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Danny Pate Comes Home

By Ian Dille | May 2, 2016 | Rally Health

Danny Pate, the folk hero cycling champion, wants me to tell him my version of The Story. The one that’s oft told about him, passed from friend to friend, but never publicly verified. So I start with some background.

The year is 2000, and Danny is a first year professional cyclist on the vaunted Italian team, Saeco. At just 21 years old, he is widely acknowledged as the most talented young cyclist from the US. But he already has a reputation as a contrarian.

Cycling in the early 2000s remains a sport guided by rigged European tradition, from the pre-race meals (pasta, always, but never with red sauce) to the muscle enhancing and blood boosting drugs injected by many of the sport’s top racers (testosterone, human growth hormone, and EPO). Danny asks, Why he can’t have pasta with red sauce? Also, he’s adamantly opposed to cheating.

During the 2000 season, in the middle of a race in Spain, the director of Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Service team drives up alongside Danny. Johan Bruyneel is a hard-nosed Belgian who’d recently guided Armstrong to consecutive victories at the Tour de France in 1999 and 2000, and at the time he commanded immense respect inside the European peloton.

But, according to The Story, Danny wasn’t impressed.

“Hey, Danny, who’re riding for next year?” Bruyneel shouts, likely knowing that Danny’s options are limited after a tough first season, where he has struggled to fit into the rigid European biking culture.

Danny’s response, according to the legend, exemplifies his disdain for the doping that shadowed European racing back then, and explains why, for many bike racers and diehard cycling fans, he’s a legend —a top American pro who raced clean during cycling’s darkest doping era, and became a much needed role model.

He takes a long look back at Bruyneel and he shouts back over the wind, “Well, I’ve got to f—ing race for somebody, don’t I?”

And Bruyneel – who, like Armstrong, is now serving a ban for doping practices – drives off, incensed.

****

Before I sit down with Danny Pate and ask him about The Story, I find him in the cool and dark basement of a beach house in Oxnard, California. It’s late January, and over the past five days he and his new team, Rally® Cycling, have logged hundreds of training miles in the nearby mountains. Today, the team gets to rest, and while his teammates play in the surf or soak in the sun, Danny, who’s 37 this year, chooses to relax here, slouched on a leather couch.

We haven’t spoken, really, since we briefly raced together on the US national team in 2001. But I remember him as being exactly the same way, reserved but also affable — a natural joker. He stands tall to greet me, and releases an echoing laugh when I make note of his hideout. He is skinny, as always, but he doesn’t display the deeply cut muscles of many pro bike racers. He never has.

During the previous seven years, Danny competed at cycling’s highest level. Racing for Tour de France champions, he played a vital position as bike racing’s version of a defender, controlling the chaos of the pack from the front. In this role, he endeared himself to his team, but rarely earned individual glory.

To have been on a bigger team, and have had that experience, I hope to bring a piece of that back with me, and help this team get better.

Now, he’s come back home to the US to race for Rally Cycling. And he’s done so on his own terms. Rally Cycling won’t compete in the Tour de France this year, true, but the team is on its way up, having long dominated professional racing in the Americas, and recently finding success on the tougher European circuit. Danny views the opportunity to lead this team as a step forward, professionally.

“If I’m not doing that, I’m doing the team a disservice,” he says. Here, he believes he can help build something. “This team has huge potential to grow,” he explains. “To have been on a bigger team, and have had that experience, I hope to bring a piece of that back with me, and help this team get better.”

But to simply cast Danny as a top international pro who’s returned to a smaller US team at the end of his career, oversimplifies his long professional journey and his folk-hero status amongst cycling aficionados. While many American racers of Danny’s generation claim they faced an impossible choice to use drugs or give up on their dream of racing professionally, Danny did neither.

“He’s still a role model for a lot of us out there,” says his teammate Brad Huff, a fellow racing veteran. “He’s so gifted, almost like a savant, but he also portrays this nonchalant, freelancer’s attitude.”

Pate with teammates
Danny and his Rally Cycling teammates

When it comes to his demeanor as a competitor, Danny freely admits he’s not exceptionally goal oriented. He doesn’t harbor blind ambition, nor is he singularly focused on winning.

It’s like I’ve competed on both the local softball team and at the World Series, and I don’t necessarily value one experience over the other.

“Those traits probably kept him out of column A,” says his long-time friend Michael Creed, referring to Danny’s ability to remain a clean bike racer even as he was superseded by cheaters. “But maybe, when he finally had his shot at the big time, that kept him from really making the most of his talent, too.”

When Danny discusses his accomplishments, he doesn’t highlight his results at major international races, like that podium in a stage of the Tour de France, a team time trial victory at the Giro d’Italia, or third overall at Criterium International.

Instead, he talks about experiences and moments where he was at his happiest and proudest aboard a bike. He talks about teams where everything clicked. Places where he felt valued as a rider and a person, where team managers asked, “How can we help you do better?” instead of saying, “We need more from you.”  He recalls races where he performed his role so well — demolishing the field in a crosswind, for example — that it assured the team a victory.

“It’s like I’ve competed on both the local softball team and at the World Series, and I don’t necessarily value one experience over the other,” he says.

It means everything to him that he never wilted under the pressure to artificially enhance his performance, as did many of his peers. But it’s perhaps more impressive that he didn’t allow his resentment of cheaters to poison his passion for racing.

“At the time, it’s really hard to know what’s going on, because a lot of people have been deceiving you,” Danny says. “But as time passed, you know more and more of the truth.” Of course he sometimes questioned his commitment to competitive cycling. But ultimately, he says, “Those guys took so much away from me. I decided I wasn’t going to let them take away my love of bike racing, too.”

