Commentary: Danielson opens new chapter on Cottonwood Pass

Garmin climber is carrying a new swagger and a more free, attacking style in Colorado

ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — Tom Danielson is a new man.

Before his brave, solo stage win at the USA Pro Challenge on Wednesday, Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) had gone more than three years since his last individual victory, at the 2009 Vuelta a Burgos, and more than five years since his stage 17 win at the 2006 Vuelta a España. The mild-mannered veteran changed all that when he held a two-second gap ahead of 26 chasers after a lonesome attack over Independence Pass on what is, on paper, the hardest stage of the 2012 USA Pro Challenge.

“First of all, I’d just like to say I’ve had my ass kicked by the queen stage in every single race that I’ve ever done,” Danielson told VeloNews. “My wife was like, ‘You’ve got a problem with queen stages, so let’s try to fix that, and you just attack from the beginning and you handle the queen stage your own way.’

“So that’s what we did today. Fortunately it went with the team’s plan.”

The team’s plan thus far in Colorado has been to punch its rivals in the face from the start. For his part, Danielson has been slaphappy here. The Fort Lewis College alum waited in the shadows at the team presentation Saturday night and took the microphone after Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin were finished with their emcee duties to express his thanks to the local community for hosting what he called his home race. Talking to him afterward, Danielson was floating on air.

The mood surrounding the Connecticut native-turned-Colorado resident is unlike any we’ve seen from the Garmin man. Danielson carries the swagger of a man confident in his fitness, but more so one that is free to attack and surf the front of the race as long as he’s able. It’s as if the aggressive style that Garmin has brought to this tour is just what the normally cautious Danielson needed to let loose on the road.

He let loose on Wednesday, bridging across to the early breakaway on Cottonwood Pass and finally attacking alone onto the 32km descent from the 12,095-foot Independence Pass. Garmin sports science director Robby Ketchell was there, slamming his left hand on the team car door and urging Danielson on.

“I noticed today when he bridged to the break that that was something different than I’d seen him do before. He went with some aggression and explosiveness,” Ketchell told VeloNews. “He definitely is confident and more aggressive… It’s something that he’s always been working on.

“It’s about really just being able to throw things on the line and doing things like he did today, just throwing things out there and putting things to chance. Once he did that, everything else can just fall into place.”

Danielson told VeloNews last fall that he was working on his edginess, and he was in contact with at least one sport psychologist to discuss rekindling the killer instinct that saw him named by many as “the next Lance Armstrong” a decade ago. But a string of maladies tore Danielson down when he got his shots, like in the 2009 Vuelta, when a stomach bug in the mountains saw him drop from fourth overall out of contention. The same happened here in 2011 when he again went down with a bug on the night of the Aspen finish, before the Vail Pass time trial.

Danielson went to the Tour de Langkawi this spring to “rediscover how it feels to win,” but left that race early after crashing hard. Another pair of crashes at the Tour de France in July knocked Danielson back again, but he came to Colorado with this new swagger and attacked nearly from kilometer zero on Monday.

“Today was really a cyclist’s dream. I had envisioned it many times. I tried on stage 1, but that didn’t work out, and then on stage 2, it wasn’t anything like this,” said Danielson. “And today, I told the team, and they love the crazy tactics, they just said, ‘Oh that sounds great, let’s do it.’”

“Let’s do it” translated into putting Dave Zabriskie and Nathan Haas into the early break, firing off attacks from Christian Vande Velde, Peter Stetina and Alex Howes on Cottonwood Pass to set up a counter attack from Danielson, and then urging Zabriskie to pull the six-man breakaway to Independence Pass. And yes, the plan worked out — barely.

Danielson rode onto the flats outside of Aspen alone, 30 seconds in front of a hard-charging chase group led by yellow jersey Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Lucas Euser (Spidertech-C10). With 2km to go, the gap shrank to just over 10 seconds.

“What went through my mind was my wife yelling at me: ‘Don’t look back! Don’t ever look back!’ I wanted to look back so bad,” said Danielson.

If he had, Danielson may have seen the 26-rider group strung out in pursuit. As it was, he kept pushing and with a kilometer to go, he knew he had the win. It was the first time in 2,171 days, since that mountain stage at the Vuelta half a decade ago, that Danielson had won a road stage.

The win marked a new chapter for Danielson — one that didn’t start in 2011 when he finished ninth at the Tour de France or in Durango over the weekend. It started on Cottonwood Pass Wednesday with a longshot attack that came good.