How do you train for a 600-mile, seven-stage race at altitude in the Colorado Rockies? Simple, just do the Tour de France the month before, tear a calf muscle in the process, take a little time off, maybe add the 586-mile Tour of Utah the week before, then throw the family in the car, drive up and race. Well, at least that’s pro cyclist Tom Danielson’s approach to it, as he prepares for Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge as part of Team Garmin-Sharp.
“If you get through the Tour de France, you’re in a good place physically,” said Danielson.
A week after finishing the Tour de France, the Boulder resident took time from recovering and relaxing with family at his Arizona ranch to talk Tour, training and the Pro Challenge.
‘Le Tour’ vs. ‘le’ Pro Challenge
Aside from the obvious, one is 1,400 miles longer than the other, the Tour de France and the USA Pro Challenge each has unique attributes, Danielson explained.
With 200 of the world’s best riders in the Tour, “it’s a pretty nasty peloton,” he said.
By contrast the Pro Challenge offers a smaller field, roughly 70 fewer riders, which, Danielson explained, can give competitors a bit more breathing room. “You can be more relaxed,” he said.
That’s not to say that the Pro Challenge is bush-league by comparison. Far from it, according to Danielson. Racing at such a high elevation presents a whole different set of challenges. However, racing in front of his home-state crowd gives him an extra boost.
“It’s definitely an advantage mentally, you feel more comfortable.”
Danielson described the spectators as a big reason the Pro Challenge is special. “As a racer that really takes it up a notch. Being able to absorb the crowd by myself was phenomenal,” he said, describing winning a stage in Aspen last year.
The fans, loudly cheering and dressed in colorful costumes, create an atomosphere the pros have come to enjoy in the race’s short history. It’s a characteristic that the Pro Challenge shares with the Tour.
“We love it,” Danielson said.
into thin air
Most starts and finishes in the Pro Challenge are above the highest points of the Tour de France, and the mountain passes in Colorado dwarf their French counterparts. “It’s seven hard day’s climbing at altitude,” Danielson said.
While there may be a smaller field competing in the Pro Challenge, the competition at the top is just as elite in both events.
“Top guys from the Tour and the top guys from America and the world will be there,” Danielson said.
As for non-Tour competitors, he said, “they’re going to come more fresh than us. The question is their overall fitness.”
In the thin air of the High Country, that fitness is put to the test.
“It’s different than most races because of the high altitude,” Danielson said. “The next day you wake up super sore and achy. There are a lot of days that start right up mountains; a lot of races don’t have that. It really blows the peloton up. Your aerobic system is a lot more taxed, metabolism really increases.”
The best way to fight it is to eat well and come ready, he said. “It’s going to be tough if you don’t show up at your highest level of fitness.”
Refueling both while riding and in between stages is key. Pro outfits, like Danielson’s Garmin-Sharp team, bring chefs along to cook highly specialized meals that often include natural anti-inflammatory ingredients.
“In a typical day we’ll burn around 4,000 calories,” he said, then consume around 6,000 to recover.
The final countdown
To prepare for the Pro Challenge, Danielson took some time to train on practice climbs outside of Tuscon, Ariz., near his new cycling bed-and-breakfast inn, opening in October. He’ll be at home in Boulder and training in the Rockies before heading to Utah for the 586-mile Tour of Utah race, Aug. 6-11.
As for the injury he suffered in the Tour de France, “The calf’s good now. It’s working well; I’m good to go,” he said. He tore it during a crash early in the Tour.
With fourth- and seventh-place finishes in the first two years of the Pro Challenge, and helping teammate Christian Vande Velde to a win last year, Danielson has set his goals high for this race.
“I’d like to be up there on the podium in the end.”