Here’s the link to the podcast of the interview.
Tom Danielson has accomplished a lot in just three short years of professional cycling and plays an important role in Team Discovery Channel’s hopes to rule in this year’s Grand Tour events. Best known as one of the world’s most accomplished climbers, he has posted record setting performances in the Mt. Washington, Trail Ridge and Mt. Evans Hill Climbs. Johan Bruyneel chose Danielson to support Lance Armstrong in the quest for his 7th Tour de France victory, but must have known the young American was something special, especially after winning his first international stage race (Tour of Qinghai Lake) just two months after turning pro. In 2005, Tom won the Tour de Georgia and followed that in 2006 with a win in the Tour of Austria. Perhaps the most impressive performance of Danielson to date was a stage win (the grueling stage 17 climb) in the Vuelta a Espana. It is with great anticipation that we witness Danielson’s upcoming Grand Tour as he approaches this season with a new team.
Podium: How did you get started in sport?
Tom Danielson: When I was young, I was into Karate, basketball, then motorcycles (motocross) and finally I got into mountain biking. I liked the motocross because of the technical bike handling, speed and adrenaline that went along with it. With cycling, I love that the technical aspects are such a big part of it along with the adrenaline and the cardiovascular challenges put on your body. I’ve now been on the bike for ten years and a professional cyclist for 3 years. I’ve got a better understanding of it than I did in the beginning. It’s a very complicated sport but then that’s why I love it. Originally, that was what drew me into the sport, but eventually I realized the head was a big part of it. Whether your head is in it or not determines how well you do and how far you can take it.
Podium: You talk about motocross and mountain bike racing where the start is so frenetic, everybody breaking to get to the hole shot – did you acquire any particular mental skill in preparing for that that you now use on the road?
Tom Danielson: When I was racing mountain bikes, I just really felt that pure power and aggression was what got me to the front, but with road cycling (especially at the level that I’m doing it at) we have to fight for position on a frequent basis. That’s maybe a little hairier than an MTB start. We fight at the bottom of climbs or for the sprint finishes. I’ve learned that it’s not just power, it’s more tactical savvy and graceful maneuvering than it seemed before. If I went back and raced mountain bikes now, I’d do a lot better at the start.
Podium: Talk about your development as an athlete psychologically.
Tom Danielson: To be honest with you, I don’t really learn things psychologically until after the fact. For example, when I was a racing MTB as a junior, mentally it was second nature for me to win. I suppose I developed a skill for winning that I didn’t even know about. Then I went off to college and had a lot of other things that were taking my attention. I thought that I was doing the same things that I was doing when winning as a junior, but my head was so distracted and I had so many other stresses in my life – girls, school, new place to live, friends – different environmental factors that it just knocked me down. I actually gave up on cycling and finished my college career just racing for fun.
I made a comeback when this guy Rick Crawford came into my life. He said he thought I was a good cyclist, that I looked like a good climber. Really, that was such a mental boost, because I suddenly had this positive reinforcement. He explained to me how all the stresses and distractions impacted me. He said, “You’re still trying to keep this training schedule that you had back in high school kid and you didn’t have as much going on and you can’t do that when you’re a college student.” Basically he taught me how to organize my life from the head down. (Crawford’s influence and TD’s new approach brought him an NCAA Championship at Ft. Lewis in Durango, Colorado)
Podium: We address overtraining and under-recovery as a science in Podium. When you look at the level of training you’re doing now, what do you do to prevent overtraining and under-recovery?
Tom Danielson: Yeah. I succeeded in dealing with the stresses that I had then, but now it’s different. Being a member of Team Discovery Channel, winning big races, being the leader in big races – all of the sudden it’s a whole new level of stress, commitment, travel and anxiety. And it’s just incredible. I started out doing well in the pro tour at the international level, but I didn’t quite figure it out. It took a few times to fall back down before I realized that I wasn’t handling the stresses properly. So, I’ve learned by having other people and my wife (cyclist Kristen Johnson) help me recognize when I’m getting run down. It’s just not possible to continue to train 6 hours a day when you have all these interviews at night and then you have to be somewhere to shake hands with people for two hours – every time you fly to Europe it’s a big stress on you – when you fly back it’s a stress – when you finish a race like I just finished the Tour of California and then you fly from there to Colorado where its very cold, you’re now at altitude, and then all of the sudden everyone wants to talk with you. It is a constant battle skating that fine line between overtraining and proper training.
