Full circle: Danny Pate’s soul-searching return to US racing
Over the course of his 17-year career, American Danny Pate has ridden for several of pro cycling’s biggest teams, including Team Sky, Garmin, and HTC-Highroad.
But in 2016, the 36-year old from Colorado Springs returns to his domestic roots with the Continental team, Rally Racing.
After four years with Sky, and after completing all three grand tours, Pate will ride a mostly North American schedule, revisiting races he hasn’t ridden in a decade.
At first glance, it seems an improbable choice — a WorldTour rider signs with a Continental team focused on U.S. racing. Professional since 2000, Pate is one of the senior members of his new team. But to him, the choice made perfect sense. From 2001 to 2003, Pate rode for Prime Alliance alongside names such Svein Tuft, Chris Horner, Matt Decanio, Jonathan Vaughters, and Jonas Carney, Rally’s general manager.
“Danny and I were teammates for three years,” said Carney. “What came of that was this core group of guys that have stayed friends until today. Svein Tuft and Danny Pate and Alex Candelario and myself — this group of guys that were kind of thrown together, and stayed friends.”
Despite their long friendship, Carney was surprised when Pate wanted to join the team, but their personal relationship was a key reason behind Pate’s decision. Pate said Carney’s ethos was “one of the big reasons” he specifically wanted to be on Rally. Both men said their shared belief in clean sport is one of the ties that has connected them from their years at Prime Alliance to the present.
“I don’t really like it when the whole interview is about doping,” said Pate. “But it’s important to me that Jonas is very anti-doping. I am too.”
Pate was part of a generation of talented U.S. riders that included Mike Creed and Tim Johnson, among others. His first pro contract was with the Saeco team of Mario Cipollini, before returning to the U.S. in 2001 to sign with Prime Alliance, where he spent three years.
Along the way, he picked up a solid stack of results on the U.S. circuit, including second overall in the NRC rankings in 2001. That same year, Pate won the U23 world time trial championship, in Lisbon, ahead of names like Yaroslav Popovych and Michele Scarponi.
And while those men would go on to earn six-figure salaries — and have their names perpetually associated with doping scandals — Pate would toil, quietly, in North America, putting in stints with Health Net-Maxxis, Jelly Belly, and TIAA-CREF before Slipstream Sports made the jump into Europe as Garmin-Chipotle in 2008.
Pate had solid results, including four podium appearances at the U.S. national road championship between 2002 and 2008, as well as third overall at the Tour de Beauce, twice, in 2006 and 2007.
The biggest knock on Pate’s racing in the U.S was that the races weren’t hard enough for him; he is not a pure sprinter, nor a pure climber. He is, however, remarkably strong, often one of the last men standing after long races of attrition. In shorter races, he was easily marked out. In longer races, like nationals, he shone. Pate was more suited to European racing, but hesitant to return to what he perceived as the wild west of doping.
Pate was also known for his quirky, headstrong personality. He was viewed as a renegade, incredibly talented but unwilling to conform to team directives. It saw him leave the Health Net team, the strongest in the U.S. at the time, after just one season, to ride for Jelly Belly.
“The highlights of my career, you can look at my Wikipedia page,” said Pate. “I don’t know what Wikipedia says. It doesn’t have all the results. My greatest achievements are… I have some achievements, written there on Wikipedia.”
From another rider, the comment might sound like a rebuke, the kind of response that comes from answering too many obvious questions asked in too many training camp interviews. Pate’s laconic, deadpan style makes it less a provocation than a reminder that his is a talent that burned early and bright.
Pate has twice stood on the podium at the Giro d’Italia, having played a pivotal role in team time trials. But results aren’t what matter most to him — and that’s the point he’s trying to make with his Wikipedia riff. He’s plainly proud of what he’s accomplished in cycling, but the experiences along the way have taken on more importance to him as the years of his career have unfolded.
You can go to Wikipedia and see a list of results, but that list won’t tell you the story of Pate’s career.
“The highlights aren’t to me… they’re not always what Wikipedia says,” he explained. “But the more important things, the things that meant more to me, are just random experiences that I had at the biggest cycling events.”
Pate points to the 2011 Tour de France as an example of what he means. That year, he rode for HTC-Highroad. What he remembers most is how well the team rode together and the experience he had helping his teammates to race victories — including five stage wins for Mark Cavendish, who also won the points jersey.
“Just the way all the riders worked together, and the directors and the staff and just the whole atmosphere and the whole organization, that was kind of the pinnacle of cycling to me,” he said. “I mean, not to say that I can’t have a more fulfilling experience somewhere else later in life, or even in cycling, but it just hasn’t happened yet.”
Pate describes his return to U.S. racing as “athletic soul-searching.” He isn’t entirely sure he remembers how to race for personal results — he’s spent the better part of the last decade playing a specific, assigned support role.
“In recent years, I’ve played a position in the race, but not really raced the race,” he said. “That happens on the best teams in the world, they need people doing certain jobs in the race and playing a certain position, and that position isn’t the quarterback position.”
In 2016 Pate will be one of Rally’s leaders, charged with getting results. Carney names Pate, along with Rob Britton, newly signed from SmartStop, as the team’s main general classification riders. It’s a challenge Pate is ready to take on.
“I’m excited to try to ‘race the race’ again, and to try to achieve results,” he said.
The change in roles comes with a mix of uncertainty and motivation for the talented American. Does he still remember what it takes to win races?
“You have to find something that was there in the past — but is it still there? Can I still do this? I think I can still do this, but it’s this kind of strange journey to redo what you’ve done before, when you’re not sure if you can do it.”
In specific terms, Pate wants a stage victory at one of the three major U.S. stage races — the Amgen Tour of California, the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, or the USA Pro Challenge, his home race. He also has his eye on the national road championship, a title he’s come close to, but never won.
Pate’s also excited to revisit some of the U.S. races he hasn’t ridden since early in his career, such as the Tour of the Gila, which falls just before California.
“It’s a hard race, you know, it means a little more to me than it does to some other people,” he said. “If you were racing in Colorado as a junior, it was always, ‘oh I gotta go to Gila.’”
Pate will begin his season with a block of racing in Europe. Rally heads to France for the first of two trips to Europe; Pate’s first race will be La Méditerranéenne. The team’s goal is to prepare for the Amgen Tour, as well as to give the team’s up-and-coming riders the chance to gain experience with European racing. Rally will look to Pate’s extensive experience in Europe to guide them on the road, while Britton and Evan Huffman have shown themselves to be on excellent early season form.
“Some of the successful teams I’ve been on are more self-focused, not focused on how good any other teams are,” he said. “Just focusing on ourselves and having real proper plans for ourselves. Hopefully I can bring some of the positive things from the teams I’ve been on and bring them over.”
With Rally and Carney, Pate has come full circle. He’s taken a scenic ride to get there, with trips to some of the world’s biggest races, and stints with some of the top teams in the sport. And before his career is over, perhaps he’ll have a few more results on that Wikipedia page. More importantly, he’ll have a few more stories to tell about his long and varied career on the bike.