PARK CITY — Tom Danielson enjoyed the best win of his professional cycling career because he embraced an opportunity he hasn’t always welcomed.
The 35-year-old earned his first major tour victory with a spectacular performance on the final day of the Tour of Utah Sunday afternoon.
“I was very proud of myself because it takes a lot of mental strength to go up against a competitor like Chris like that,” Danielson said of battling RadioShack’s Chris Horner, who finished second overall. “It would have been real easy for me to just sit behind and try to hang on; but I owed it to myself to try to be that person I want to try and be and take the bull by the horns.”
He said he has not taken advantage of opportunities in the past because the risk was too frightening.
“To be honest with you, it’s because I like cycling too much,” Danielson said. “I’m too afraid to lose it. So when I get to that moment, I almost choose not to take it because I’m afraid if I do take it and I don’t succeed, then ... I failed. But I realized at this race, especially yesterday, that I’m pretty strong. So if I stay confident and relaxed, I have a lot more fun and I can enjoy what I truly love to do.”
Danielson finished third in Sunday's brutal Stage 6, which was won with a time of 3:12.52 by the day's most aggressive rider, Francisco Mancebo Perez, who rides for 5-hour Energy. Jamis-Hagens Berman rider Janier Acevedo Calle surprised everyone by claiming second place in Stage 6 and third overall. Danielson passed the two men on the climb, but was happy to let them claim the stage win as he knew his efforts had earned him the overall victory.
"I didn't take any risks on the descent," he said smiling.
Danielson and his Garmin-Sharp teammates spent the beginning of the week trying to help their youngest rider, Lachlan Morton, contend for the overall win after his impressive solo performance Thursday earned him the yellow jersey.
But when Morton told Danielson during Saturday’s fifth stage that he might not have the legs needed to hold the lead on the climb to Snowbird, Danielson decided he could be the team’s hero. He led the charge up Big Cottonwood Canyon, losing at the last second to Horner, who stayed on his rear wheel for much of the climb.
Horner, who finished second overall, said it was evident to him after that climb, that Danielson had the advantage if Garmin-Sharp applied the right strategy.
“It wasn’t too difficult for me to see that if Garmin played their tactics right, which they did, I told you guys Danielson was the best guy on the climb," said Horner. "They raced wrong yesterday; they raced right today. I could tell yesterday, he had more punch than me.”
Danielson said he didn’t think his team’s tactics were wrong Saturday, but instead acknowledged the depth of the RadioShack team. Garmin-Sharp lost a rider Saturday and another mid-race Sunday.
“I don’t think we made any tactical mistakes yesterday,” Danielson said. “We were playing the Lachy option. They had a phenomenal team. I’m really impressed with George Bennett this week. The tactics they had yesterday wouldn’t work if his guys didn’t have the legs they had.”
He said his teammates did what they could to help him, and when they couldn’t, he helped himself.
“I’m really proud,” said Danielson, who served a six-month suspension last year after admitting to using performance-enhancing substances earlier in his career. “I dedicated that one to my teammates, who have basically stuck with me the last years tried to help me do that many years and I didn’t do it. So I’m very happy to finally do it.”
Danielson has been vocal about the efforts to clean up the sport, and noted many of those cyclists punished had stopped using banned substances long before the USADA’s investigation that ended in the sport’s most high-profile athlete, Lance Armstrong, being banned for life. Danielson told reporters in interviews after his suspension that most cyclists welcomed the new changes as they felt they had no choice for many years.
Danielson has been one of the sport’s most well-known riders despite not winning a major tour in his career. He said it was being injured early in the Tour de France this year that forced him to really evaluate why he was still cycling.
“Normally I’m in the race, I’m kind of there, knowing I could be there, and then at crunch time, can’t do it; I just can’t do it,” he said. “Mentally, I kind of second-guess myself. I had a different Tour de France this year, getting injured at the beginning, and I had a lot of time to reflect while I was getting my head kicked in during that race, 'Why am I doing this sport?'
“When I came home, it became real clear to me, I’m doing it to try to win races,” he said. “I don’t like to try to be a guy it the peloton. I decided this would be a good race for me to do this.”
When Morton earned the yellow jersey in Stage 3, Danielson said he tried to be a good teammate and help the 21-year-old hold on to it. Morton did earn the best young rider’s jersey, while Stage 6 winner Mancebo won the most aggressive rider’s jersey. Michael Torckler won the king of the mountain jersey, an honor he claimed on the first day and managed to hold on to despite competing against some of the best climbers in the world.
Danielson said his mindset shifted when Morton said he didn’t have the legs to try and win Stage 5.
“I think a lot of people don’t quite understand what professional cycling is and what we’re doing,” he said when asked if this race was a turning point for his career. “They think we’re out there making money riding bikes, and we look cool doing it. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of suffering. It’s a lot of injuries. Look at Chris here to my right.’ He’s seen it all, and why is he still doing it? He’s doing it for experiences like we have here. That’s why we do it. We put up with knee surgeries, calf tears and the crashes just to get that one moment like I had today. We just keep doing it. That’s who we are as professional cyclists.”
Not only is this Horner’s first race in five months because of knee surgery, the king of the mountain jersey is the biggest prize Torckler has won since being hit by a car while training last year. The cyclists nodded as Danielson expressed his affection for the sport of cycling.
“We’re very determined people who are looking for moments like we get today,” he said. “We’re not out there trying to make money or anything else. We’re trying to seize that moment.”