Standing just past the finish line of the final stage at the Vuelta a San Juan last month after he had helped pull back the breakaway and set up Trek-Segafredo teammate Giacomo Nizzolo for the win, Greg Daniel was surrounded by a mass of thrilled fans who took selfies and asked for souvenirs from his bike or kit.
The 23-year-old American who won the US championship in 2016 soaked it all in as the Argentinean fans bathed him in the reverence usually reserved for one of the millionaire football stars the country has produced. This must be what people mean when they talk about "living the dream".
It was a far cry from just a few days previously, when Daniel admitted to a reporter that he was on the toilet when answering a text about setting up an interview. Daniel had suffered with diarrhea throughout the week, spending the majority of his time off the bike either in bed or in the bathroom. So much for the glamorous lifestyle of the international cyclist.
"It was good because this whole week I've been battling stomach issues," Daniel told Cyclingnews about his work on the final stage. "Every day since the time trial I've been getting better, so it's nice to be back and feeling good, maybe still missing a little bit, but it was awesome just to be able to ride the front like that."
Daniel joined Trek-Segafredo last year after four years with Axel Merckx's U23 development team, a tenure he capped off with his solo victory in the US pro road race.
He got a full dose of the WorldTour last year, with starts in the Ardennes Classics and a handful of week-long stage races. It was a rough introduction to cycling's top echelon as he adjusted to the tougher competition and longer races, but he persevered.
Now in his second season with Trek-Segafredo, Daniel is focused on continuing his development and making visible signs of improvement. He took his first steps toward those goals in San Juan.
Daniel was the team's top worker bee in the 2.1 race in Argentina, riding the front to set up Nizzolo in the sprints and for Peter Stetina and Jarlinson Pantano on the GC days. But he found his own moments as well. After two days of riding the front for his sprinter, Daniel just missed the podium in the stage 3 time trial, finishing fourth behind teammate Ryan Mullen, runner-up Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
"It was a huge surprise," Daniel said, adding that he was a bit skeptical when team director Yaroslav Popovych told him he was just five seconds off of the time of Mullen, who had started nearly 45 minutes earlier.
"I thought, 'No way.' There's no way I'm going that quickly," Daniel said. "We didn't get too many time splits, and I thought the whole time maybe Popo is lying. Maybe that's just like how he motivates riders. Like, 'Oh, dude, you're like five seconds behind the best time.' And I'm thinking there's probably not a chance.
"Then I hit the headwind section and my whole morale came undone because I was completely cooked with like 5km to go. My heart rate was 191, which I haven't seen like ever. I was thinking I'm probably doing an awful TT."
In fact, he had set the second fastest time, just 30 seconds behind the time trial specialist Mullen. He was happy with the result, but with 68 riders left to finish, he wasn't expecting his podium position to stick, and so he returned to the team hotel to rest and relax. The rest didn't last long.
"I was texting my friends and family and then I got a Snapchat from one of my friends that was like, 'Oh, you did a good TT, you're still in second,'" Daniel said. "So I messaged Popo, 'Should I come back?' And he said, 'You need to come back, they might do the podium.'
"I had changed out of my skinsuit so I got dressed in my road kit and rode back to the start. I hung around for like two minutes and then Majka and Ganna finished and knocked me down to fourth.
"I was really surprised," Daniel continued. "It would have been nice to get a podium, but to be able to know that I obviously had a good off-season and the fitness is there. It's a great way to start the season and it's a good confidence booster."
Aiming for the Giro d'Italia in May
For Daniel, a successful second season on the WorldTour will see continued progression as a pro and improvement in areas he sees as weaknesses. He's excited to take another shot at the Ardennes Classics, races he says kicked his butt last year, but his big goal for 2018 is to make Trek-Segafredo's Giro d'Italia squad.
After San Juan he returned home to Colorado to continue his training and prepare for his return to racing later this month at Sud Ardeche in France, then the seven-day Volta a Catalunya in March and the six-day Vuelta a Pais Vasco in April.
"I've heard those are super-hard races," Daniel said of Catalunya and Pais Vasco, "and then the Ardennes Classics and then the Giro.
"I told the team last year that it would be really cool to be able to do and finish a Grand Tour for my development," he said. "I seem to excel at stage races if I don't get the stomach bug like this."
Daniel said finishing a Grand Tour would be a big step in his development as a pro.
"I think it's a really big deal, because, yeah, you go into it and it completely destroys you, but then you recover and you grow from it," he said. "I could do that and work for one of our team leaders, and just try to help the team at a race like the Giro would be a big honour.
"That's the goal," he said. "I've heard really good things about the Giro d'Italia."
Daniel's eyes visibly light up when he talks about the Giro and the opportunity to start his first Grand Tour, but the key takeaway from a brief chat with him is how well he's settled into the pro lifestyle, even the less glamourous moments that go along with fighting a stomach bug during a race.
"After one year at the WorldTour it definitely feels much more comfortable, just because last year I was always stressed," he said.
"I think it's the same with any new job. You're going from a Continental team to a WorldTour team, but also a whole new atmosphere with completely different riders. And then different staff and all these different races, so there's nothing familiar anymore except for racing your bike. But now it's just much more comfortable."
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