LUZ-ARDIDEN, France (VN) — When Garmin-Cervélo’s general manager Jonathan Vaughters selected his team for this Tour de France, he finally gave Tom Danielson, at 33, a chance to make his debut in the world’s biggest race. In his fourth year with the American squad after three years with Discovery Channel, Danielson has waited a long time for this opportunity, and not even Vaughters knew what to expect.
Danielson earned his spot on the Tour team by taking third at May’s Amgen Tour of California, behind the two Team RadioShack leaders Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, and then finishing ninth at the Tour of Switzerland. But the Garmin man wasn’t expected to match Horner or Leipheimer at the Tour, nor was he considered more than a team helper for his Garmin teammates Christian Vande Velde and Ryder Hesjedal.
Those other North Americans have all placed top ten at the Tour, or even top five. But on the first mountain stage of this Tour, Danielson finished ahead of all of them (other than the absent Horner who crashed out on stage 7); and after 13 stages, the Tour rookie is sitting in ninth overall, only seconds behind Thursday’s stage winner Samuel Sanchez and two-time defending champion Alberto Contador.
“I’m pretty excited,” a surprisingly relaxed Danielson told VeloNews right after he finished 11th on the stage, 1:03 behind Sanchez and only 20 seconds back of Contador. “I’m proud. It was definitely a big test for me because the first 11 days, 12 days — I don’t even know what day we’re on — were different to what I’m used to: a lot of high-speed riding, a lot of physical riding, a lot of crashes, a lot of stress, a lot of rain. So to be up there with the best guys on the climb today was really nice.”
His performance at Luz-Ardiden was one of the best in his career — right up there with his winning a mountain stage of the 2006 Vuelta a España — but Danielson feels he can even improve his GC position in the days ahead. “I’d like to do better,” he said. “I’d like to be able to attack rather than follow. Hopefully, in the next days, I can do something.”
It was already impressive to see Danielson mixing it with the likes of Contador and the Schleck brothers, and it was clear he enjoyed being at the center of things. “You could see the Schlecks were aggressive,” he said, “just one, two-ing Contador. And you could see (Contador) was in difficulty … so it was good (for me). It was good to be able to see that and it was a good time, for sure.
“I mean, I was waiting for the crazy acceleration (from Contador) but, you know, he did follow the accelerations. The Tour is a long, long race, and we have five more mountain days to go and a time trial. For me, I’m just gonna ride the best I can every day, and hopefully that puts me near the front. And if you don’t have a bad day you’re in the top five or whatever. And that’s what it’s all about.
“I don’t know any of the climbs here, but I think that the climbs coming up are a lot harder. And I think that’s where people are going to lose a lot of time and have really bad days. Yeah, the Plateau de Beille (on Saturday) will be hard, and a lot of hard days after that and then the time trial.”
Danielson has finished top 10 at the Vuelta — seventh in 2005, sixth in 2006 and ninth in 2010 — but those placings never earned him a Tour slot until now. Asked how the two grand tours compared, he said, “I don’t know. I think I’m in better shape here so I’m actually suffering less here than I was at the Vuelta. But I guess it’s harder. It’s definitely faster and there’s a lot more attention on it.
“There were a lot more people (on today’s stage). I was having trouble seeing where I was going with all the flashes and stuff. So that was pretty cool. A lot of fun.”
Luz-Ardiden has seen some outstanding rides by Americans in Tour history. Greg LeMond clinched second place in the 1985 Tour behind teammate Bernard Hinault after a great ride over the Col du Tourmalet on the stage that arrived in Luz-Ardiden (though LeMond was furious after his team held him back from a breakaway with the dangerous Stephen Roche that could have earned the American the yellow jersey); and in 1990, LeMond virtually clinched his third Tour victory here by putting a lot of time into race leader Claudio Chiappucci. And in 2003, of course, Lance Armstrong crashed dramatically at the base of Luz-Ardiden, came back up to his rivals and then crushed them with a winning attack in the climb’s second half.
Ironically, it was at that time that Danielson, newly converted from mountain bike racing, was said to be the man to replace Lance Armstrong one day because he was already a great climber and an accomplished time trialist. Danielson did start his road career in a blaze by winning China’s Tour of Qinghai Lake in 2002 (with the Mercury team) and Malaysia’s Tour de Langkawi in 2003 (with Saturn), but he floundered when he went to Italy in 2004 to race for the then world’s No. 1 team, Fassa Bortolo.
Seven years later, it looks as though Danielson is finally fulfilling his early talent at the biggest show in town. It’s certainly a performance putting a smile on the face of Jonathan Vaughters.