An interview with Tom Danielson, July 10, 2008
2008 was supposed to be Tom Danielson's debut Tour de France, but once again he's had to sit out the race. Last year it was stomach problems, this time he was not selected by his team due to a delay in returning to top form. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes spoke to the 30 year-old American about his season, his frustration and his plans for the rest of 2008.
For many of the top riders in the world, the first weekend in July saw the start of their biggest race of the year. For Tom Danielson, though, it was a time of frustration and regret. Sidelined initially last year due to the effects of parasites, then because of a bad crash in the Vuelta a España, the 30 year-old fought to get back into condition.
Danielson's big goal for the season was to ride his first Tour de France. It is also the debut Tour for his team, Garmin-Chipotle, which increases the significance of the race, both on a personal and professional level. However disappointment was to follow with a back problem related to his Vuelta crash delaying his return to form, and he was told that he'd need to ride well in the last big stage race prior to the Tour in order to earn his place.
"The team told me that they really wanted to see me get a strong result overall in the Route du Sud, and if I did, that I would go to the Tour," he said. "If I didn't, I wouldn't be there. I was pretty shocked by it, and I was definitely not 100 percent prepared to do that yet. My body really wasn't 100 percent recovered from my injuries.
"I did the best I could, I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself in the uphill time trial," he added. "I gave it my all but went out a little bit too hard and I was losing a lot of time at the end. I also started getting frustrated."
Team-mate Daniel Martin took over the race lead the day after the time trial, and held on to win the race. Danielson rode for the young Irishman and, while he concedes that he's not in the same sort of form which won him a stage in the 2006 Vuelta a España, he argues that he still could have brought a lot to the Argyle squad's Tour roster.
"I did a good ride for Dan in the Route du Sud and, as of right now, where my fitness is, I am getting a lot closer to being myself again," he said. "It is definitely going to take a while longer for me to be able to climb with the best guys. Yet in terms of helping out a team-mate, or riding strong for the team, I could definitely do that now.
"I am frustrated by the decision," he added. "At one end of the spectrum, okay, I had something happen to me and I have to accept it, and it is going to take me as long as it takes to get back from it. You can't be off your bike so long and expect to come back and be with the best right away. I definitely have a lot of respect for the sport because of that, I realise just how difficult the sport is and really how prestigious it is to be one of the best. Also, how much work the sport really does take.
"But, on the other side, in terms of my experience and what I am capable of as a rider, I think it is frustrating from me because I think I would have at least been able to have ridden in the support of my team-mates in the beginning," said Danielson. "By the end, I probably would have been in good shape to have done some good stages."
Danielson's tone of voice suggests a mixture of frustration, anger and determination. While he stops short of criticising the team, he does say that the decision 'was not a good one', and vows to show what he can do.
"I'm disappointed by the decision, but this is cycling, this is life, and I will move forward," he said. "I have been working my butt off, I have been training as hard as I can, and I am really feeling good on my bike. I'm going to come through with good results. Whether that is July or August or whenever, it is going to happen."
Fighting internal and external problems
When Danielson finished ahead of Alexandre Vinokourov into Granada and won stage seventeen of the 2006 Vuelta a España, it seemed like his career was really about to take off. He'd been described as 'The Great White Hope' for a couple of seasons and that victory, plus sixth overall in Madrid, suggested that he would move on to a new level the following season.
Instead, the opposite happened.
Danielson started having stomach problems which gradually got worse and worse. The months after that Spanish success were certainly a turning point, but in a direction he hadn't expected. "It was an interesting time in my career, going from what was the most confident I had been and heading into what I thought would be another year of progression," he said. "I was feeling really strong, and coming away from that Vuelta with a lot of momentum.
"But then basically I went from one problem to the next," he continued. "It started with the first parasite, realising I had giardia, then discovering I had another parasite. I got sick right at the crucial time of the year. I got super sick in May and June, before what was supposed to be my first Tour de France. I went from really not competing the way I wanted, not being able to eat at all, to 'holy crap, I need to fix myself or else this is going to be a big problem'."
In some ways, getting the first parasite was fortunate in that it helped doctors realise that another one had been there for much longer. "I had an intestinal parasite which we couldn't really identify," he said. "It was a hard-to-find type that I really had been living with for quite some time. I had had these strange, really painful stomach aches, abdominal cramps, sweating with fever. It might happen in the middle of the race but most of the time it came between them."
The problem flared up once just before he finished the 2006 Giro d'Italia, causing him to pull out of the race. It also caused him to be sick during the Tour of California. The symptoms came and went, leading to a battery of tests which eventually pinpointed the problem and allowed him to start treatment.
"I thought I had irritable bowel syndrome…they had basically diagnosed me with that," he said. "But then I got giardia. That was the parasite that made me so sick that I couldn't move. When I went to get checked out and they found that, they said 'well, since we have found this, we will do a colonoscopy and run all these different tests and determine if you have irritable bowel syndrome or Crohns disease or other things'.
"Basically, the doctors wanted to rule out stuff like cancer and polyps and colitis," added Danielson. "They did that and it was great, we found evidence of that other parasite, of irritation in my intestine, and they gave me treatment for that. It basically took me a month to recover from that, but it was great after."
Danielson's stomach problems caused him to miss out on the 2007 Tour de France, but he set about training hard for the Tour of Spain. Having ridden so well there one year earlier, he headed back to the race determined to ride strongly. However he was to be frustrated yet again; very soon after the race start he was involved in a bad accident and did considerable damage to himself.
