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PARK CITY, Utah (VN) — The result was the same, but the method was mighty different.
Tom Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) defended his overall victory at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, but he did it in dominating fashion this year — rather than, as he said, stumbling into the opportunity after helping young teammate Lachlan Morton defend the yellow jersey last year. He was aided by a young, inexperienced team that stepped into the void to help him land a second straight title.
It came on the heels of a disappointing 2014 early season that was filled with personal difficulties, lackluster results, injuries, and ailments.
“I’m proud of myself for being a good leader this week … I have to thank my team for sticking with me and believing in me this year,” Danielson told VeloNews. “[General manager Jonathan Vaughters] could have sent me a bunch of nasty e-mails saying, ‘OK man, we pay you a lot of money, you need to do something, you’re sucking.’ Instead, he said, ‘Alright, we have faith in you, you just go do your thing.’ So I was really happy to get this victory for those guys, it means a lot.”
Danielson retreated to his home and training terrain in Tucson, Arizona, using the slopes of Mount Lemmon to dial in his fitness, find happiness, and set out on a late summer blitz through the second half of the season. His big lungs and heart were there from birth; he has learned through experience that he prefers the relatively lower altitude of his Arizona training camp to the high alpine terrain of Colorado to hone his form. And hone it he did.
He came into the race saying he was on great form, but the evidence was lacking. He didn’t take long to prove any doubters wrong; his grinding performance on his way to a stage victory atop Powder Mountain was near perfect, and set the stage for his team to take control of the race by the straps of its bibs.
Not only that, but Danielson seemed to be relishing the leadership role that he has struggled to manage over the years. He stepped up, and his team backed him with complete faith.
“He’s great [as a leader],” teammate Ben King told VeloNews. “He gets really excited. He’s an older guy and he still gets excited about bike racing, so that motivates the team, keeps the morale up. After the first stage, when I was suffering a lot, he came to the room and he gave me this pep talk, telling me that coming off the Tour I’ve got a big engine and I just need a little time to get started.”
King certainly fulfilled his duty to the team, and to Danielson, slaving at the front of the race and sacrificing himself day after day, having just finished his first Tour de France only eight days before the Tour of Utah set off in Cedar City.
“On paper, I might have looked like I was struggling — on the first day I had one of the worst days on the bike, coming from sea level, eight days after the Tour, jet lag, I suffered a lot on the bike — but I think I just had to sweat out some French fries and ice cream I ate after the Tour de France,” King said. “On paper it might look like I had a pretty bad week, but I’m proud of my performance here. It was a big team effort for Tommy D. Honestly, I finished way behind, but it might be one of the best Tours of Utah I’ve ridden, in my abilities to support the team, the work that I did on the front all week, chasing big breakaways and keeping them under control.
But the effort wasn’t without its difficulties and mistakes. Alex Howes, for one, readily admitted that the team’s inexperience showed. They may have had the legs, they may have been strong throughout the week, but they were still young and, at times, disorganized.
“That just kind of shows that we’re a young team. Honestly, I think we learned quite a bit in this one week,” Howes told VeloNews. “This was the first time that guys like me and Ben were out there calling the shots. To be honest, we screwed it up a couple times. But I think we’re really happy with the way things went. Obviously we won, and we’re pretty excited about that.”
Whether Danielson can take his newfound leadership skills and cajole his young team in Colorado, for the USA Pro Challenge, as he did in Utah is yet to be seen. Having gone to college in the state, at Fort Lewis College, and lived in Boulder for many years, Danielson considers the USA Pro Challenge to be his home race. He’d like nothing more than to take victory in his backyard.
“I wish we were doing the same climbs in Colorado that we have [in Utah],” Danielson said. “Obviously, my form is really good. I wish we had the same climbs and the same scenario. But Colorado is a little bit more difficult of a race to win because of the shallower climbs. I’m not going to take anything for granted. I’m going to show up in good condition and do the best I can. I’ve been training on my time trial bike but we all know that Tejay [van Garderen] lit it up last year. So he’s the favorite and I’m going to enjoy my victory here for now.”
If he were to carry his form through to victory at the Pro Challenge, it would make for a late summer blitz to rival anything he’s earned in his lengthy career. But for now, he’s reveling in the victory in a race that seems built for the Connecticut native. Among all of the head-turning performances at Utah — Michael Schär’s (BMC Racing) stunning breakaway to take stage 2; Eric Young’s (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) blazing sprint to take the sprint victory in Kamas; Joey Rosskopf’s (Hincapie Development Team) breakout performances, both on stage 2 and stage 6 — Danielson’s was also a long time coming for a rider who was once viewed to be the American successor to Lance Armstrong.
“I love [the Tour of Utah], I think it’s insane… Steep mountains at altitude, this is my race. It was really cool to have all that pressure and do all of that. Colorado is a race that I would love to win, but the course is just not me. Is it realistic to say I want to win? Of course I do — everyone else wants to win, too. And this year we have a mountaintop finish, it’s going to be insane, really hard to control, I would love to win it. But I would have to say this victory here has been something that I’ve wanted to do my whole career. It was really cool to come in as a favorite, defend, and win it convincingly, being a leader with my team and being tactically savvy.”