PEZ Interviews: Tom Danielson
Recently, PEZ caught up with Tom Danielson on two fronts and got more than a little bit from one of the big hopes in American cycling. Danielson seems on the cusp of a banner year and is taking care of the business over the winter to ensure that 2007 will see the climber’s real arrival. In Part One of a two part interview, Tom takes us through his career up till last season.
Let’s start from the beginning: how’d you get into biking?
I really got started when I was 16. I’d ridden motorbikes in the years before. I really wanted to race motocross, but my parents didn’t want me to do it so much. There was a mountian bike race near the house around that time, so I borrowed a bike and won the race, and I was kinda hooked immediately, and it pretty much went from there.
So you didn’t hit the road till college?
Oh yeah, I didn’t really ride a road bike till I came to college here in Durango.
Tom Danielson winning Collegiate Nats.
How did the switch from mountain bike to road occur?
The cool thing about Durango and the college is the community and resources that you have – the biggest resource being the pro riders in the area: guys like Ned Overend, Todd Wells, Bob Roll, the list goes on and on. Back then when I first started riding a bit on the road, they said hey Tom, you’d be a good road rider, you’d be a good climber. I didn’t really believe them at first, and said, yeah, whatever.
Then I met up with Rick Crawford, and he suggested that I try road racing and look at losing some weight. He looked at me and said that I looked skinny, but still needed to lose some weight. I did that, raced the collegiate season and fell in love.
What would you consider an early breakthrough on the road?
I guess all of 2002 was a breakthrough for me – the Tour of the Gila was the first race that I proved myself on a national level, which got myself the contract with Mercury, and then the resources of having guys around me like Chris Wherry and Henk Vogels. That was a breakthrough for sure. Quinghai was a breakthrough on another level: I won an international race with high quality riders in a high-altitude environment. It was a good race for me with the high altitude and mountains. Then there was Mt. Washington where I was able to showcase my talents against the time of Tyler Hamilton, who at the time was really starting to come into his own. I took a minute off the record, and that was another great result for me. It was an absolute measure of time to show that I could be one of the best climbers in the world.
On his way to breaking Tyler Hamilton’s record on Mt. Washington in 2002.
What influence has Rick Crawford played in your career?
He really played a big developmental role; he took me from where I was to where I wanted to go. He had a lot of experience with the other athletes he’d worked with, and was a lot of help – with everything: weight loss, training, self-management. He had a stress score type mechanism that really looked at my training as a whole rather than just do this and do that, he would monitor other things: how’s your relationship, stuff at home to consider, school, and if it didn’t check out, back off a bit. Really the first time I’d made a goal was Collegiate Nationals in 2001, and then I went out and achieved that goal. It was the first time for me to really make a goal, work for it, and then achieve it – go from Point A to Point B. 2001 was a great year, a combination of everything I think: working with him and meeting my wife, Kristin – kinda all those things together was a turning point for me. combo in working with him, new relationship with my wife, kinda all those things together was a turning point for me.
Speaking of breakthroughs and turning points…the Tour de Langkawi was a huge success for Danielson, and caught the eyes of everyone in Europe.
Do you still work with Rick?
No, not anymore. I still talk with him, but I’m really monitored closely on the team by Dave Famer. He’s really good; he’s been in the sport for a long time, he’s worked with guys like Tomac and Juli Furtado. He’s really a physiotherapist by trade, but he has a lot of knowledge with numbers, lactate, and power. He started working with power and heart rate back in the late 80’s. It’s really cool to work with him because he’s constantly researching. He comes with me on all of my rides. We do a lot of testing during training – overall, it’s been really good, a lot of new things going on.
Is your training different this winter than in years past?
This year, my training is a lot more technical and precise. I’ve done probably the most specific training I’ve ever done in terms of workouts and testing and in terms of knowing where I am. That’s the biggest difference. It’s colder this year too, probably the worst winter that I can remember (ed. the worst winter that anyone can remember in Colorado). It’s been great to have the car and my coach with me in the mountains, and having that car to block the other drivers from hitting you. It also allows me to ride in the mountains when the temperature is below freezing.
Raisin Hell up Mt. Washington again in 2003.
What was riding for arguably the most dominant domestic team in history like with Saturn in 2003?
That was really cool, again, another breakthrough point in my career. Number One, the results, and Number Two: the people I raced with – Chris Horner, Nathan O’Neill, Eric Wohlberg. It was really big for me being around great professional in those stressful racing conditions. It was definitely a breakthrough year for me with wins at Langkawi, won Toona, won Pomona, a stage at Redlands, Mt. Washington. It was a great year for me, that was a big year.
How did the move to Fassa Bortolo occur? Were you looking to go European or was that a surprise?
