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Interview with Tom Danielson
 
By Cathy Mehl
Date: 10/9/2006
Interview with Tom Danielson
 

Daily Peloton: Let's start with the beginning of this season and talk about your original goals when this year began.

Tom Danielson: The year started for me with the Tour of California and my original goals were to perform well there and in Georgia. The Giro and the Vuelta were also goals for me all year, and I wanted to do well in all of those races. I went into the year with those focuses and more or less I achieved success. The Giro didn't really go too well because I was sick but at the same time I worked for Paolo and I worked for him every step of the way even when I was sick. I quit the race with only one stage to go so I think I did my job of helping Paolo. I was starting the climbs in the front and I was with the right riders at the right time, and I was able to be there with him, so I think I made some improvements. Everything in-between those races was also a success. Every race I did I finished in the top ten, except for the Giro which I didn't finish. If I had finished I think I would have been top ten for that race too.

I also played some different roles this year. At Tour of California I rode a lot for George; at the Giro I worked for Paolo. Even in the Vuelta when I wasn't performing like I wanted to the team had me chasing down breakaways and helping the other guys get into breakaways. I helped Janez (Brajkovic) a little bit, so even in those races it was quite interesting to be on the other side from where I had been before. Austria was an exciting race for me; it was my first European win and I think mentally that was a big breakout for me. Racing in Europe is very difficult, and to win any race in Europe is difficult. It was a big success for me, and I think it lead to my fighter attitude in the Vuelta. Even though things weren't going my way (in the Vuelta), I knew I could pull though. I really wanted to win Georgia, but Floyd was just better than me.

DP: Did you feel a lot of pressure to repeat at that race?

Tom: Oh yes, absolutely. The year before I was behind Lance and he took all the pressure. Then this year I showed up and everyone was looking at me. So it's also different with your teammates. The team is looking at you. They are at the race and want to do well, and they look at you like, "Okay, you'd better do well, because I'm sacrificing my race to help you." I fell into the winning position in 2005, it wasn't decided ahead of time, and I was able to get the win. It wasn't at the cost of the win for anyone else. But at Georgia this year the guys worked for me from the start to the finish. So I felt the responsibility to drop Floyd on that climb (Brasstown Bald). I was very happy to get the stage win, but I was unhappy to not be able to get time on him and win the race. I thought my time trial was good in Georgia so that was a big breakthrough for me.

I think right now I need to put all the pieces together from the things I've learned this year and take another step forward next year. This year I had good performances in various races, so hopefully I can take the good time trial experience from Georgia and the last mountain stages from the Vuelta, put it all together and have a complete race. I think a lot of it is just having confidence when you start the race. I think the best thing for me is to take what I've learned this year and translate it into confidence and apply it from stage one to stage twenty in a Grand Tour.

Do you think you have the killer instinct needed to win a Grand Tour?

I feel I have it, but I need to work on delivering it at the right times and channeling it in the right directions. Many times I feel it in the wrong parts of the race or after the race. I need to learn to conserve energy and then use all of my energy in the right moment. This is something I have to learn. I just need to be smart and savvy and use it at the absolute perfect moment. You can see Lance was a true master at this as he always waited until exactly the right moment and used everything he had all at once. This is something I am aware of and will work very hard to master.

Do you work with a sports psychologist?

I don't, but I think that would be a very good investment. For me in particular my mind enables me to perform well but it also hinders me, so perhaps the first few stages at the Vuelta were a problem because of my head. Actually I do think that was the problem. You asked about pressure. I can't tell you 100% if that was the problem, but my performance was so far off I can't come up with another reason I rode that way (losing 3-1/2 minutes on the climb of Stage 7 in the Vuelta). So it's up to me in the off season to work very, very hard on that.

Sometimes when you work with a professional they are able to simplify it all down for you and put it in such a way that you are amazed you didn't think of it yourself.

That's true.

Do you put a lot of pressure on yourself to be the next great American rider? You see that written a lot in the press. Do you think much about it?

I think everyone wants to put labels on everyone else. If I look at it from the perspective of the press I understand why they try to write about that. It's interesting to publish that story. But just because it's written doesn't mean it's true. I go into the forums sometimes and I read what people say about me. One person will say I'm going to do this and I'm doing to do that, and another journalist will write just the opposite. So who knows?

