By Andrew Hood
Tom Danielson is racing in this week’s Tour de Romandie in Switzerland, his third major stage race in Europe since penning a two-year deal with the Italian team Fassa Bortolo.
The 26-year-old Coloradan is quickly learning the ropes of European-style racing. His first race with Fassa Bortolo was GP Costa delgi Etruschi, an early season jaunt along the Italian coast. Hassles with his working papers prompted a quick trip back to Colorado in March before his first ‘real’ race at Setmana Catalana, a tough UCI-rated 2.1 race in northern Spain.
Illness promoted Danielson to pull out of the even more challenging Tour of the Basque Country in early April. At Romandie this week, Danielson is riding hard with the hopes of impressing Fassa Bortolo brass to give him a spot in the upcoming Giro d’Italia.
VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood spoke with Danielson as he was preparing for Romandie at his home in Italy earlier this month. Here are excerpts from that interview:
VeloNews: You had to pull out at Tour of the Basque Country, what happened there?
Tom Danielson: I felt like I had sand in my bronchial tubes. At first I thought it was allergies, but I couldn’t breathe at all. I felt clammy like I had the flu. On the third day, I tried to start that third stage and I couldn’t breathe. I was gargling! Those guys don’t ride slowly. You can’t just sit in on a race Basque Country. I stayed on at the hotels during the race and took some antibiotics. It was depressing to watch the racing on TV from the hotel room every day.
VN: How was your first real European race at Setmana Catalana?
TD: I did a one-day race in Etruschi (Feb. 8), but that was more like a one-day training ride. It was quite easy compared to Setmana Catalana. After that I had to make my trip home because of those visa problems I had, so I had no racing between Etruschi and Catalana. That was my first experience and then I saw everything. Each day was a new surprise. In other races I’ve been in, you’ve had a core group of guys who could win. Here, every guy is capable of winning. These are the best teams in the world with the best riders in the world. No one sends a rider here just to train. It was a new experience for me to see 200 guys going 100 percent like that.
VN: How have you adjusted to Europe so far?
TD: It’s all very new. It takes a bit experience trying to figure out what you need to do at the right times to go through the changes as quickly as possible. It takes people a couple of years to get used to the new lifestyle. Even when I’m coming home, I’m coming to the newness; new TV, new food, new town, new language. People don’t realize the energy that goes into taking in all those experiences, to manage everything, not just bike racing. Dealing with the big names, with the travel, with new teammates, the staff, new house, that’s where you can lose energy at this level.
VN: Do you feel like you’re arrived or you’re just starting?
TD: It’s very exciting to be here, but I have to make a decision. There are two ways of looking at being here. First, this can be a dream come true for me and I’m just happy to put on jersey to be part of it. Or I can think of the big picture, that I want to do it well. I need to keep focused. I can’t just say I’ve made it.
VN: You must be satisfied to be racing in Europe?
TD: I would say one goal has been accomplished. It was a big goal but small goal at the same time. I’m at a place that I never thought about being, I never dreamed of getting here. Three years ago this wouldn’t even have mentioned this as part of the best-case scenario, dream come true for you life – I wouldn’t say this – I couldn’t even dream this. So it was a huge goal to get here, but I can’t just pat myself on back. I did that in October, now I have to move on and focus on my job.
VN: So you realized you have some hard work ahead of you?
TD: It’s not easy here. At the level I want to get to – only a few can do it – the first step is stay true to your goal. When you wake up and when you go to bed, you have to think about racing, and not get rapped up on how cool it is to be here. You don’t change your methodology. I have yet to go to a disco here in Italy. I hear they’re insane. Maybe at the end of the year; I’ll save that for October.
VN: What’s been the most surprising thing?
TD: Racing with people you’ve seen in the magazines. It’s not just 5-6-7- guys who can win – now you have 200 guys in peloton. Now they’re all over the place. I have to get past that. It was difficult in the first race. I’d come into the climb, kind of fighting for position, I’d look over my shoulder, it’s Simoni, okay, let him in, then you bump into someone else, it’s Ullrich – it’s Mayo – pretty soon you’re 50-60-80 guys back. The split happens and you miss the group over the climb. You have to have the experience and knowledge. You learn you can’t come from 80 guys back and make the front group. They’re already gone. They’re going at this super robotic inhumane pace. There’s so much to the sport, it’s amazing. I have to learn and have to learn quickly.
VN: How is racing in American different that what you’ve seen in Europe so far?
TD: The tactics we used last year you can’t use here. At Saturn, we had Chris Horner, who is the master tactician. He has everything completely figured out, every race we went to, he knew how to read it. Here, you couldn’t use those tactics, because it’s just the strongest guy on the strongest team who wins. There’s a natural process of elimination, through horse power and difficult courses, which means that you can’t be there unless you’re the strongest.
VN: Romandie is up next for you, what do you expect there?
TD: Romandie is a super important race for me. It will make the difference if I get to do the Giro. The team is a different situation from in the beginning of the year because the GC guy, Dario Frigo, might not do the Giro (editor’s note: Fassa Bortolo announced April 26 Frigo would indeed skip the Giro). I had a spot in Giro if I could pedal, but now they’re looking at sending a full team for Petacchi to get the guaranteed win. If I have a good ride in Romandie, prove I can do something in the Giro, whether it’s a stage or something, they still might take me.
VN: If you don’t do the Giro, what then?
TD: If I don’t go to the Giro, I’ll probably race the Tour of Luxembourg. After the Giro, then it’s the Tour du Suisse – that would be it then with a break in July, but who knows, if I don’t make the Giro, maybe I’ll do the other race. I hope to do the Tour or Giro.
