Defending US road race champion Greg Daniel (Trek-Segafredo) will line up on Sunday at the USA Cycling Pro Road Championships in Knoxville, Tennessee with the number 1 dossard on his back, but has brushed off any pressure to keep his stars-and-stripes jersey. After all, he's riding around with a collarbone that is being held together by a bent piece of titanium.
In 2016, Daniel stunned the US peloton by soloing away to claim the US Pro road race title in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The result kicked off a string of impressive rides that included two stage wins and the overall victory at Tour de Beauce, but a crash in the Tour of Utah lain August left him with a fractured collarbone that was fixed with a metal plate. He resumed training and racing six weeks later, and then made his WorldTour debut with Trek-Segafredo.
A crash in Belgium earlier this year made it apparent that the bones beneath the plate had never stitched themselves together, and the crash both separated the two pieces of bone at the same fracture and bent the plate. He's continued to train and race, however, not wanting to slow down long enough to have another surgery.
"I'll need to have surgery on it again to fix the bone and make sure it heals," Daniel tells Cyclingnews from his home in Colorado. "I'm thinking of waiting until the end of the season - later in October - to get it fixed because I have a few races. I was thinking maybe to do it in July or August, but we have the Colorado Classic coming up; I'd like to do well there. It might not be a good idea to have surgery and then try to get back into shape right before Colorado. I'll try to get it fixed later in the season."
He's been assured by his surgeon that racing with the collarbone as is doesn't pose any threat to his well-being, but he admits that psychologically it has made it difficult sometimes to fight for position - even if it isn't painful while riding.
"It's not ideal, especially in my first season as a pro. But I think if I can get through this it will make me a stronger person. The surgeon says as long as the plate doesn't break, there's nothing to worry about... On the bright side, if I do crash again, my collarbone's already broken, I need to have surgery on it anyhow," he jokes.
His trip to Tennessee is a homecoming of sorts: Daniel was born in North Carolina but lived in Newport - an hour's drive to Knoxville - until he was seven years old. His father still lives in his hometown, and after the race, he will stay for a while during his mid-season break to visit and unwind from an "eye-opening" few months in the WorldTour, where he's learned many hard lessons.
"It's been a big transition," Daniel says. "I was nervous going into it and didn't know what to expect.
"I came into the season really light, and then I got sick immediately and couldn't get better because I was so lean. I was scared and wanted to make sure I made a good first impression. [The team] realised I was coming into the season too hot. Now I know it's important to be good in April or May, not December. I think that's a common mistake for neo-pros," he admits.
Another time, he went back to the team car for bottles at the wrong time and the race split up in the crosswinds and he never saw the front of the race again. Other times, like in the Ardennes, he could barely hold on.
"It was absolutely brutal. That was an eye-opening experience for me - six hours of racing and it was so hard the entire time. It was so much harder than Tour of California."
Then there was the added pressure of being in the national championship jersey and wanting to represent his country well. "I think I did the best I could. I don't have the results I was wanting or hoping for, but I'm learning a lot. My neo-pro season is so I don't make those same mistakes again next year, and grow from this. Hopefully next year I'll be able to perform a little better and help the team more."
In between teeth-kickings, Daniel has found pleasure in the task of pulling on the front of the peloton, enjoying the satisfaction of contributing to the team effort. As such, he is in a very different position this season than when he headed to nationals as a dark-horse contender.
In 2016, he'd been racing aggressively in the bigger stage races, often seen going on long-range attacks in the style of Jens Voigt. In 2015 he won the mountains classification in the Tour of Utah, but hadn't had much luck at nationals since winning the junior time trial title in 2012 until his blistering attack inside the final kilometers in Winston-Salem netted him the national title.
This year, he's a WorldTour neo-pro, a bit beaten down from racing against the best in the business, and is not putting pressure on himself to win again.
"I'm a little tired from the season, but I'm trying not to be too stressed out about it. Statistically speaking, the chances of me winning it again back to back are pretty small," Daniel said. "This year I'll come in with number 1 on my back, which is really cool and an awesome opportunity, but maybe a little added pressure as well.
"The course suits me pretty well, and we're going there with Kiel [Reijnen] as well. For two guys I think we have a strong team for two riders. Kiel's a good sprinter and I'm not, so we have a definite plan if it comes down to a sprint I'll ride for him, and if there's an aggressive manoeuvre I'll cover that. I'm trying not to be too stressed and see what happens. If it doesn't work out, I don't think we can be too disappointed with ourselves."
Reijnen has been on the podium at the US Pro Championships three different years and is an obvious contender for the title, along with Cannondale-Drapac's Alex Howes, who was runner-up last year. Daniel says there are at least six or eight riders who could win.
"It's hard to say who's the favourite. I think the depth this year is higher than last year. Not that last year was a weak field, but I think the Americans have stepped it up this year," he said. "Looking back at the past few years, I know Travis McCabe, Robin Carpenter, Evan Huffman and Kiel have always been up there. It's hard to say who the favourite is. Rally is strong because they have so many riders and Pate and Huffman. Hincapie has a strong team, too.
"It's also a one-day race, so someone who was getting results a few weeks ago could suffer, and vice versa - someone who's been suffering could have a good day. I can't pick out one favourite, but there are probably eight guys who have a good shot at winning the national championships."
Daniel might not be top of the list of favourites, but maybe in a few years, he says, after the hard yards have made his body adapt and conform from neo-pro to WorldTour rider, he can be a major contender both in the nationals and in European races. He's ready to wait for it.
"You have to do your time - and I'm doing my time working for the team, which I think is great. At least I can do something. I can be there as long as I can, and when it gets really hard, right now I just don't have it, but maybe in a year or two I'll be able to be there with the best of them. I have to be patient."