Armstrong protege Danielson racing against clock


July 01, 2005|By Kim Phelan | Kim Phelan,SUN STAFF

At 27, Tom Danielson is considered middle-aged by cycling standards. He has but one major tour title to his name. In May, a swollen knee forced him to pull out of a race and sidelined him for more than a month.

This is the man Lance Armstrong is grooming to take the handlebars as cycling's next superstar?

In a sport in which retirement age is typically in the early 30s, Armstrong had won the Tour de France by 27, the first of his six consecutive championships that made him a marquee cyclist. He goes for No. 7 in the 21-day race that will start tomorrow.

Now 33, Armstrong plans to retire afterward, and signs indicate he has chosen Danielson as his successor.

"With Tom Danielson, the whole world's in front of him next year," said Phil Liggett, veteran cyclist and TV cycling commentator. "With Lance's team, the chance is there for him to rise to the cream of cycling."

It would be as a late bloomer.

Born in East Lyme, Conn., Danielson did not begin pursuing a pro cycling career until after attending Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., his adopted hometown.

For the first three years, his racing record in cycling's minor leagues was mediocre at best. He only began to improve after going to work with a new coach at 23, when most cyclists of his caliber have already established themselves.

After signing with a major international team two years later, he posted seven victories and set a record in one race.

At first glance, Danielson seems to be many things Armstrong is not: unassuming, inexperienced and married. Danielson's wife is a pro cyclist herself. Armstrong divorced his wife and now dates pop star Sheryl Crow.

Armstrong earns millions in endorsements, made his movie debut with a cameo appearance in Dodgeball and travels the country as a motivational speaker.

Danielson is just ... Danielson.

But there is something about the self-effacing cyclist that made Armstrong take notice.

"Lance saw Tom [last year] and said, `This guy's got talent,' " said Liggett. "Lance pushed for [Danielson] to be part of his Discovery Channel team."

Armstrong's team recently switched sponsors from the U.S. Postal Service. At the same time, he urged Danielson to jump from Italy's Fassa Bortolo team. Together now, they've created a buzz.

Under Armstrong's tutelage, Danielson has begun to live up to the promise he showed two years ago as a rookie on the pro circuit. In April, he won his first big race, the Tour de Georgia, a six-stage event.

Afterward, he said he depended heavily on his mentor for guidance and advice.

"I was racing for the win, but Lance was there along with other guys on the team who knew the course and told me what [strategy] was best," said Danielson.

His win raised a few eyebrows, given his slump last year, when he won only one race and failed to make the top 10 in four others.

His success this year has come with a price. In May, he withdrew from the Giro d'Italia, citing a swollen knee.

"I have not been on a bike since," Danielson said by phone last week.

After a month of physical therapy, he claimed the knee is "stronger than it ever was."

Still, there are doubts.

"If you get a reputation where you've always got those niggling problems, then people may lose faith in you," said Liggett. "He's not a young rider in age so he's really got to come strong next year."

Danielson will try to quiet the doubters next week when he competes in the Tour of Austria. It will be his first test since the injury. For Armstrong's protege, the clock is ticking, USA Cycling official Andy Lee said:

"He's got a few more years, but he's not young."

After Armstrong

These three U.S. cyclists could contend for the Tour de France title in the post-Lance Armstrong era:

Floyd Landis

This former teammate of Armstrong's left the USPS team to contend for the Tour de France's yellow jersey. "He'll most likely be on the [Tour de France] podium this year, barring any bad luck," said USA Cycling official Andy Lee. But time is the biggest opponent of Landis, 30.

David Zabriske

Zabriske, 26, won a major stage of the Tour of Italy's time trials but, like Tom Danielson, 2003 should have been his break-out year. After a collision with an SUV in the off-season, Zabriske has had some trouble getting his career back on track.

Ian MacGregor

Raised in the cycling hotbed of Boulder, Colo., MacGregor is the two-time under-23 national road race champion. He is currently a junior racer and plans to spend the next few years developing his talent.

Tour de France

When: Tomorrow to July 24

Race: 21 stages, approximately 2,240 miles

Defending champion: Six-time winner Lance Armstrong

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