GIRONA, Spain (VN) — Tom Danielson stepped off the sign-in podium Tuesday before the start of the second stage at the Volta a Catalunya and soaked up the experience.
Competing for the first time this week since serving his controversial six-month ban, Danielson (Garmin-Sharp) told VeloNews he was happily becoming reacquainted with racing.
“I see (racing) differently. You are very appreciative and thankful for being part of the team. It’s very nice to race with the guys again,” Danielson told VeloNews. “And little things like this, the sign-in, you just appreciate that more.”
Danielson, along with his Garmin teammates David Zabriskie and Christian Vande Velde, officially returned to the peloton Monday for the first time since providing key witness testimony as part of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation into doping practices at U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel teams.
That cooperation with USADA earned them a reduced six-month ban as well as criticism from some quarters insisting the sanction was too soft.
The three Garmin men are the only active riders returning to the peloton following the explosive case that resulted in a lifetime ban for Lance Armstrong.
Others, such as George Hincapie and Michael Barry, retired last year, while Levi Leipheimer has been unable to find a ride after Omega Pharma-Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere fire him.
Danielson said the rituals that are part of professional bike racing, such as the sign-in protocol and pinning a race bib on the jersey, have taken on special meaning following the tumult of the past several months.
“You see everything differently now. It’s nice to have the opportunity to race again,” Danielson said. “There were some pre-race jitters [on Monday]. We didn’t know what to expect.”
Their return to racing this week is in sharp contrast to the media storm generated by the USADA case since last fall.
All three discreetly rejoined the peloton without much fanfare. The smattering of Spanish journalists covering the race seemed more interested in talking to Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) than the three Americans.
On Tuesday morning in Girona, Zabriskie slipped into the pack before rolling out at the start line, making small talk with former CSC teammate Brian Vandborg (Cannondale).
Vande Velde was cheerfully chatting to some neighbors who had come to visit him at the race in Girona, his European hometown since the late 1990s.
Return to racing humbling for Tom Danielson
Things almost seemed routine, yet all three know things will never quite be the same again.
Danielson said his return to competition comes as a salve after the tumult of the past several months.
“It’s definitely been humbling,” Danielson said. “It’s just different now. I made my mistakes and I’ve admitted them and I’m sorry for everything. I am very happy to be racing again.”
Racing again has taken a special meaning for them, something Garmin teammate Peter Stetina was quick to notice.
“They’re excited to have their numbers on their backs again. I don’t think they’re taking anything for granted,” Stetina told VeloNews. “Inside the bus, nothing’s changed: same mentality, same jokes, same guys. I know how excited they are to be racing again.”
Their return is central to Garmin’s core principles. Team boss Jonathan Vaughters, who also gave testimony in the USADA case, built the team on the foundation that riders should be truthful about their respective pasts so long as they sign on for the team’s strict, no-doping policy.
Vaughters encouraged the riders to cooperate with USADA investigators, assuring them a place on the team regardless of the fallout. Danielson and company initiated their contact with investigators, offering to contribute to the federal case against Armstrong, which preceded USADA’s inquiry.
“Our team was founded on those principles,” Danielson said. “When we were asked to tell the truth, we stood by those principles, and told the truth. There’s no way to move forward if you cannot tell the truth.”
Stetina: Support the returning riders
Stetina, who said he’s grateful to have entered cycling after the darkest days of the EPO era, encouraged fans to support the Garmin trio as they re-enter the peloton.
“You can say whatever you want about the past, but they have been a very important part of fixing cycling. More than most guys,” Stetina said. “They’re excited to be racing their bikes again. For us, we welcomed them back with open arms.”
In fact, Garmin tried to make things as smooth and comfortable as possible for Danielson, Vande Velde, and Zabriskie. Garmin sport director Bingen Fernández said the three are an integral part of the team.
“We have supported them 100 percent. They are part of this team, so we are giving them the support they need,” Fernández said. “They all love racing their bikes. They were happy to put the number on their back again, with motivation and hunger to race again.”
For Danielson, Zabriskie, and Vande Velde, just lining up this week at Catalunya is a personal vindication of sorts. All three are confident they made the right choice when they had to.
“I don’t take anything for granted,” Danielson said. “It’s just so great to be back on the team.”
Now they just want to race their bikes again.
As they rediscovered on Monday when former teammate Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and 12 others jumped away to a 28-second gap, a cleaner peloton has delivered more demanding racing. If Danielson, Zabriskie, and Vande Velde want to return to the Tour de France and the season’s other major races, they know they will have to earn their places.