Faces of the Future: Greg Daniel, escape artist

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American Greg Daniel first rode into the spotlight when he finished second, from a breakaway, on a stage at the 2014 Amgen Tour of California. He was 19 at the time.

Daniel had spent the entire day in the break, and along the way he’d done his share of the work to ensure that the move survived. In the end, only Canadian Will Routley was better.

Since then, riding in breakaways has become Daniel’s signature move. At the U23 national road championship last season, he spent close to 100 kilometres off the front, including a solo move inside the final two kilometres. That’s just a typical day in the life for Axeon Hagens Berman’s escape artist.

“Man, we don’t help him. He just does it!” said Logan Owen, Daniel’s teammate. “We don’t have to worry about anything. He can go [into moves] multiple times at the beginning of the race.”

Daniel has the unique ability to attack repeatedly at the beginning of the race. He’s also mentally resilient.

“The harder the race is, the more I enjoy it,” Daniel said, bluntly. He also understands cycling’s essential truth: The breakaway will only go when riders have nearly exhausted themselves trying. “When I’m really suffering and I feel like quitting, that’s when I know that the break’s going to happen,” he said. “When I’m really hurting, that’s when I try to dig deep.”

He’s also learned that actually driving the breakaway can be easier than getting there in the first place.

“I find myself in numerous breakaways just because it was the last move,” he said. “This is the last one, I can make it. I can make it.”

Eventually the field sits up. And from that point, Daniel said he relishes the shared purpose of a breakaway works well together. “You’re all a team all of the sudden,” he said. “You’re all working through together, you’re there for the same purpose.”

In light of his high-profile breakaway attempts, it’s not surprising that Daniel is an ace against the clock. Some of his best results have come in time trial events, including a junior national championship in 2012. He was also a member of a national team pursuit championship squad as a junior in 2011. Last year, Daniel finished fifth at the national professional TT championship, establishing himself as a title contender for the future.

Daniel is an animated character. He’s the kind of person who can’t quite sit still, who hums with energy. He started riding at age 13 and set his sights on triathlon. After struggling with the swim, Daniel focused his full energies on cycling and quickly realized he’d found his sport. When he won his first bike race, an auspicious sign for what has become his full-time career.

“It’s just my bread and butter to go hard,” he said. “The more I learn about cycling, it’s just about testing my ability and how much I can suffer. You have to be kind of weird to do this sport.”

When Daniel says he likes to go hard on his training rides, it’s easy to imagine. “When I go on longer rides, I do it by myself, and I tend to average pretty high watts, because I like to go fast,” he said. It’s almost impossible to imagine him conserving energy, or taking a rest day.

In fact, that’s the part of cycling he’s trying hard to learn in his final year in the U23 ranks.

“Strength-wise, I still have lots of improvement to do,” he said. “It’s not like I’m amazingly strong, but at the same time, as I get stronger year to year, I think I can get smarter as well.”

Daniel’s coach, Jim Lehman at Carmichael Training Systems, has encouraged him to focus on riding for general classification results, rather than consistently setting off on his signature breakaways.

“Instead of constantly throwing these long-range missiles that 90% of the time, don’t work, my coach wants me to focus more on GC,” said Daniel. “He’s like, ‘you’ve got the strength, so now let’s work on the patience, and the intelligence, and the strategy part.’”

Looking back, Daniel can see how a more tactical approach might reap him more results.

“When I got second (on a stage) in California two years ago, I realized that if I hadn’t done all the work, I could have won,” he said. “I didn’t think that at the time.”

In the final 10 kilometres, the group had a two-minute gap, and Daniel realized that he’d likely worked too hard during the stage. “Maybe I should have thought about how to win this stage sooner, rather than waiting for 10K to go.”

This is all part of the learning process for a development rider such as Daniel, and it’s the reason he stayed at Axeon Hagens Berman for a fourth year. Like his teammates, he sees the team as a unique place to learn the trade of professional cycling and to hone his skills ahead of a potential jump to the WorldTour ranks. Daniel said he especially values the tight team atmosphere.

“I think these are going to be the years, I’m going to look back and say, those were the good old days,” he said.

Axeon Hagens Berman spent March in Portugal for their first block of European racing, at the GP Liberty Seguros-Troféu Alpendre and Volta ao Alentejo. Tao Geoghegan Hart gave the team its best finish so far with fourth on the second stage, ultimately finishing second in the young riders classification. With three riders in the top 12 on GC, Axeon won the team classification.

The team will race in Europe through the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège in April, before returning home for the Tour of the Gila and one of the season’s big objectives, the Amgen Tour of California.

Daniel will ride the Amgen Tour for the third time this year. Though he’s trying to temper his aggressive style with more sophisticated tactics, it’s hard to imagine that he’ll hold back. He’ll almost certainly be in the early moves. It takes a a certain talent — both mental and physical — to hurl yourself off the front of the bike race time after time.

“That kind of stuff, I love, because it pushes my body and pushes these barriers that a lot of us have,” he said. “I believe that God has given us talents in certain things and for me, that’s cycling. Boundaries — what are boundaries? If I put my mind to it, and I believe, boundaries are non-existent.”

Despite his optimism, Daniel still wonders which direction his career is taking him. Sometimes during his winter trainer sessions at home near Denver, Colorado, he’ll watch footage from his past races. He says he learns from seeing the footage, but he still can’t quite believe it’s real.

“When I watch it, it does feel a little surreal,” he said, adding that while he grew up watching sports on television, he never imagined that he might someday be watching himself.

“Now being here, look at where I’ve come,” he said. “I’ve come from being 13 and riding my bike every once in a while to being here. And hopefully, I guess the goal is changing people’s lives and giving them hope that they, too, can achieve their dreams.”

After his second-place stage finish at the 2014 Amgen Tour, Daniel said he began dreaming of one day winning the Tour de France. He’s not yet a rider for the general classification, and he’s only just begun to test his talents against the world’s best. Yet he’s not ready to set any limits for himself.

“I still have dreams,” he said. “I dream of winning the Tour de France. I dream of winning the Alpe d’Huez, and all those big climbs. I’m still going to hang on to that. I think as long as you have hope, anything is possible. I’m going to keep dreaming, dream high and dream big and see what happens.”

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