"I was trying to make a strong comeback for the end of that year," he said. "I felt really good, I trained my butt off at the end of July and went to the Vuelta. But in the first stage of the race I was in a crash - [Damiano] Cunego crashed right in front of me and I flipped over him and landed on my shoulder. I basically broke my shoulder really badly, I broke my socket into many pieces. In addition to that I tore a bunch of tendons too, then found out later that I had herniated my L5-S1 disk.
"So that turned into quite a bit of work for me," said Danielson. "I went through a really difficult off-season because of that, because of all the rehab I had to do. I had some personal issues I went through as well, and then when I started to come back at the beginning of the season my herniated disk and shoulder were not working properly. I had to wait then - because of all the rehab I had to do, I couldn't really start racing again until April."
Building back up
Confident he was over the problem, Danielson got back to competition in Redlands and then went on to ride the Tour de Georgia. As a former winner there was a certain amount of media attention on him there, but he wasn't yet at a level to perform. In fact, it would take quite a while for him to start feeling well again.
"I am an athlete and with the shoulder surgery and all the problems I have had, I am now realising how hard it is to miss essentially one year of competition," he told Cyclingnews at the start of June. "It is a lot harder than I thought to come back. I have been working really hard at it and now I feel really, I feel like I am on track and right now I need to get in the racing miles."
One difference was that he was heavier than before. "The first thing I noticed [after getting rid of the parasites, which can impair food absorption - ed.] is that I gained a lot of muscle mass," he said. "So I have more power but I also have more weight. The obvious thing that anybody in the peloton will notice is that I am a little bit bigger now. I gained muscle all of a sudden, so I need to lose some of that."
At that point in early June, Danielson said that his goal was to reach a good level in training and to start to perform better in competition. "When I go into races I just don't have that top end," he stated. "I just feel a little bit strange. But recently I have been feeling that I have been recovering really well between workouts, and am really hungry at night, which is good. I can feel my metabolism kicking on again.
"It has been a lot of work, though… It feels like I have done two Grand Tours already," said Danielson. "I have basically been doing full physical therapy every day for many, many hours since the end of October until now. It seems like I have finished the Tour [in terms of effort], but I have actually only raced something like 15 days this year."
Danielson started the GP Internacional CTT Correios de Portugal and then went on to the Route du Sud, where he hoped to seal his Tour place by performing well. He set very good early checks in the time trial, but blew up before the end. He then started riding for his team-mate Martin, finishing 62nd overall but helping him win the race.
Speaking at the start of June, he said that his main goal was to ride the Tour and to learn from it. His previous experience of three-week races was that his body responded well at time passed; this gave him optimism that things would go well had he started. "I would like to just get stronger and stronger throughout the race, and go on to feel like I can attack on climbs, that I can climb with the best riders, and that I can time trial close to the best," he stated then. "That is my goal. And if it is one stage out of 21 that I can do that on, I will savour that moment."
However, as it turned out, he'll have to wait another year before he can do the race. Garmin-Chiptole weighed things up and decided that, given his tough year, it was better to give his place to someone else. He disagrees, and when Cyclingnews spoke to him there was a new tone in his voice, a hint of determination which was less obvious before.
"In one respect I am disappointed and frustrated, but on the other side it has been kind of nice to have this [new] respect for the sport," he stated. This is a really, really difficult sport, and I can't just pick up my bike, jump on it and be with the best. I have to work so hard to get there.
"Yet I have really enjoyed fighting and working hard, I have enjoyed seeing all the improvements," added Danielson. "To be honest, I feel great on the bike right now. My race results aren't there yet, but in my training and everything, I feel that I am a better rider than I was before, and feel that when I find-tune this one or two percent that I'm missing, I am going to be right up there…I'm really excited to see that."
Next up for Danielson is the Cascade Classic, which started yesterday, then Mount Evans and the Tour of Utah. He will then do the US PRO Championships before heading back to Europe to ride the tough one-day races including, he intends, the UCI Road World Championships and the Tour of Lombardy.
Danielson can look at the positives and feels the world championships could be an opportunity. "I think it will be good, especially as it is quite hilly," said Danielson. "And obviously with the type of year I have had, I have missed a lot of racing...Basically it will be in my June or July, while it will be September or October for those other guys.
"I think it can all work out, but it is more than thinking it, I need to make it happen," said Danielson. "I will work hard to do that. I need to sort of connect the dots, the point A and the point B. Part of being an athlete at this level is really believing in yourself. Inside I believe in myself, but I need to connect the dots and feel what it feels like to push myself in the red, dig deep, and actually win a race.
"Right now, for Cascade, Mount Evans and the Tour of Utah, my objective is to connect that central nervous system and turn what I have been doing in training and put it into races," he said. "I am really determined. I do have a new appreciation for the sport. I am disappointed that I am not going to the Tour to France, I don't really think it was a good decision on anyone's part, but I am going to accept it and use it as motivation. I have some great races, and I would like to win just anything right now."
It's been a long year for the rider, who was regarded at one time as Lance Armstrong's possible successor and who actually beat the Texan's record for the ascent of the Col du Madone, near Nice. That was Armstrong's training ground, the climb he used to gauge if he was approaching the correct form to win the Tour de France. Danielson's performance there showed his potential, yet he's still waiting to get the most out of himself.
Can he turn things around? The 2008 Tour de France is a disappointing period for him, yet it could also mark a turning point. If he rises to the challenge, if he keeps focussed and uses this to fuel his drive, he may yet achieve a big result before the season ends.