No, that was a deam of mine. The year before, I didn’t even know I could be a pro in America, then I won the Tour de Langkawi against a top international field and then really started opening doors and eyes, and immediately all the big Euro teams had interest in me, and basically after Langkawi I had offers. I eventually decided, with the help of some great people around me, to go with Fassa.
Tom’s year with Fassa is best described as a learning year, and oh how much was learned.
So that didn’t go too well then?
No, it didn’t. A number of different things led to that, the biggest reason was my lack of experiences. Look at the results I had, I really didn’t have any experience. It really made sense to me how I got the results that I did, but Ferretti with Fassa, it didn’t make any sense to him. I had a strong team and they sacrificed themselves and basically babysat me for the whole race. They rode on the front all day long, because I had no experience in the peloton, so basically when I got to Fassa they knew I didn’t have much experience, but they didn’t know HOW green I was. That was why it didn’t really work out. They expected me to be at a different level in terms of skills and experience.
Would you say that you learned anything from that 2004 season in Italy?
The biggest thing I took from that year: I can survive in the sport in the toughest environment – It was my first year in Italy, no one spoke any English, I was in the middle of nowhere in Italy, and I was with a team that was constantly telling me that I wasn’t going to be successful. I showed that I could survive that and then to come back in 05 like I did – I no longer have fear in the peloton or my career.
How about that record setting ride up Mt. Evans?
That was really my link to Discovery. For me, I had been suppressed and held back with Fassa and not put into the races. People were saying I was a fluke, he’s not showing anything in Europe, he’s no good. I knew that I was strong, and that Mt. Evans was a perfect opportunity (28 miles, 7000 foot climb, finishes at 14,230 feet), open road, no one to deal with, and a record that no one could seem to break. Vaughters and all these guys were trying to break that, but there were all going at 1:49 or so for the last 6-8 years. I didn’t know if I could do it or not, but I wanted to unleash my anger and show that I was still improving as a cyclist. I ended up breaking the record by four minutes. I was really excited that I could go that fast – I learned that with my head and body in the right place I can pull myself out of any situation – and set myself up for a great 2005.
Tom’s record-setting ride up Mt. Evans in July of 2004 was nothing less than amazing.
Your Evans ride was what got Discovery’s attention?
They had known me in 2003. I met lance in 2002. I had talked to them, and always wanted to talk to them. They knew my inexperience and wanted to wait for me to develop. They knew what I was going through and understood. When I put out that performance they saw my talent was really good, and that’s when they decided that it was time.
What was riding your first Grand Tour like?
Grand Tours are harder than anyone could ever imagine. I had done a 10 day race before, so that was just two of those, plus one. I had done seven day races before, so that was just three of those. I tried to break it down beforehand, but then you do it, it’s just so hard. The courses are hard, the racing is hard, the transfers are hard, it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, ever. I tried to do the Giro earlier in the season, but I had a really bad knee injury from the Tour of Georgia, so I didn’t get to experience it then, but the Vuelta was my first real dose of reality. The last week was just so unpredictable. I’d be really good one day, and really bad another. Sometimes I’d float over climbs, and others I’d be struggling just to stay in the field early on in the day. It’s hard to keep your performance constant while your body is just going through such fluctuations. I got a ton of mental strength from making it through that.
What was the Vuelta like the second time around?
Really the difference was knowing what I was up against, and this time I had a better engine, so I got stronger throughout the race. I knew what I was up against, knew I could do it. This year’s Vuelta was a lot more complicated though. Last year, I just had to ride and finish, whatever is great, this year was a lot bigger. Then my first week didn’t go so well, and I had to deal with the negative attitude that went with it, figure it out, and pull myself together. This year was a lot harder on my head, and in physical terms, I was strong in the last week and pulled it together. If you look at the time over the last week – I was the third best overall time over the final week – that shows that I’m getting closer to where I want to be.
Vino hooked up with Danielson on the final run-in to the finish, and the two traded pulls to the line…
Your first stage win at the Vuelta was an incredible day – take us back…
For me, that was a really cool experience. I had been down and depressed about the first week. I couldn’t understand why I was performing so poorly, and then my role on the team changed. I was chasing break, getting bottles, and trying to help Jani (Janez Brajkovic). Mentally and physically that was a big use of energy, and then to come back and perform at my highest level of the whole year, it shows that I’m growing as a rider, and that I’m very close to arriving. A lot of people just saw the last part of the stage, and then saw me working together with Vino, but the beginning of the stage was just as hard. I had to attack many times to get away because I was 10th overall, and I was bleeding out of my eyes. Everyone was so finished that they let me go, and then I was in the break, working very hard in the break because I wanted the time.
…And then Danielson took the win in the sprint.
I only lost 20 seconds to Vino on the final climb, and then when he got up to me, I went pull for pull with him, and then won the sprint. That was a big, big growing part of my career on that day.