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Q&A: Can Discovery’s Danielson win Langkawi again?

When Tom Danielson arrived on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi two years ago, he was a little-known American climbing specialist making his debut with the Saturn team. A little more than a week later the former collegiate mountain-bike racer had announced himself to the world, winning the 10-day stage race in decisive fashion. Danielson would go on to parlay his win in Southeast Asia into a contract with Italian Division I power squad Fassa Bortolo where he was supposed to begin his ascension of pro cycling’s elite ranks. But the 2004 campaign was mostly a dud for the 26 year old.

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By Jason Sumner, VeloNews associate editor

Danielson and Discovery will kick things off in Malaysia

Danielson and Discovery will kick things off in Malaysia

Photo: Jason Sumner

When Tom Danielson arrived on the Malaysian resort island of Langkawi two years ago, he was a little-known American climbing specialist making his debut with the Saturn team. A little more than a week later the former collegiate mountain-bike racer had announced himself to the world, winning the 10-day stage race in decisive fashion.

Danielson would go on to parlay his win in Southeast Asia into a contract with Italian Division I power squad Fassa Bortolo where he was supposed to begin his ascension of pro cycling’s elite ranks. But the 2004 campaign was mostly a dud for the 26 year old. After being promised start spots for the Giro and Vuelta, Fassa team management pulled the plug on Danielson’s grand tour debut both times. Even before the Vuelta snub, Danielson knew his days on the Italian team were numbered, and he jumped at the chance to sign on with the new Discovery Channel team for 2005.

Now, with a new team, renewed focus and the hope that he’ll finally get his chance to deliver on the promise he showed in Malaysia two years ago, Danielson finds himself back where it all started, ready to tackle the 10th Tour de Langkawi, which kicks off Friday. VeloNews caught up with the Durango, Colorado resident during the trip across the Pacific from Los Angeles to Malaysia to find out what happened with Fassa Bortolo, what’s the plan for this year’s TdL, and when he’ll finally be making that grand tour debut.

VeloNews: What went wrong with Fassa Bortolo?
Tom Danielson: Really I still don’t understand everything that happened last year. I came onto the team and they said they wanted to develop me, and they were like you’ll do the Giro. We don’t expect you to win or even get any results, just to learn.

Well, I was riding really well before the Giro, but at the last minute they’re like no you’re not doing the Giro. They went with older guys that had already done it 10 times or whatever. There were guys that were obviously for Petacchi, but they sent other guys for Petacchi who would be in the race a little bit, too. I would have gladly gone on the front and did some work. I think that would have been perfect for me. But for whatever reason they decided they didn’t want me to go, and they didn’t give me any reason.

Touching down on the island of Langkawi.

Touching down on the island of Langkawi.

Photo: Jason Sumner

VN: Did the whole experience make 2004 kind of a lost year?
TD: It kind of looks like that on paper. But I really needed last year. Results wise it could have been better had I been on a different team, or had that team taken a stronger interest in me, but I still think it was a great experience. I went to races in Europe that were super, super difficult, and rode with a team that didn’t help me at all. I was basically like a privateer in these hors categorie stage races.

VN: What’s your goal for this year’s Tour de Langkawi?
TD: A nice suntan (laugh, laugh). No really, when I sat down with [Discovery team boss] Johan [Bruyneel] he didn’t even tell me I was doing Langkawi until the end of the conversation. He started the conversation with you’re doing the Giro, that’s your first goal of the year. We want you go well there. We want you to try to do some good stages. Hopefully have a good overall. Then he worked backwards from that with training camps and finally got to Langkawi as the beginning.

It makes sense. It’s basically the race that started my career. I have a lot of good memories. Starting the year there I don’t think it could be a better story.

Danielson was the star of the Langkawi show in 2003.

Danielson was the star of the Langkawi show in 2003.

Photo: Jason Sumner

VN: Do you think you can you keep the focus to later in the season and still go well in Malaysia?
TD: I don’t know. I’d like to say I could do that. It’s a tough call. During the hours that we were on the plane [13 between LAX and Taipei, then another 4.5 to Kuala Lumpur] I was thinking to myself, I’ve trained really hard so far this year and the team has had me train super hard to keep building and building. Perhaps I’m coming into this race a little overtrained.

So you wonder if I’m going to step it up for a grand tour, then in theory I could do pretty decent here just for training. It hurts to go up the hill either way. But I don’t know. Some of these guys might be focused on this. We saw that in 2003. The Colombian guys are focused on this race and you don’t see them for the rest of the season. I’d say that in 2003 I came into form really quickly for this race, and then I raced a good season but never reached that same level again.

VN: Just one good day here can equal an overall win don’t you think?
TD: Exactly. [The hors categorie climb up into the Genting Highlands] is the race. I look at the profile and all there are no other difficult stages. But if I’m riding in the red zone the whole climb then I’m going to pull plug because Johan says you don’t want to go over your limit and come to some huge peak in the middle of February and then at Paris-Nice you’re struggling. It would be better to come out of this race strong. This is a hard race, so if you come out of it strong and then I’d say a good race at Paris-Nice is what you’d be looking at.

VN: Have roles for the team here been laid out yet?
TD: I think we have a really interesting team, a really complete team. Michael Barry is riding really strong right now; he could do some big things. And [first-year Japanese pro Fumiyuki Beppu] is riding really strong right now. I think it would be really cool if we could get some stage wins, maybe a good overall. Even bigger would be for Fumi to win the blue jersey as the best Asian rider. It could play out as an interesting race for all of us.

VN: Is there any added pressure because this is the first race for Discovery?
TD: Yeah, Langkawi starts a day earlier than the Tour of Qatar, and there’s definitely a little bit of excitement to see who wins the first race for Discovery. My bet would be Max van Heeswijk. He’s riding really well. He’s at Qatar, so unless we get a sprint stage win the first day at Langkawi I think Max is going to get the first win.

VN: Fair to say you’re pretty happy to be a part of the Discovery team?
TD: No doubt. The team has a contagious work ethic. You see how focused Johan is. You know how hard Lance works. He’s the top of mountain. You see the staff. You see Trek with their engineers doing all the wind tunnel stuff, and you see Bontrager constantly pushing the limits on the wheels, Nike with the clothing. Our new shorts are supposed to save 15 percent of wind drag. You see all that and you say the least I could do is do that climb one more time or do another hour of training.

If these guys are not sleeping at night to make sure that everything is above and beyond the competition then you need to make sure you engine is above and beyond the competition. It’s no secret why the team is so good.

[The Discovery Channel roster in Malaysia includes Danielson (USA), Barry (Can), Beppu (Jpn), Michael Creed (USA), Tony Cruz (USA), Patrick McCarthy (USA) and Hayden Roulston (NZ). Lorenzo LaPage will be the directeur sportif.]

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