*****

Danny Pate never aspired to race road bikes professionally, he tells me. As a teenager, growing up on Colorado’s Front Range, he idolized the forefathers of American mountain biking, iconic off-road racers like John Tomac and Ned Overend. But it quickly became evident there was little money in mountain biking, and Danny couldn’t deny his talent on the road. In 1999, at age 20, he had convincingly won the amateur nationals road race on a hilly course in Cincinnati.

 

Danny Pate Teens
A portrait of the rider as a young man

Later that same year, Danny and Michael Creed, his teammate at the time, were hanging out together in the their hometown of Colorado Springs, when Michael got a telephone call. A man on the other end of the phone identified himself as a representative of Italy’s top professional cycling team, Saeco. The team was sponsored by an American bike company, and needed American racers, he said. He offered Michael a spot on the team’s developmental roster, and then he said, “You might get lonely, do you have a friend that could come, too?”

Michael turned to Danny, “Hey, do you want to race for Saeco next year?”

In Danny’s own recounting of The Story, it was near the end of that first unsure year of racing in Europe when Bruyneel rolled down his window and started a conversation. Danny says he didn’t intentionally try to disrespect Bruyneel — he says he barely knew the guy.

“I still followed professional mountain biking more than professional road racing at that point,” he says. “Plus, I’d just stopped to pee and was trying to get back to the field and not get dropped from the bike race.”

However, he’d also decided he didn’t want to race in Europe, not then, anyway. Something about the cycling culture over there felt off, not for him.

The following year, 2001, both Danny and Michael raced for a smaller US professional team called Prime Alliance. The team boasted one of America’s most dominant sprinters, Jonas Carney, and a number of other top racers vocally opposed to doping. Carney, who’s now the performance director for Rally Cycling, says, “That was my first team where racers openly opposed doping.” That team felt like a brotherhood, he says, “a group of guys you felt excited to go race bikes with.”

Splitting his time between Prime Alliance and the national team, Danny earned victories at smaller pro-am races in both the States and Europe, and at the end of the 2001 season, at the world championships for under-23 racers, he won a world title in the time trial. The win should have made him a number one draft pick for the following season, but only one top European team showed interest, and Danny didn’t pursue the offer.

He felt comfortable racing in the US, with his friends on Prime Alliance. Plus, it seemed the influence of doping had so skewed the sport in Europe that it was impossible to discern the truly talented racers from the really good cheaters. He could try, and likely fail, to race clean in Europe. Or, he could compete in America, where doping seemed less prevalent. For five years, he competed almost exclusively in the US — with the dubious title of most talented bike racer not in Europe.

In a sense, he has finally fulfilled his youthful promise — but how many years too late?

As Danny entered his late 20s, an age when most professional athletes start thinking about pursuits beyond their sport, a funny thing happened — bike racing began getting cleaner. A handful of top-tier professional teams took a hard stance against doping, instituting internal tests. In 2008, the sport’s governing body, the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale), strengthened its controls by adopting the World Anti-Doping Agency’s  long-term testing record protocol called the Athlete Biological Passport. The doping arms race that existed during the Armstrong era seemed to be approaching an end. A door opened for Danny with the American team, Slipstream Sports, and he tentatively slipped through it back into the European peloton.

He was 29 when he toed the start line at the 2008 Tour de France and finally stepped onto the sport’s biggest stage. Even though eight years prior, he’d established himself as one of the best racers in the world, he came to this race as an underdog, with long odds on personal glory. Then, on stage 15 of that Tour, Danny raced his way into an elite breakaway that put minutes into the field. As his group shed riders over the mountainous terrain, Danny remained at the front. The finish approached, and Danny crossed the line in third. He stood atop the podium, held the bouquet of flowers, and raised his arms aloft for the obligatory photos.

In a sense, he finally fulfilled his youthful promise — but how many years too late?

****

Danny won’t suffer from a lack of competition racing for Rally Cycling. At events like the upcoming Tour of California and the Tour of Utah, he’ll still line up against some of the best bike racers from around the world. He hopes to win a professional national title, something that’s eluded him during his long career, and to bring a winner’s stars-and-stripes jersey to Rally Cycling.

He’s private about his personal life, but he acknowledges his return to a US team will help him build and maintain relationships with loved ones. “For so long I’ve said I’m from Colorado Springs, but I’ve never actually lived there,” he says.

Danny Pate Relaxing at Training Camp 2016
Relaxing at training camp earlier this year

Danny understands that Carney took a risk in signing him. “I’ve watched it multiple times,” says Carney, “where guys return to US racing to collect a paycheck, or underestimate the level of competition in the States. But Danny is a friend, I trust him.”

 As for Danny, “Jonas was a big reason I wanted to be a part of this organization,” he says of his decision to join Rally Cycling. “What he stands for, and what the program stands for, fall directly in line with my ideals of cycling, and sport.”

 The best leaders lead by example, Danny believes. But occasionally, they must speak, too. Nearing the end of the Rally Cycling camp in late January, news broke that a top racer on a rival team tested positive for the blood-boosting drug EPO, and received a two-year ban.

The knowledge that this racer stole results and money from them led some team members to wonder how a race might have played out if this cheater hadn’t affected the outcome. Could they have won? Was anyone else cheating?

Danny put an end to the conjecture, and encouraged his teammates not to waste their energy worrying about dopers.

His point? If you allow cheaters to steal your own sense of personal accomplishment, then you’ve let them win.

And everyone listened.  

Ian Dille is a freelance journalist based in Austin, Texas. He has written for Outside magazine, Bicycling, and Texas Monthly, and is the author of the The Cyclist's Bucket List (Rodale, 2015).

       

Ian Dille
Rally Health