VN: And the Vuelta?
TD: The team is going to the Vuelta and it’s on my schedule, but I don’t think it’s possible to do two grand tours in my first year. People don’t understand what it’s like over here, how fast it is, how difficult it is. Just after the two Spanish races I’ve done, those are hard racers. It’s important to come out of the season with confidence, and not get destroyed in terms of grinding me up. It’s real important to be smart. My team is looking after me , not putting me under any pressure.
VN: How are you fitting in with Fassa Bortolo?
TD: All the guys are fantastic. It’s real inspiring to have them helping me. One of the things I’m having trouble with is staying in the bunch. Before the climbs, with 20 strong teams on these tiny little roads, there’s only room for six across the road, do the math and there’s not enough room for everyone to be at the front. Then I realized it’s going to take time to learn. When you start to do it well, it comes as second nature. Guys that need to get to the front just get there. You see that on the team with Frank Vandenbroucke, who is so knowledgeable. He has that Chris Horner feel to him. He knows all the roads, knows all the racers, all the races. Just watching him at Catalana, he was always at right place at right time. He never wasted any energy. He was precise and calculating, something I hope to get to.
VN: How are getting along with Fassa Bortolo team boss Giancarlo Ferretti?
TD: It’s been good. It’s different, for sure, with the language. I’ve taught him some English. Whenever he sees me he says ‘hi.’ He thinks he’s funny. But he’s got that mentality that Italian is the only language you’ve got to know. My Italian is improving. Sometimes I’d like to explain things to him and I have to use a translator to talk, but it’s frustrating. We have a good relationship. I don’t have any problems with him. He’s real aggressive, real passionate about his team. Sometimes he comes off with this angry, intimidating aura, but can I understand it a little bit. He just has so much love for sport. He’s like a father to all of us.
VN: Don’t you live close to him as well?
TD: I live like 10 minutes away. Living that close to him I see his morals, his concepts about life. He lives very modestly. He’s so passionate about cycling. He lives each year for that year, not in the past even though he’s a legend. He has a lot of confidence and faith in me. Before this year even started, he told me, ‘The first year, I don’t expect anything with you. Just settle in with the team.’ Then the second year, that’s a different story.
VN: Who do you room with on the road?
TD: Dario Cioni, he’s my buddy on the team. We’re real similar. He speaks English and was former mountain biker awhile ago. He was before my time. He knows guys like Ned (Overend), he went through some of the same things I went through, being the new guy in the peloton, being strong enough to be at the front when your capacity is ahead of your skills. He helps me out a lot.”
VN: You’ve signed a two-year deal with Fassa Bortolo, what’s in store for next year?
TD: That’s when I have to step it up, be a player and get on the podium. Next year I’d really like to win some races. The team would like me to win some races. What races they are, I don’t know. I haven’t done these races, so after the end of the year, then I can answer the better. Now I don’t know what to expect, the team has super non-chalant attitude with me, just go do whatever, go open your eyes and take it all in. I meet every day with the sport directors. They sit down with me and talk to me for a long time; no pressure, this is what you did right, did wrong, calls from them every day. They check in and see how I’m doing.”
VN: Are you happy that you waited another year to race with Saturn before coming to Europe?
TD: Absolutely. The first reason is that I had some good results. I won Malaysia and that basically opened all the doors to get me here. Had I not had that result, it would have been much harder to get noticed. I have that good international result that backs it up. For the other reason, my experience level went through a huge learning curve in the United States. Had I jumped over here right away, the learning curve would have been so steep, it would have been almost impossible. It might have been too difficult. It was important to get all the experience I could in the United States. Three years ago I was racing Cat. 3 with the pros 1-2, thinking, ‘holy crap, this is fast, I can’t do this is.’ Then I went to Gila, I was thinking, ‘this fast is insane, I can’t do this.’ I kept riding above myself. Then I signed with Mercury, then I went to China, ‘whoa, this is crazy, way too fast, this is insane, why am I here?’ My first initial reaction in my body and mind is always, ‘this is too much.’ But I’m able to overcome it, able to adapt.”
VN: So everything must be very exciting for you?
TD: It is very exciting. Everything happens for a reason. That’s why we’re alive; to accomplish goals. It keeps the blood running through our veins. I always wanted to be pro, I always wanted to ride a pro jersey, to be able to ride around in the expo area, more so just to be cool. I never thought I would be at this level.”
VN: Some say you’re the future of American cycling – what do you think when you hear that ?
TD: It’s difficult. I don’t take it or swallow it or accept it. Those other guys are at a level that’s amazing. They’re huge idols to me. I watch videos of Lance Armstrong before I got to bed. I think I’m him when I’m climbing. I have posters of Greg Lemond. It’s flattering to hear, but I have a lot to prove and a lot to achieve. I have a long way to go. I’ve been very inspired by the fans, by the people that have been saying good things. That’s very motivational to me, to work hard, to race hard.”
VN: How far do you think you can go in your career?
TD: I think I can do well. I haven’t done a grand tour. Based on the way I’ve done in smaller tours, based on the way I’ve been able to step it up each year and achieve more every single year – if I can continue on that track – I can do a good finish in the grand tours. They’re suited for me, I like long climbs, I like long mountains. That’s the sort of riding I’m best at, the day to day racing. That’s my goal. I’m using every single race and take it all in, digest it and work on my weak points, then in 3 to 4 years, when I hit my prime 29-31, when I have the experience, then I’ll be ready.