Danny Pate's arrival at Rally Cycling after spending the past seven years on the WorldTour with Team Sky, HTC-Highroad and Garmin is a reunion of sorts. The 36-year-old will reconnect with former teammates Jonas Carney, who is now the Rally Cycling performance director, Pat McCarty, one of the team's directors, and Brad Huff, who is in his third year with the team.
Pate's two-year deal with Rally will take him through the 2017 season and his 17th year as a pro, and having a few familiar faces in the program will likely help him adjust from riding for one of the world's most successful, well-funded teams to being back in the world of domestic Continental racing.
“I'm getting to an age where former teammates are probably going to be less and less, at least from that far back,” Pate told Cyclingnews last week at the team's training camp along the Southern California coast in Oxnard.
“Through the years a lot of guys I've raced with have come to this team, and then a lot of them have since stopped racing,” he said. “Past years with this team are actually probably a little more familiar to me when I wasn't even on it. Guys like [Mike] Friedman and [Mike] Creed and [Dan] Bowman and all these guys were on the team. Now it's just Huff. I was on [Team Slipstream] with him, and then Jonas [Prime Alliance] and Pat [Garmin-Chipotle].”
Pate, started his pro career with Saeco as a spry 20-year-old, returning to the US the following year with Prime Alliance and then going on to win the the U23 World Championship time trial in 2001. He spent the next six years on US Continental teams, eventually moving to Jonathan Vaughters' TIAA-CREF team in 2006. He stuck with the Slipstream-run teams as they moved up the cycling ladder and hit the WorldTour as Garmin in 2009. He raced with the team in 2010 and then in 2011 moved to HTC-Highroad, where he raced for a year before moving to Sky in 2012.
It's been a long journey for the rider from Colorado Springs, and now he's circled back home to the States. Young cyclists often talk about the difficulties of learning to live and race in Europe, now Pate is faced with the opposite transition: getting back in tune with the Continental circuit.
“I haven't put a lot of thought into it, but it's definitely a lot different,” he said of starting his first season in many years back in the US. “I wouldn't say there's a lot to adjust to, but it is different. I haven't made two trips to Mallorca already this year. I haven't made two trips already across the Atlantic to train. So, yeah, that makes it easier.”
One of the biggest adjustments for Pate is the higher level of self-motivation required of riders at the Continental level. Larger coaching and support staffs on a program like Sky, along with more training camp days, provides more external motivation to train. On a smaller team that motivation has to come from within.
“When you're here at camp it's easy to do these 100-mile days,” he said. “But when you're at home you have to be self-motivated. You have to go out and do it by yourself a lot of times. But when you have a bunch of guys who are all doing it, it's easier. That might be one difference on a smaller team, to be able to push enough to get to that next level because you might not spend as much time together.”
Pate will also need to get used to a different role on Rally Cycling than he's had in the recent past. At Sky and HTC Pate was the consummate domestique for riders like Tour de France winners Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. This year at Rally he'll be expected to take the lead, to race for his own results and provide mentorship to some of his younger up-and-coming teammates.
“Obviously, I want to be better, but I think a valuable part of me being on this team is helping those guys be better too,” he said. “I think I need to keep a mindset on that too. That's kind of a different mindset from previous years where I've been, when it was kind of take care of yourself, fend for yourself and take care of your own responsibilities. But here it will be more of a responsibility to try and help those guys any way I can.”
Making the change from helper to winner will require another change in attitude for Pate.
“It will be a change of pace, a change of mentality, a change of everything for me,” he said. “I kind of settled into a groove there the last couple of years where I didn't really race the races. That's not what I was paid for. I mean I was participating in a race that people were racing, but I wasn't really ever racing. I was serving a purpose and doing a job, but very rarely did I race the race.
“It made it kind of hard the couple of times when I had the opportunity to do it, because it took different training and a different mentality than what I was accustomed to or prepared for,” he said. “I got paid to manage the race for as long as I could and then set guys up for them to try and finish the race. That's an important job and teams that want to control the race need people to do that, and that was my role. So I trained differently than I will this year. I trained a lot more of a steady state. I never once did a sprint workout. I did a lot different things than I'll be trying to do here.”
Carney understands he took a chance signing Pate. Not every rider who returns from years in Europe makes a successful transition back to Continental racing. The Rally director said Pate will focus on the big North American events in California, Utah, Colorado and Alberta, races that are at the level Pate has seen in Europe. But there will also be some national level events sprinkled in.
“I think it's going to be interesting," Carney said. "It's always interesting to see how guys come back from Europe and what their motivation is. It's not always a good idea, but the reason I feel comfortable with it is that I know Danny really well. We've been friends for 15 years. He was a great teammate then and I know Danny is a good person. So I feel really comfortable bringing him on board.
“He's spent most of the last eight years getting water bottles for other people, and I think that he definitely has the talent to win pretty big bike races, and it's just a matter of how much he wants to do that,” Carney said. “If he's motivated to win races I think he's going to win bike races. We're going to give him every opportunity to transition from being a WorldTour domestique to being a leader on the team. So far he seems pretty motivated to not just train hard but motivated to take that step.”
Pate has had a few opportunities to shine at the top level, and he took advantage. In the 2014 Tour de France, his last Grand Tour, Sky gave him the green light to ride for himself during the final time trial, a 54km test from Bergerac to Perigueux. It was the penultimate stage after three weeks of racing, and Pate finished 11th, just 3:01 off the time of stage winner and three-time World Champion Tony Martin.
Pate will get his first opportunities to try out his new role in the team when Rally Cycling travels across the Atlantic this month for several stage races and one-day events. Then the team will return to the US, where Pate is looking forward to tuning up for the Tour of California at New Mexico's Tour of the Gila.
Pate told Cyclingnews he couldn't remember the last time he raced the Gila, but he did have one stand-out memory from the event.
“I remember we had to ride back down the Mogollon,” he said. “We had to finish and ride down, and I remember one teammate, Dave McCook, crashed going down and he was so bloody. I guess that's the last memory of Gila that I have. That was pretty hard to forget. I was blown away.”
The USA Cycling Professional Road Championships are also marked with a large X on Pate's calendar. Although he won stars-and-stripes jerseys as a junior and U23 rider, he's never taken a US professional championship. He'll likely contest the time trial, but he said he's more keen on the road race, where he'll try to put himself or a Rally teammate on the podium's top step.
“It's always been a goal and I haven't achieved it, so it's something I'd really like to accomplish this year or next year,” he said. “It's also a good goal for the team. It's my goal, but I'm sure it's a goal for other guys here as well. So I think it's more important that we win than I win. I want to make sure we win there.”