basso won the U-23 world championships? I was thinking about the Tuesday Night ride [in Durango]. My goal was to beat Ned Overend.
VN: You don’t feel any extra pressure coming into this year’s race?
TD: My path is different than other people. I know I am going in the right direction. I didn’t start my professional career until I was 26. This is really only my third season. I’ve come a long way and I have a long way to go. I love what I do. People will always make judgment, but the only person who can make it happen is me. I am going to make it happen.
VN: With five summit finishes, you must be champing at the bit with this Vuelta route?
TD: I think it suits climbers. Anytime you go uphill, it suits climbers. With five mountaintop finishes – that’s a lot – if you’re one of the best climbers, this offers five excellent opportunities to take time out on people.
VN: And what about the time trials?
TD: The first stage is a bit of a show. The team time trial at seven kilometers, we’ll hardly even be started. The team we’re bringing is the strongest we’ve ever brought to a Vuelta. The other two time trials are not that long. It’s not like you can take two minutes on the others like at the long TTs in the Tour. The top 10 last year were like within one minute of each other in the final TT.
VN: Have you been training especially for the time trial?
TD: I have been a lot on the time trial bike. The more you ride and more you stimulate the muscles you need in the race, the more comfortable you are in the position. Part of it is being smart, having a good position, good experiment. You need to look at the time trial as a place to make up time. I did some wind-tunnel testing at the beginning of the year for the first time. It was a pretty cool experience. We also did some testing in the L.A. velodrome. That’s pretty valuable as well. You never really feel the position when you’re not putting the power out.
VN: How have you changed your position?
TD: I lowered the front end and manipulated the aero’ bars a little closer in. It’s a unique structure where I can curl my shoulders in and roll them back in. I can get the front of my body into a low amount of drag.
VN: Earlier this year, you were strong in the Giro, but had to pull out, what happened?
TD: I got sick with a fever in stage 12. I knew I was sick, but I kept riding to help Savoldelli. It was difficult for me and there really wasn’t a stage to take a day and get my immune system back under control. I completely had had enough. I had a sinus infection because my immune system was so low, then I had bronchitis. The last three stages I was really sick. For me it was really disappointing to have to leave the race, but at the same I quickly realized my job at the Giro was to support my team and Savoldelli and I did that.
VN: Were you upset you couldn’t finish the race? You were so close, just two stages to go?
TD: Things don’t always go as planned. My career is young. I’m 28. I have many years ahead of me and now I am learning the grand tour thing. I don’t have to justify myself to anyone why I got sick or what happened. I knew I came to the race in good condition and even in the second half, when I was sickest as I’ve been. The human side of me was saying, Tom, you’re sick, but the bike racer part of me was saying I had to help Savoldelli. I was so sick that last night I didn’t even care. The only thing I could think about was getting back my health. The point is I went to the Giro and did my job. I am satisfied and I am one step closer to becoming a grand tour rider.
VN: So you’re glad to have Triki Beltran on Vuelta the team?
TD: The whole team will be very good. He just knows the race so well. Between him and Johan, they know the Vuelta well and how we can put the strategy together for each day. Every day is important. They know the crosswinds, they know the small climbs. That kind of knowledge is priceless. Triki is always on the radio, telling us, okay guys, the next climb is 1.2km long and it bends to the right past that oak tree there. The guys know the Vuelta like no one.
VN: How big was it for you to win the Tour of Austria?
TD: It was good for me. I hadn’t won a race in Europe so I was very excited. It was nice to do it and it was a really nice win. It has big mountains and it’s at altitude and had a time trial. I wasn’t in super good condition and I came in after taking a break, so it shows how I’ve improved a lot overall. It shows how I am reading the race and understanding the race better. I’m improving in the peloton. Any win in Europe is special. Any race in Europe is hard. It’s just a higher level over here. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Giro or the Tour de l’Ain, they’re just good. Guys you never heard of can make it a hard race.
* Editor’s note: This interview contains some elements of an earlier, post-Giro interview with Danielson.