Because you’re environment is always changing, everyday I’m in a new area. I like to say that my real home is a hotel room. The people around you are constantly changing, too. You’re constantly exposed to germs, crowds, commitments and of course, high anxiety. I’ve had to develop an internal system for recognizing when my body is a little bit too tired. Whether the stimuli are a negative or some kind of positive stress, finding the time to relax – to consciously zero everything out, and then also get the proper recovery in has been a challenge and it still is a challenge. Now after my third year as a professional I have a lot more of it figured out. I think I’ve got a good system but it is a constant struggle.
Podium: How much insulation will Johan Bruyneel provide the team at large. Is there any kind of a self-care system that the team employs – or does everybody on the team have their own approach?
Tom Danielson: Everyone pretty much has their own self-management system. We always run a really tight schedule with the races. When you come back from a hard stage around 6 or 7, you have a massage, eat a little bit at dinner and then you have some down time. But by then its 11 or 12 and you have to get up in the morning. So, it is really important that you’re constantly focused on your self care on the road – during the stage – after the stage – when you’re on the massage table – when you’re at dinner. If you take it all in for what it’s worth, it’s just incredible. You can get tired just by everything that goes on around the race not even including the race. So, if you’re not recovering mentally after the stage it’s a big mistake. If your still talking or thinking about it…which I have done and still do and I have to catch myself – and you’re still replaying the stage for another 3-4 hours in your head – what you did good or what you did bad – or especially if you had a horrible day – it can wear you down. You can really see that in a 21 day stage race. If you’ve not been resting after the race, you’re toast. (laughs). Even if you’re sitting on the couch eating and doing everything properly, if your mind is spinning and you’re not zeroing out and you are not centered in the middle, you can really burn a lot of candles just like that.
Podium: You mentioned the fighting for position riding in the peloton at speed right before the climb, or the sprint – how do you prepare mentally prior to the action?
Tom Danielson: First of all the fight before the climb in the peloton is crazy and very stressful, and it’s very important. For me, this has been a difficulty that I didn’t fully recognize – until the Vuelta, when I realized that it was an area where I experience extremely high anxiety. I am afraid of it, afraid of the fight. I become very tense and very nervous – especially because I know that I have to perform there. I have to be in the front to perform. There’s always the stress of the fight that’s going on, but on top of that there’s the anticipation – the nervousness like before an important test. So, I have these two large amounts of stress hitting me at once and I just didn’t do a good job of managing it.
I would always struggle in the beginning of the climb because my body’s reaction to that anxiety would cause all my muscles to tighten up, which is normal when you think about it. When you get nervous your stomach feels weird, all the blood leaves your muscles and goes toward your chest – your heart rate goes up. Off the bike, you’d just be burning tons of energy. For me on the bike, my muscles would just tense up and I couldn’t breathe as well, and for two years I didn’t realize that this was going on until the Vuelta this year.
I finally said to myself, “Why am I getting dropped? I have the best conditioning, I know I’m good, I’ve been here, I know I can beat these guy…why can’t I ride with these guys?” It took awhile. I talked to a few people and realized that it’s really important for me to try to fully relax.
When you think about fighting for position in the peloton, you’re nervous and tense, you are gonna make bad judgment calls, you’re gonna make some bad moves just because your muscles aren’t relaxed. Think about driving a car in traffic, if you’re not nervous and a deer runs out in front of you – if you’ve done it a lot of times and you’re a good driver, your skills will just take over and you’ll handle that situation and flow through the right move. You won’t make a drastic break or swerve unnecessarily.
