Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
Steve Lewis/Durango Herald file photo
The first time Tom Danielson rode up the hill to Fort Lewis College, he was on his way to class – a business class.
And he was riding a mountain bike. The soon-to-be national collegiate mountain bike champion bypassed the pavement and opted for the singletrack trail back then. But the next time Danielson rides up the hill to Fort Lewis College on Monday, Aug. 20, he'll be on a state-of-the-art road bike, and he could be teaching ACC 225, Intro to Financial Accounting.
Danielson, the Fort Lewis College business graduate who has gone on to earn a doctorate in professional bicycle racing, will show off his college hometown to 130 of his pro cycling colleagues when the USA Pro Cycling Challenge kicks off the 2012 edition with the Grand Depart in Durango.
The race's Stage 1 will take the peloton right past the classrooms where Danielson earned his degree on the roads where Danielson earned his stripes as a cyclist.
“This year's edition of the USA Pro Challenge is extra special for me,” Danielson said in a telephone interview with The Durango Herald.
“As a professional athlete, when the big race is in your home state, it's special,” Danielson said as he continued recovery from crashes that forced him out of the recent Tour de France.
“This year, of course, it starts in Durango. I'm actually staying in a Fort Lewis College dorm like I did (as a student),” Danielson said. “I can't think of a better way to start the Challenge this year.”
A return trip to Durango and Fort Lewis College last fall revived Danielson's feelings about his college town.
“Last fall, when I went back to Durango, there were incredible vibes in Durango. I really had a motivating week when I was there,” he said of his appearance at the Durango Fall Blaze, an annual fund-raiser for the Tom Danielson Cycling Scholarships at Fort Lewis.
“Everyone was ... so gracious. For me, I spent a big part of my cycling life in Durango,” Danielson said. “That's where it all started for me in terms of the road.”
Add the fact that the penultimate stage of the 2012 USA Pro Cycling Challenge will finish on Flagstaff Mountain outside his current hometown of Boulder, and Danielson is doubly inspired.
“The climb up Flagstaff, my very favorite climb ... I've done it a million times,” said Danielson, who is the unofficial record-holder for the fastest ascent of Flagstaff.
“I fought hard to get that climb in the race,” said Danielson, who worked equally hard with race organizers to land a stage in Durango.
“So starting in Durango ... and a finish in Boulder. That will make this a special race for me,” Danielson said.
“In his heart, the USA Pro Challenge is the (race) he really wants,” said Rick Crawford, Danielson's current coach and his former coach while at Fort Lewis College. Crawford recently took over as director of cycling for Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
“Tom's still banged up pretty bad,” Crawford said. Danielson crashed out of the recent Tour de France with not one but two separated shoulders suffered in crashes on consecutive days.
“He didn't take much time off ... He was back on his bike a few days later,” Crawford said. “But he had major (shoulder) injuries.”
Crawford said Danielson returned to his home in Boulder, where he resumed training after the frustration of France. A year earlier, Danielson was the highest finishing American (eighth) in the 2011 Tour de France.
“We're looking for a silver lining ... after crashing out early (in the Tour de France),” Crawford said.
Without the pounding of three weeks of intense racing, Crawford said Danielson will be able to compensate with training in Colorado.
“One thing about Tom, he can train. He trains really well,” his coach said with reference to Danielson's legendary workout statistics.
“He's planning on doing the Tour of Utah ... It's a very good prep race for the Pro Challenge because of the altitude,” Crawford said.
“He has a lot of mojo ... unfulfilled mojo. He'll carry that into the Pro Challenge,” said Crawford, who watched his young collegiate mountain biker move into the ranks of professional road racer.
Danielson won an individual national mountain bike championship in college. And he was part of a team that won a national title.
“Team racing really starts in collegiate cycling,” Danielson said last fall when he was in town for the annual Durango Fall Blaze benefit bike ride.
“That's where the fundamentals ... of team (racing) start,” Danielson said. “Cycling is an individual sport, but it takes the team to put (individuals) in a place to excel,” he said.
“You have to work together – rely on each other to solve problems. Collegiate cycling is a perfect start. And if someone excels in a team environment in college, it makes him more valuable (as a pro rider),” said Danielson, who first rode with the Sobe/Headshok pro team on the road.
He graduated to Team Mercury, immediately winning the Estes Cycling Challenge in Estes Park.
In the interim, Danielson won the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic road race from Durango to Silverton in record time – an unofficial record that still stands.
And two months into his professional career, Danielson won his first international stage race in China.
He added the hill climb record at Mount Washington in New Hampshire, breaking the mark of former University of Colorado ski racer Tyler Hamilton. He broke the record on Colorado's Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb, too.
Danielson moved up to Team Saturn. He again won internationally, taking the general classification in the Tour de Langkawi.
He later added the overall title in the Tour of Georgia with then-Discovery teammate Lance Armstrong.
Danielson went on to win a stage of the Vuelta a Espaņa as part of the Discovery team.
The Fort Lewis graduate moved to the Italian team Fasso Bortolo, where he was beset by injuries and illness.
But a relocation to Boulder and an affiliation with Slipstream Sports and Garmin put Danielson back on track.
And back on roads that will be familiar when the USA Pro Cycling Challenge makes its way around Colorado.
Danielson, who was the poster boy for the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge, finished fourth last year, just off the podium.
“I'm super motivated this year. I was so angry with the Tour de France and how it went down,” Danielson said. “So when I got back to Colorado, I just started working hard.”
His coach wasn't the first to notice.
“This is the race ... he really wants,” Crawford said.