It's up to me to perform the best I can. If someone writes that I'm going to be the next great rider I can't make it happen just because they say it. It's up to me to take the path that I want. It's really interesting if you look at it that way. Every Grand Tour I do people write that this is my "make or break year", and that if I don't perform well in that particular race I will be destined to be a domestique for the rest of my career. But if I do perform well I'm the next great American. That's wrong. Last year in the Vuelta I finished eighth, then got moved to seventh when Heras got disqualified. This year was a much better field with Vinokourov. It was a higher quality field. I won a stage and I finished sixth, so I definitely improved.

Plus you worked through the two tough weeks.

Exactly. I was stronger at the end. So I don't look in the press to tell me what my career will be like. I keep working hard and I think I do better each year. I have improved and I hope to take it another step higher next year. That's my pace. I don't have a deadline of what I have to accomplish by a certain time. I like what I do and I think I'm doing a good job at it.

I think many casual sports fans and sometimes sports writers don't really understand that a cyclist can't perform at the same level all the time. Some don't seem to get it that you can't turn it on and off like that. I'm wondering if some understand what is required from the human body to perform at this elite level?

To do a Grand Tour we don't just show up and say we're going to race for three weeks. We start training in November. The body isn't a machine; anything can throw it off. To be honest with you, it's a very unpredictable job and that's why people who make it look easy and make it look predictable are very, very good at their job. So much of it is in the head. I know I need to work on my head.

I remember one time Aaron Olson told me when he rode his first Grand Tour at this year's Giro that his teammates told him to just stay with the grupetto to make the time cut. But he said, "It's not like the grupetto was going slow!"

People don't realize that. They see that you are thirty or forty minutes down and think you just sat up but those guys are racing too just to make the time cut. Some days when I'm having a bad day or the race isn't that important I think I'll just sit up and go back with the grupetto. But they are racing back there, too, no one is getting a free ride! You go back there and you suffer, so you might as well suffer in the front because every one is suffering! Every single day of every single race every one is suffering. There is never one single day when a rider can say, "Oh I had an easy ride." No way.

So for all of 2006 it was the plan for you to do two Grand Tours?

Yes. I'm not the expert and my schedule is set by Johan and others, but I think at this stage in my life at age 28 I'm not young, but I'm young in my career. It's important that I figure out racing and that my body learns quickly.

Was it always understood that you would be the leader for the Vuelta?

Yes, that was the goal.

Did that make you nervous at all? What were you thinking about your responsibilities?

I think all of the pressure came from myself. I wanted to do better (than 2005) in that race. I wanted to climb at another level. I wanted to time trial at another level. I wanted to understand the race at another level. So I think that was the pressure.

When things didn't go well right from the beginning, can you tell me what thoughts were going through your head? Were you discouraged?

Yeah, I was calling my wife, Kristin, and she actually helped me a lot. This was her first year pro in mountain biking and she was tenth overall in NORBA. It was a hard time. When I was not where I wanted to be in the beginning mentally I turned it off. The day I lost three and a half minutes I saw it all happening, all unfolding in front of me. I saw my chances of victory going away. I thought to myself, "What the heck is going on? Why am I here and not there?" Mentally I let myself down and well, it was the start of a long, long race!

It was the lowest I've been in my cycling career, for sure. Kristin told me to hang in there, to work through it. I mean obviously there were a lot of questions about what was happening with me. Why was I so good in training and why was I so bad in the race? Was my fitness bad? Was I sick? Was I over trained? Everyone was asking these questions: my team, the doctor, me. During Stage 7 I was wondering how I was going to get through the entire race. I wanted to pull the plug and start over. Luckily Janez took the jersey and that gave the team a new perspective. It all happened in the same day: I lost the race and Janez took the leader's jersey, all at the same time.

So did the change of plans take the pressure off of you and ease your mind? Or were you just pissed?

I was pissed. I was really angry. I was angry at myself and all the people who wrote me off immediately. As soon as I lost time everyone wrote me off. Every one. I was confused and I had so many emotions going through me. Honestly I didn't handle it the way I should have. I let it all get inside my head. I internalized much of it. Now I look back and see that I used way too much energy worrying about all of it. It's cycling. It's a job. But I learned a lot. I feel every thing happens for a reason and I think this happened to make me a stronger rider and to develop thicker skin. And to understand the people around me better and to understand what I am capable of in the future.