It’s the same type thing for me. I’ve come up with all of these techniques where I rehearse in my mind, see myself in the front of the peloton, seeing that my legs are good, seeing that I’m relaxed so that when I’m in the fight and all the craziness is going on I’m calm and in control. What I like to practice the most is relaxing my face. I really focus on having every muscle loose on my face. When you see Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France it looks like he’s playing poker, but in my opinion I think what he’s doing is he’s relaxing his face. When you relax your face everything else relaxes. If you train every night relaxing your face, feeling all your muscles following, then when you get to that climb and that stressful situation fighting in the peloton or on the climb, your whole body just follows that motion. You can think a lot clearer, handle the bike a lot better, and then when you hit the climb and you need to perform all of your muscles are relaxed you have the proper blood flow. You haven’t burned all your energy up. Anxiety burns up glycogen and that’s what you need on the climb. For me this is a big big thing.
Podium: When you’re talking about the Vuelta, when you figured it out, do you consider that stage win to be a real turnaround point in your career?
Tom Danielson: Yeah, for a number of different reasons. For one, it was the hardest mountain stage of the race and it was my first grand tour win. For me, it was a huge result. Behind that the way I won the stage was key. I had enormous amounts of confidence and I attacked from the beginning to the end and never looked back. For me that was a big success. Finally, it was big because of everything that I went through in that race. I started out the race with high expectations but I had some bumps along the way. Basically, I went into a slump in the middle of the race. Then I clawed my way out of it. I put the icing on the cake with that result, and, a good overall result. That was huge in my career because that win taught me a lot about the strengths that I have. Everything that happened before that taught me about all of my weaknesses.
I feel that to be a successful athlete, you have to make a lot of mistakes you have to have a lot of problems along the way. These things make you stronger and help you realize what it takes to be a champion. Moving on from that over the winter I’ve worked on so so much. I’m very eager this year in 2007 to expand upon what I did in the Vuelta and use all the techniques that I worked hard on to really prove that they work. I believe that I can take myself to a level that I haven’t even been close to before.
Podium: When you talk about how the Team Discovery Channel has changed over the past winter there are a lot of new faces. How do you merge these personalities together? You’ve got a lot of different characters, different languages and cultures you all come from, its seems there’s so much that has to come together for you to perform well as a team. Are there any routines or rituals you guys go through to develop team cohesion?
Tom Danielson: I think it’s hard to bond a cycling team for a number of different reasons. My team is especially diverse. There are five Americans on the team. We’re an American team in theory but not even a quarter of our team is American. So we have all these different countries and of course the American guys like to talk to the American guys, the Ukrainian guys like to talk to the Ukrainian guys, the Spanish guys talk to the Spanish guys, the Belgian guys talk to the Belgian guys, and so on. You know it’s a lot like those college classes you go to where you have some people that are friends and when you have to form groups, they tend to go with their friends. If you’re kind of in between you jump on someone else’s team and you have to work a lot harder than they do to join in. Every race that we do is kind of like that.
To be honest with you, the sport of cycling is so difficult and so demanding that I think just going into the races bonds the team. Our team is always a big factor in the races. We always have a plan. I think that implementing that plan as a team really bonds people together that perhaps wouldn’t normally connect. It’s difficult for sure.
At the beginning of training camp when you first meet the guys, there are some guys you really like and maybe some you don’t. You might not be sure if you can work with them. But I’ll tell you, when you have a situation like Stage 6 in the Tour of California where the shit really hit the fan and the whole team really had to come together to win the race. All those guys basically have a moment together, you know, one where we all bleed through the eyes together, and it is so hard that you remember it for the rest of your life. So that experience was such that for the team I was with in the Tour of California, we’re all really tight guys. Now the difficulty will be when we go to Paris-Nice. There will be a new group of guys and we’ll have to feel each other out, see how we are, and maybe by the end of the race we’ll all bond.
From a director’s point of view it’s a big challenge when the makeup of a team changes by 50% new riders. We’ve got a lot of big names on this team and everyone’s excited to have all these great riders, but I’m sure there is some fear in his mind. He’s got to make sure they all connect. His strategy is to put the riders in the Tour de France together in similar races early in the season to make them interact. You can’t just put them in the Tour, in that one race and expect them all to be on the same wave length. So we’ll race together many, many times before the tour. We will learn to “bleed together for each other” to make that bond very strong. That is what makes a great team.
Podium: Tell us what your biggest thrill in sport has been, in any sport, any event, any circumstance.
