Danny Pate: The five races that changed my life

In August of this year, Danny Pate hung up his wheels after a long career that stretched across three decades. The 39-year-old was one of the United States' most mercurial talents of his generation, with a U23 time trial world title to his name and a reputation as one of the most underrated domestiques in the peloton.

As the Cyclingnews Tour of Colorado continues, we sat down with Pate to look back at his career and the five races that changed his life.

US junior nationals - 1990-something

The first race on my list takes me back to when I first started road racing. As a kid I was big into mountain biking, but my dad – who raced at the time – asked if I wanted to try the road thing. I must have been around 14 or 15, and I'm going back a long time, but I remember our first ride on the road. I was wearing jeans and telling my dad, 'I'm not sure about this, it's not so comfortable.' But the first race on this list would be the junior nationals at Wichita Falls, Texas. I can't even count that far back to remember the year, but they used to have this race down there called Hotter than Hell, and it was just like that at nationals. I had no clue what I was doing in the race but I still managed to get a decent placing, with a top 10, and then in the time trial I was sixth.

They weren't my first races but that was the first time that I discovered road cycling, and it felt like a door had opened for me. It was a completely new experience and education to mountain biking, where you can just go out there and put the hammer down. In road racing I started to realise that there was so much more going on, and you had to really think when it came to endurance and distance. I feel as though the nationals showed me the depth there was to road racing, because until that point I really hadn't figured it out, and now I come to think about it, I still haven't.

I don't have a huge recollection when it comes to the race itself, just that I had these really sweet Spinergy wheels, the sort that could cut a man's arm clean off, and they were the shit. Nothing else mattered, because I had those wheels. They were so heavy but they could really go in straight line, and I recall that on a ride before nationals I beat my dad in a small time trial. We would often race together – he would be in the masters category, and I would race juniors, before we did the cat 3 events together. But after that time trial he decided to shell out the cash on the wheels for me and send me to nationals. They were the coolest thing.

Saeco - I'm picking a year, not a race

You're probably expecting me to choose my Worlds TT win but it's not on my list. Sorry about that but to be honest, I'd won every time trial that year, except for maybe one, so winning Worlds wasn't that big of a surprise for me. It was also a strange year, because I'd gone to Saeco the year before, so when I won Worlds it didn't really change my life. It was of course one of my biggest results but on a personal level, I just don't think it had that much of an impact.

Instead, I'm going back a year and picking my move to Saeco, and all the experiences and races that came with that. At that time, Cannondale, who supplied the Italian team with bikes, wanted Americans on the squad and Mike Creed had some buddies at Cannondale, and they agreed to take him to Europe. They later realised that he was still a junior, so they took me for a year and I rode elite and Mike raced on the development team.

That whole year was just something completely new, but it's so hard to narrow it all down to one race. It was such an eye-opening experience because as an American who grew up Colorado, society never really shared with you the importance of picking up a second language. Back then, the number of Europeans who spoke English was also a lot lower than it is now, certainly in the cycling world, and that all combined to make the transition even tougher.

Creed and I both came back to the States mid-season for a few races and in the end he just didn't go back to Europe. He was on an even worse deal than me, but I thought the best thing was to go back to Italy and just stick it out until the end of the season. I had a two-year deal but the team and I both agreed I didn't have to come back for a second season. But if you want me to boil it down to a race, there was one in Spain and it must have been the hardest race I've ever done, and I remember at the time just not being able to fathom how I was going to be successful.

When it came to race instructions, I don't even know if the other riders would include me. I was living with Igor Pugaci, a Moldovan, who spoke with such a strong accent it was virtually impossible to pick up any of his Italian. I did all the less important races and was pretty much on my own. Most of the time I'd show up, be on my own before the race, during the race, and then again after. There was a sense of isolation.

Another story I remember is that back then you didn't have to wear a helmet in some races. So, you could start a race in France and then cross a border and be forced to change. Or vice versa. Anyway, one of my Italian teammates, Salvatore Commesso, hated wearing a helmet and this one time I had to go back to the team car, in the middle of a race, just to get this guy a helmet he could have just worn from the start. So, I did my helmet retrieving and after that it was just 'peace out.' For sure, experiences like that, and that year in general put me off racing in Europe, and that's why I didn't come back for another seven years. I actually had the chance to go back to the evolution of the team in 2011. I didn't have a job at the time, but they were still on Cannondale, and I just couldn't do it based off that last experience.

My first Grand Tour - Giro d'Italia 2008

This race stands out for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it was my first Grand Tour, but it was also my hardest. I had some personal things going on that didn't make it easier, and I had got divorced earlier in the year. So, it was one of those times when your regular personal life catches with your sporting life. They don't always help each other, so there was a transition period that I went through. That made the racing experience even tougher but if you look back at the 2008 Giro, it also had insane climbing. I completed it, but barely, and the race was ridiculous. The climbs at the Giro changed my entire perspective of what hard actually meant. I guess what got me through was the directeurs.

