An interview with Tom Danielson, September 24, 2004
Tom Danielson came out of 2002 tipped as the USA's Next Big Thing after his victory in China's mountainous Tour of Qinghai Lake. He went on to dominate US domestic racing alongside Chris Horner and Nathan O'Neill in the seemingly unbeatable 2003 Saturn squad, before jumping across the pond to Fassa Bortolo for the 2004 season. And then things went a bit quiet for the Coloradan. With a move to Lance Armstrong's Discovery team now confirmed for 2005, Danielson tells Jeff Jones about a learning year in the European peloton and future plans with Discovery.
On Wednesday September 22, 2004 Tom Danielson confirmed rumours that he would ride for the Discovery Channel team (currently known as US Postal) in 2005. "I've signed the letter of intent to ride for two years with Discovery, which is basically the same as signing the new contract," Danielson tells Cyclingnews on the phone from his European base in Italy. "I'm out of my existing contract with Fassa - we came to an agreement and that's how it is. I don't have any hard feelings against them at all, and I thank them a lot for everything they have taught me this year."
After dominating US domestic racing in 2003 with Saturn, Danielson moved to Italy in 2004 to ride for Fassa Bortolo, but - while the affable Coloradan is too polite to criticise his current employers - it's clear the experience hasn't lived up to his expectations. Danielson had hoped to ride the Tour de France, and when that didn't materialize was told by the team he would be sent to the Vuelta. But he was not named to Fassa's Vuelta squad, with the team apparently preferring to concentrate on supporting Alessandro Petacchi to stage victories than go after a general classification or mountains placing.
Danielson therefore jumped at the chance to go the team of six-time Tour de France winner lance Armstrong.
"Johan Bruyneel and Discovery came to me in August with the dream," says Danielson. "I was more than excited by it, and the first time I got off the phone I told myself that I needed to make this happen, even though it might not be the easiest thing. But with Johan Bruyneel, Dirk Demol, Sean Yates and of course Lance Armstrong... the whole infrastructure of the team, it all became clear to me that this was where I wanted to go."
Perhaps surprisingly, Danielson expresses gratitude toward Fassa. "Fassa gave me an excellent opportunity to come to Europe this year," he says. "They gave me the opportunity to do big races and worked to put me in different scenarios to see how I would overcome them as a new and inexperienced rider."
Nevertheless, racing with Fassa has been very different from his previous experiences with Saturn, Mercury and the US national team. "For the last year and a half I've always been in a team that helped me. This year I was a bit more on my own. I was in Italy and I was a different creature in the races. The team races every man for himself, with the exception of Petacchi. That's fine - he's the best sprinter in the world. But it's good for the riders to be able to be on the teams that they want to be on."
For a rider who had become used to winning races, and often winning them seemingly effortlessly with Saturn, you might think Danielson would be disappointed with his lack of victories this year. But he sees 2004 very much as having been a learning experience. "It was a great year; I got some great results and I learned a lot," he says. "I got to know Euro cycling first hand. I found my strengths and weaknesses, and I raced a lot to my weaknesses. I needed that to get to the next level. This year it was like a chess game that I couldn't figure out. It's not just making the selection, it's understanding what's going to happen at this point or that point. Why is this staying away? When you're only one person reading the move, it's not easy. My teammate Juan-Antonio Flecha is amazing. He is always hanging around the front, always marking everyone without expending too much energy. He almost waits to see what the peloton will do before deciding to go across to a break."
With that experience and year of observing more practiced riders behind him, Danielson is looking forward to moving to Discovery, and especially to riding alongside Lance Armstrong. Although he's no espoir, the 26-year-old former mountain bike racer is young enough to have been a developing rider as Armstrong's career was hitting its stride.
"I'm very thankful to have this opportunity to ride with the guy that was my idol," he says. "When I first saw a bike I saw this ad for a Motorola telephone with a picture of Lance in a time trial, with that look of suffering on his face. The phone had a wire broken on it, and the caption was something like, 'His body's telling him to stop but his mind's telling him to shut up.' When I saw him, I thought 'that's it.' The way he beat cancer, won the Tour six times... There's no other person that has been my idol like that."
With the self-knowledge that comes from a year battling in the middle of the European peloton, Danielson says he is "super-motivated and I'm ready to ride my eyes out of my head for this team. I've learned what type of rider I am. I've talked to people that helped me along the way and they say that I'll be with people that know how to do it. It starts with the hierarchy. If that is going in the right direction, the team rides well."
Discovery Channel will be part of the UCI Pro Tour for 2005, which changes things substantially for a rider like Danielson. Races that Fassa Bortolo didn't or couldn't do in 2004 will be part of the team's program. Where Fassa could rely on Alessandro Petacchi to bag flat stage wins, Discovery - if it continues in the mould of the current US Postal squad - will probably emphasise general classification, time trial and hilly races. The team has also beefed up its Classics roster with the addition of riders such as 2004 Paris-Roubaix third place Roger Hammond.
Danielson doesn't yet know exactly what his role will be in the Discovery line-up. "We talked a little bit about it, but I don't really know 110 percent," he says. "It depends on a lot of different things. In December and January we'll hash out what my program is. It's obvious that I want to gain more experience."
He's looking forward to the changes. "It's exciting," says Danielson. "There are a lot of great races that my team didn't do, like the Dauphiné Libéré with the Mont Ventoux time trial. That would have been super cool but we couldn't do it. In Discovery it seems like there'll be races for every type of rider. It's cool to see how other teams are changing things because of the Pro Tour, bringing in riders of different nationalities for certain races. I think it'll be good for cycling. It might be difficult for the industry and the teams that didn't make the Pro Tour for the first couple of years, but overall it should be a benefit."
Danielson also thinks the Pro Tour will ultimately be good for riders' bank balances. "People have been saying how the salaries among the younger riders and the domestiques have decreased over the last few years as well, and more guys are riding for the minimum wage, even as part of a Pro Tour team," he says. "Obviously, Discovery is a giant sponsor. They can see what the Pro Tour will do for their marketing and say 'we're in'. If there are more of these teams competing against each other, it drives the price up. There are only a select number of teams, but there are tons of riders."
But in the short-term the next item on Danielson's schedule is to pull on the stars and stripes to ride for the US team at the world championships in Verona. "I haven't checked out the course yet, but I think we do it 19 times," he says. "I'll ride it when I'm there next week. I'm also doing the time trial, and I'm pretty excited about that."
And that sums up Tom Danielson, really. After a year that might have left many riders despondent, on a team that promised him big-race starts then pulled the plug and with only a single victory on his palmares this year in the Mt Evans Hill Climb, the ever-positive Danielson is still excited about that next race. If he can maintain and harness that energy, 2005 might yet be his European breakthrough year.