Greg Daniel has spent his entire under-23 racing career under the guidance of Axel Merckx and his development teams beginning in 2013. Embarking on his final year in the development ranks with Axeon-Hagens Berman, the opportunistic rider is hoping to make an impact big enough to get noticed and signed to WorldTour team in 2017.
“The big goal would be to go WorldTour,” Daniel told Cyclingnews in a phone interview from the Axeon-Hagens Berman team training camp in California. “This is my last year on the team. Ideally, I would sign to a WorldTour team and fulfil my dream of racing in the Tour de France one day. That’s the big picture, though.
“I just want to be the best cyclist that I can be and right now I’m in the best place to develop, with the best support group I could possibly have, so I’m going to focus on doing what I can do to be the best I can be and get as far as I can in this sport.”
Daniel, who lives in Denver, Colorado, was a product of Cannondale Pro Cycling CEO Jonathan Vaughters’ initial youth program but when it came time for him to move up to their under-23 counterpart, that team had ended. Fittingly, he received an offer from Merckx to join his Bontrager development program. It was a move that ended up shaping Daniel's young career and allowed him to become one of the top up-and-coming American riders today. He stayed with Merckx’s program, through changing titles; Bissell in 2014 and Axeon in 2015 and this year, which added Hagens Berman as a co-title sponsor alongside Axeon. He said he will forever be grateful to Merckx.
“It’s amazing to work with Axel,” Daniel said. “The amount of knowledge he has and gives to us, and the help that he gives us, not only for races but for training and nutrition, it's priceless.
"It’s invaluable when you want to make it to the top level. Axel has grown up in the cycling industry, and as far as his experience goes, he has the most. For a development team, and for us as riders, he is extremely important. It’s been amazing to spend all four years on the development team and to work with Axel for all four years.
Daniel is 21, with a racing age of 22, and so it will be his last year in the under-23 ranks and as a member of Merckx’s team.
“Axel can only do so much,” Daniel said. “I think these are going to be the times that I look back on as the good ol’ days, riding for Axel’s team. The atmosphere is so nice. Everyone wants to see each other succeed and see each other at some point in the WorldTour. It’s a very nice atmosphere to be in.”
As a junior rider, Daniel was considered a promising overall contender for his strong performances at the Tour du Pays de Vaud and Tour de l’Abitibi, where he was third overall. But his strengths on the bike saw him evolve into an aggressive, breakaway-style rider while under Merckx’s direction.
Most notably, he was second in stage 4 at the Tour of California, the result of a six-man breakaway that sprinted to the finish line in Cambria. Last year, he was rewarded with the Most Courageous Rider prize after stage 4 at the Tour of California. He also featured in another successful breakaway during the opening stage of the Tour of Utah last year, where he sprinted to fourth place in Logan. He continued to use his aggressive riding style to pick up enough points to win the mountain classification at that race.
Of those performances, he thinks of his second place stage finish at the Tour of California as the one that changed his mind set and gave him the confidence to race against a world-class peloton.
“That was my breakthrough result, for sure,” Daniel said. “During the stage, I thought there was no way that we would make it to the line. I was doing a lot of work and making sure we got TV time. When we got to the line with a big gap I had to start thinking about how to win.
“That was a breakthrough moment for me because it gave me confidence - that I’m not just some guy who’s lucky enough to show up to these races and fool around with no chance, that I could actually do well. It was a huge confidence boost. It gave me enough confidence to go out in more breakaways and that’s how I won the KOM jersey at Utah last year, and got most courageous, too, in California. I just attacked with that confidence in the back of my mind. I knew that I had done it before, so who’s to say I couldn’t do it again.
“I’m still looking for that elusive win but maybe 2016 will be the year I get that big win.”
Axeon-Hagens Berman rider targets big US stage races
This year, Daniel will split his time between racing overseas with the under-23 national team and in the US with Axeon-Hagens Berman. He has set clear targets for the US under-23 national championships in the road race and time trial, Tour de Bretagne, Tour of California, Tour of Utah, USA Pro Challenge or Tour de l’Avenier, and then the World Championships in Qatar.
“I have some big goals but I want to continue to race aggressively and see what kind of opportunities there are to do well,” Daniel said. “I would like to do some races and go for GC, too, but if there is a rider that is riding better than I am, then I will for sure ride for them.”
Daniel recently escaped Denver’s wintery weather and met up with his Axeon-Hagens Berman teammates at a camp held in Agoura Hills, California, where the warmer climate lent itself to long training rides.
“I enjoyed meeting the new teammates and reconnecting with the returning ones,” he said. “It was nice to reconnect with everyone and ride outside.”
Asked if he though he could make the jump from the under-23 ranks to the WorldTour in 2017, Daniel said. “Yes I think so, I hope so. I think it would be a huge blessing to make that jump right away.
There are so many different paths to take, it’s not a race to go WorldTour right away. Sometimes it's better to go Continental or Professional Continental before the WorldTour to gain a few more development years. It’s a very personal choice, but I would be extremely honoured to race for any WorldTour team, to be able to learn from the best. That is the goal for me.”
Daniel said that with the success during the last four seasons as an under-23 rider came offers to race with other teams but he never entertained the idea of leaving Merckx, wanting to see through his development years with Axeon to the very end. He also praised the team for offering young riders a chance to develop in a positive environment.
“I have always wanted to be on this team,” Daniel said. “As far as development goes, there is no team that compares to Axel’s. The team’s resume speaks for itself with moving all their riders to the WorldTour.
“I think the races we do are good for developing riders because it gives us a mix of both U23 races and races like the Tour of California where there are big WorldTour teams, so it kind of gives us the mix that we need to develop.
“It was a no-brainer to stay with this team.”
Axeon-Hagens Berman posted a video of their recent training camp and you can view part 1 below. To subscribe to the Cyclingnews video channel please click here.