Lionel Marie was the second DS and he saw me a fair bit during the race, and although I couldn't say the same for the first DS, Lionel really helped me reach the finish line. I remember that we had these back-to-back stages in the mountains where that little fellow who tested positive [Emanuele Sella – ed.] just blew everyone away. He won two days in a row, first at Val di Fiemme, and then at Marmolada. He almost made it three when he finished second in the mountain time trial. My teammate Christian Vande Velde made the break one day and he told me that guys in the break were holding onto the motorcycle and Sella was still riding away from them. On the second of the mountain stages we had a climb from the first kilometer and I went straight out the back and into the grupetto. I don't even know who won the race but the entire experience was like trying to ride through a hurricane. It was crazy.

At Slipstream Sports, that was our first Grand Tour. We were a bit like the Bad News Bears, and in some people's eyes, we were almost a joke. Then we rolled them in the opening team time trial, and they looked at us a bit differently. However, the next day, in the first road stage we were able to ensure that a non-threatening break escaped but I remember one of the Italians came up to us at the front of the peloton, and we were all seeing stars at that point, and he turned to us, and shouted 'You did it. Congratulations, you've survived 45 minutes of the Giro. But don't worry, we're going to smash you later.' I guess they still saw us as bit of a joke and sure enough we lost the lead that day.

Overall that race shaped a lot for me. It mainly became the reference point for what difficulty meant. I turned things around and took sixth in the final stage but that race changed me for sure.

Tour de France 2008

It's a cliché but my first Tour de France has to be on the list, and to be honest, I don't understand how any rider who has completed the race could miss this off their top-five. The Tour is just on another level, again I'm rolling off clichés, but it's a completely different scope to something like the Giro. To give you a comparison, I watch the Super Bowl and the World Series, and racing the Tour de France is like being in those events, and it's mind-boggling because I started out racing parking lot crits. Then I raced down in Mexico before moving to Jelly Belly, where I was practically paid in candy. To go from all that to racing the Tour is something I'll always hold dear.

I think that the Tour gave me confidence, in the sense that in the eyes of Americans I was competing in a real sport now. Finally people didn't see my life as just a hobby and that I wasn't just competing in frisbee golf but an event that a huge number of people cared about. I made the top 15 in both the time trials but I also made the break one day and finished third at Prato Nevoso. I felt like one of the weaker guys in the break but we made a big mistake because I and Egoi Martinez, this super tall guy on Euskaltel, dropped Simon Gerrans by a fair bit on the final climb but we started messing around and in the sprint he just smoked us. I'm going to blame Egoi for that one.

Paris-Nice 2008, 2009, 2012 & 2013

I've been in some terrible races and Pais Vasco was right up there, but the undoubted winner was Paris-Nice. I never want to go back, and I say that because although a race like the Giro was super hard, it at least expanded my horizons and taught me certain things about racing and about myself. But what did Paris-Nice ever give me other than bronchitis? I can't think of a single thing. Ask me how many times I did it and I'll always give you the same answer: Too many.

Here's the thing: it's eight days long, it has the worst weather, and the real killer comes in the fact that it's only eight days so you can see the end in sight. So unlike in a Grand Tour, when you ease off slightly because you're racing for three-weeks, in Paris-Nice you just keep pressing on. There's no easy day, there's no rest day, and in my experience there was never a Grand Tour that had eight days in a row that were as stressful or as hard as Paris-Nice. In my mind it made sense that the Tour de France was stressful, and I could rationalise that riders were willing to take risks, but Paris-Nice was the only race that had those same features, and that made no sense to me.

I get that Paris-Nice is a great race and I was on a team that won it three years in a row, but I hated every second of being there. It made me want to quit cycling. When I think about why I left Europe I think about Paris-Nice. When I think about the worst possible thing in professional cycling, I think about Paris-Nice. I would rather build a house, brick by brick, by myself, than do another Paris-Nice. Even when you're winning, every day is like a kick in the nuts. I don't think I can be any clearer. I don't like Paris-Nice.

I won't miss the competitive aspect to racing. That side almost burnt me out by the end but I really enjoy cycling. There are plenty of things I did wrong in my career in terms of focus and not taking things seriously enough but I don't leave with any regrets. Mistakes you can't confuse with regrets, so I'm totally content with what I did, how I raced and how I did it. I had a lot of fun but at a certain point it became more of a job.

Although I've retired, I have not taken much time to think about how I'd like people to remember me because that's just not really up to me. However, one of the reasons I have no regrets is because I feel I was able to make the best decisions possible for myself and throughout my cycling career. So, I guess I hope people remember me as a genuine person on and off the bike. Someone who did the right thing for a teammate; someone who didn't take shortcuts; someone who didn't chose to lie, cheat and steal; and someone who said what they meant and meant what they said. And although they were my actions I can't solely take credit for them. I would have to thank my family and friends for the influence they have had on me.

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Daniel Benson

Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at Cyclingnews.com between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.