Local Hero: Danielson makes it a priority to give back to young riders and the community.
As a young kid on the east coast, Tom Danielson, 34, fell in love with riding dirt bikes. He soon switched to mountain biking, going on to win a national championship at the college level. However, thanks to an intuitive coach at Fort Lewis college, Danielson found his true calling. He admits the transition to road riding wasn’t smooth, but he worked at it, overcame the difficulties and now ranks among the best pro cyclists in the world. In 2011, Danielson had the breakout year for which he’d been waiting. He surprised himself by placing 3rd in the Tour of California and then crushed his debut in the Tour De France by securing a 9th place finish overall (the top American spot) and leading the Garmin-Cervelo squad (now Garmin-Barracuda) to claim the team victory prize. We caught up with Danielson on the brink of the start of the season to talk about the keys to his success and find out what this local rising star has planned for 2012.
It’s obvious from watching you both on the bike and off that you have a lot of heart. What are you passionate about other than cycling?
I have always been passionate and I love to give back to the sport, but my wife has helped me learn to direct my passion at other things. She’s taught me to find a lot of happiness within the everyday. So right now, my family is my biggest passion. My wife, my parents, her parents, my son all help me stay grounded and well rounded. My two-year-old son teaches me what life is all about each day. Being successful in your sport and job starts with appreciating your family and being a good asset to them. When you enjoy what you have, then you can start giving your whole heart to your sport.
You’ve been getting stronger and stronger over the last few years and 2011 was a real breakout year for you. To what do you attribute your success?
Over the years I got caught up in living up to other people’s expectations and listening to everyone else’s two cents. I lost who I was and what I wanted to accomplish and then, I kept waiting for other people to put me back on track. This year, I got reminded that I’m the only person who can get me back on track. With the help of my family, especially the birth of my son, I realized it’s up to me to be the best I can be in order to make this whole thing work. As soon as I switched my focus, there were instant results. At the Tour of California, I stopped worrying what other people thought and decided to work for the team, tune out media and just let the legs work and see where I ended up. On the podium surrounded by my family, that’s where it all clicked and I thought: “This is who I am. This is what I am and what I’m all about.”
It’s crazy, but the simple things are what make the biggest improvements. We spend tons of time and money figuring out the latest and greatest thing that will make a difference, but the thing you really need the most is right in front of you all the time.
It was inspiring to watch you climb up Alpe D’Huez and catch the leaders to secure your 9th place finish in the Tour de France last year. How did your performance at the Tour affect the way your preperation for this season?
That kind of experience is what every athlete is looking for. You train and suffer and you look for some sort of positive affirmation for all that work. When you go to races and get your head kicked in repeatedly, you start to ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” You become a mental milkshake and that takes a toll on your riding. When I stopped comparing and questioning, I started to perform better. I had always dreamed of riding these races so being up front with the leaders was unreal. Every day, I get up and I see this mental picture of me on that exact climb. It helps me give that extra little bit each day in training and has pushed me to the next level. I now know that I am that guy… that guy who can win. I’m holding onto that and hope I get to experience it more this season.
How do you deal with the pressure of your career at home and on the road?
The most important one is to focus on giving 100 percent to what I am doing at the moment.
You’ve had a number of successes already, but what things will make you define your career as a success?
I’ve got a certain number of years left and I feel like I’m just now coming into my prime. I can’t control the races I’ll win. The only thing I can control is me. If I push myself to the limit in training and race fearlessly, then I’ll have made a big jump toward meeting my goals. When I retire, I want to look back and say that I gave everything I had, everyday, every race. If I can do that, then, I’ll be successful.
You finished fourth in the USA Pro Cycling Challenge last year. What are you most excited for this time around?
It’s going to be awesome to have a finish on Flagstaff Mountain. It’s my favorite climb and it’s a really tough one. The time trial in Denver will be great, too, but I’d really like to see at least one mountain top finish on the course.
During your best performance, were you ever paying attention to anything else?
So you were in the moment? You were at one with your experience?
That’s the goal. It’s definitely not easy to do because if it was, everyone would be succeeding, but I’m getting there.
You’re so busy, yet you manage to find time to work with young riders here in Colorado. Why is developing them important to you?
When I started riding, there were certain people who reached out to me and I’ll remember them forever. They gave me hope and made me realize what I could accomplish. An interaction like that changes your perspective and brings It a lot closer to home.
I mean, what are we doing? Selling products through a sport? Yes, but more importantly we are inspiring people by how we ride, fly up a climb, give them an autograph, how we interact with them. Creating these experiences for juniors hits home more than anything and will inspire people to believe in their dreams. I want to help people realize they can come up with a dream of any kind—to be a doctor, mountain climber or cyclist—and make it happen as long as they believe in it, work hard towards it and never lose sight of it. That’s why I do what I do.