Tom Danielson: I think my biggest thrill was winning stage 17 in the Vuelta. In my whole life, at least as far as I can remember being involved in cycling, I’ve always looked at the Grand Tours in European cycling and just been amazed watching them on TV. When I was a mountain biker I was over at a friends house having lunch when his mom asked me if that was what I was going to do, and I said “No, I’m not that guy, I won’t be able to do that!” And then I got closer to that dream each year, and now, finally I’m in those races.
Seeing the front of the grand tour, the mountain stage, with all the helicopters and all the people, and the motorcycles, and I’m the one that’s in the front, seeing the finish line first. You know it’s a crazy thing to talk about, but for me it was a huge experience.
Maybe in a few years, after a few more grand tour victories it may not seem so special, but for sure, because that was the first time I’d ever come across a finish line like that, added to the sense of accomplishment at having worked so hard and dreamed about it so many times. The experience of actually seeing it through my own eyes and going through the emotions in my own body, for me that was my best sporting moment.
Podium: I need to ask you one more question, and probably for no other reason than because it’s so controversial, that being doping in sports and because cycling is center stage, how does all this weigh on you?
Tom Danielson: I actually have a good answer for this. Basically, cycling has a problem. There are always going to be problems in sports, whether in football, baseball, soccer, whatever, there are always going to be people doing this and that trying to get an unfair advantage. I’m afraid its human nature. People hire aggressive accountants to change what they owe to the government on their taxes. It is part of human nature for people to make mistakes and to have problems. Doping is one of the bad evils of our society and of sport. As an athlete, I don’t like it. It’s dangerous to the athlete’s health, it’s dangerous to the sport, it’s dangerous to all the competitors. I don’t like to get beat by anybody, especially somebody that cheated. We have a system for testing. The system is getting better, it’s growing but it’s gonna have its ups and downs along the way. Remember it was 1998 when everything broke loose. The testing has changed. Its got a lot more funding now and you have a lot more people involved. Both the frequency and range of testing is increasing. Every year it’s really improving and for that I think it’s good.
Cycling has another problem and that is simply the media. Consider the tabloid magazines. When you go into the grocery store you know where the Enquirer, Star, and all the other tabloids are. They are all on one rack. You know where all the BS is. It’s on this rack. Newsweek and Time magazine and the better journals are on another rack. You’re not confused. If you want the real news you go to this rack. If you want the fake news you go to the other rack.
Well in cycling, they publish it all on the same rack and everyone publishes everything. The Floyd Landis case is an excellent example because no one even knows what is true or what’s going on? You have the anti-doping people saying one thing, you’ve got him saying another thing, his lawyer is saying something else, it seems like it should all go to trial and get figured out before it even touches the media, because when the media is trying the case, which it does, and naturally they sensationalize everything to sell more copy. It unfortunately destroys the sport.
When I go on the internet and I look at cycling, it looks horrible, like the whole sport is on fire. However, when I go to my team meetings, when I talk to my sponsors and then when I go to the Tour of California and I see twice as many participants and twice as many fans as the year before, I see lots of coverage and lots of excitement and I think, “Man, cycling’s kicking ass right now!” I can see in two or three years the sport is going to be enormous in America. Look where it has come even in the post-Lance era. It’s unbelievable.
So the media is one thing and we all have to understand that they write for a living, but from the doping standpoint it would just be better if there was some security mechanism to make sure that everything that’s being written was more legitimate than what is being reported.
So to finish it off, how do I deal with doping as an athlete? I’ll tell you the best thing that’s ever happened to me is what happened to me in the Vuelta, and in working on adding the mental concepts to my physical capabilities last year and this off season. If I were to give you a number, a percentage as to how much better I am going to be in 2007 compared to last year, I’d give you 30% better. I’d say that if I were going to take all my training files, power outputs and everything. I’d say, overall I’m 30% better of an athlete today, right now, than I was in 2006. And why? I think it’s all the improvement in the head.
I don’t think there is any cheating method, any doping method or any practice that can give you the type of consistent improvement as training hard, doing your sport 100% right and then adding that mental aspect on top of it. I think that that is the secret to success, and I think that’s what is going to take me to the top.