Tom Danielson didn’t believe it when he learned he would race in the 2011 Tour de France (Tour). He took utmost care to make sure he’d get there. “Everything I did I looked at with a microscope,” he said. His mantra became: “I cannot fall off my bike. I cannot get sick. Nothing is going to stop me this year.”
Although his objectives for the Tour of Suisse (Switzerland), which precedes the Tour, included staying out of crashes, it didn’t stop him from putting in some attacks to improve his results in the Swiss race. “That was another defining moment in my year and my career,” he said. “I was up there with Frank Schleck and Cunego at the end of a very hard stage race and I thought, man, I’m not hurting. Let me throw some attacks and let me see. And I had my best time trial right after that, 6th in the Tour of Suisse time trial.”
Danielson’s dream of racing in the Tour took root when he was 16 years-old, living in Connecticut, and mountain bike racing. One day he visited a friend’s house where the Tour was playing on the television. “Their mom said to me, kind of making fun of me, ‘Is this what you’re going to do some day?’ And I looked at her and said, ‘Right, no, maybe I’ll do some local mountain bike racing.’”
Now 17 years later and as the highest finishing American with ninth place in the 2011 Tour de France, he said, “Finally I’ve done the biggest race on earth. It really was everything that people have been talking about, every element of cycling all together – it was pain, suffering, stress, commitment, danger. Every day you had to overcome every element that was presented to you, perfectly, and if you didn’t do that you were either out of the race or you were out of the general classification. And I really liked that. At first I didn’t, but then I realized that I could do it and I realized that I was doing it well and I truly fell in love with it.”
Getting passed over when a pro-cyclist’s team selects its Tour roster is a huge disappointment; it’s one Danielson has faced over the past six years. But he persisted. He fought on despite health issues, injury, and finding himself unable to fulfill the enormous expectations others held because of the promise he showed early in his career. Danielson is a strong climber with a climber’s body: he weighs 130 pounds at five feet ten inches tall.
As the 2011 Tour began Danielson’s goal was to help deliver a victory for his Team Garmin-Cervélo in the team time trial. “I said to my wife, ‘This is kind of a crazy experience for me because I really would have liked to have taken my first Tour de France as a learning experience and just be there for the team and not have any pressure,’ but at the same time I said, ‘I’m in really, really good shape. I would definitely have some regrets later on in my life if I didn’t take advantage of this and try something.’”
His goal changed nine days into the race around France. At about that time he knew he was a contender for a top place finish in the Tour.
“For me it was right around the stage Thor [Hushovd] lost the yellow jersey. The team had me chase on the front towards the end of the stage and there was a short uphill finish which really is my weak point. I finished right on [Alberto] Contador’s wheel with the first handful of favorites and I thought wow, I have become a different rider. I am not the same person I was before because I just climbed with the best climber on the planet.”
Danielson looks forward to the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge (UPCC) and stretching his climbing legs on Cottonwood and Independence Passes. While he views the length and elevation gain of the UPCC ascents as similar to those in the Tour he just finished, Danielson sees a big difference between the two races: altitude. He wonders how his competitors will deal with it. “Even though people will come here early and adapt to it and adjust to it, it’s going to be a key element to the race.”
He described his recent experience riding Independence Pass: “I just rode it easy and I felt the altitude. Every time I got out of the saddle, I could feel the lactate in my arms. My legs were really hurting and I was breathing hard. I stopped at the top to put on a rain jacket for the descent and phoof, I could really feel my head, a little bit light-headed. I was thinking, man, we’re going to do seven hard days of this…it’s going to be big.”