You worked through those two weeks and then you got the reward on the other side. You got the win. Tell me about that.

That was a good experience. Basically I decided in my head around stage 10 or 11 that during Stages 16 through the finish I was going to give everything I had until I had nothing left. I didn't care what happened, I was going to give it my all. On Stage 16 I covered every single move in the beginning. I attacked and tried to go away in the breakaway. But I was twelfth on GC. When you're high on GC everyone knows who you are. Everyone had seen me in the peloton and they knew what I was capable of, so no one was letting me go in the breakaways. I kept trying and trying in Stage 16 but it didn't happen. I wasted so much energy in the beginning of the stage and then at the finish I was with the first six guys. I was attacking in the finish and was there with the leaders on the climb even after using all of that energy earlier that day. So I saw that and I said to myself, "I'm good, I'm back. Tomorrow I'm going to try again. I'm going to try everyday until I nail it."

The next day a breakaway of thirty guys went so the team got on the front and chased it close. I attacked and went across to the breakaway of thirty guys. On the first climb all the GC favorites were following me and that caused a crazy race to start. So this breakaway of thirty was at the top of the climb with all the GC guys, but they were alone without teams. Kashechkin attacked and I went with him, I basically covered every one of his moves. At one point I was with Vinokourov and Kashechkin with Valverde and Sastre chasing, and I thought, "Man, the s**t has hit the fan. This is like last year when Heras won the race." Valverde was out of teammates back behind us, Kashechkin was lighting up the race for the win, so I knew I could take advantage of the situation. Who was going to chase me? Those guys could not chase me, they had to worry about themselves.

So I kept attacking until finally I got away with some guys. I wanted it so bad. I worked really hard to get the gap as high as I could in the beginning while CSC was getting organized to chase, then I rode up fast up the climb, and was able to get enough of a gap over the top, then descended as fast as I could. Behind me they were going crazy. Vino had attacked and he was coming across. My director, Dirk, told me he was coming, and he said I should wait, so I did and we worked together. I wasn't sure if I was going to win the stage but I knew Vino wanted the time and I wanted the stage. But you never know. I also wanted the time. I had never won a stage in a grand tour before, so I just kept pulling as hard as I could.

Was there any discussion between the two of you as to who might take the win?

No, there was no time. There was only 5K to go. I basically knew if I sat on him the last 700 meters I could beat him. But there was no discussion. I didn't know until I crossed the line. That was the best win of my career. I was really happy, especially after everything I'd gone through. There was this one Jay-Z song I was listening to through the entire Vuelta, "(Brush the) Dirt Off Your Shoulder." The whole time, every pull, I was thinking I'm going to get this dirt from the beginning of the Vuelta off of me and be finished with it forever.

As you were finishing the stage and going for the win, was time going fast or slow? Can you remember what you were thinking?

It was crazy on the downhill. I'm not very heavy, I'm pretty light, so I got down into my aero position like a little ball. I'd watch the motorcycle ahead of me and if he used his brake I'd use mine. If he didn't use his brakes I stayed in my little ball. I figured if I crashed it would look good on TV and be something exciting for the people watching!

What did Johan say at the end?

I know Johan was excited, and I hope my teammates were happy for me. The people around me that know how hard I work were really happy for me.

Do you feel that you've made a break-through now?

Yes, I feel that. Again, it's another label, but to win a big stage like that is something I've only dreamed about. I've never known what it tasted like until now. So now I do know what it feels like and I do know I can do it again. Once again this comes back to keeping a clear head. I think if I start each race with this attitude I can go a lot farther in my career.

Have you changed your training at all to focus on the Grand Tours?

Yes, I feel that's where my future is, and that's what I want to do. It's a whole other beast from stage races, but I like it.

Do you ever miss mountain biking?

I don't miss the racing but I miss the riding. It's a beautiful sport and my wife is very involved in it. That's what I'm going to do on the off season. Travel does not appeal to me right now. Home, Durango sounds good to me. It's an amazing place, something special.

I just want to tell you that I've watched you this year and I think you've matured as both a rider and in your public self. It isn't easy to grow up in the public eye and I think that's what's been happening to you. You seem more relaxed in press conferences now and I think you're hitting your stride. I think 2007 will be a great year for you.

Thank you for saying that. No one really says things like that, so I appreciate that.

Good luck, Tom!


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