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As 21-year-old Greg Daniel of Axeon Hagens Berman approached the finish line of the Volkswagen USA Cycling Pro Road Nationals in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, he faced a dilemma: should he post up to celebrate his win? At issue wasn’t so much the style of his celebration, but whether one was even warranted. For Daniel, the idea of having won the national road race championship seemed just too good to be true.
“On the last climb I decided to test my legs and see what I could do,” the Coloradan said.
“I looked back and there was no one there, so I thought, ‘Okay, I just have to go.’ But then I began second guessing myself. As I approached the line I was like, ‘This is the last lap, right? And there isn’t a group up the road, is there?’ I didn’t want to make a fool of myself by posting up [if I wasn’t actually the winner.] But then I looked up at the time and the lap counter, and I just saw zero, zero. And I was like, ‘I really won this?’ It was just a total shock. But then I saw my friends celebrating. It was just surreal.”
For Daniel, who will be aging out of Axel Merckx’s U23 development team at the end of the season, the result may prove to be just he’s looking for: a ticket to the World Tour ranks.
“There was definitely a lot of stress for me today. I wanted to get a good result. This is my last year as a U23 on this team and so I can’t be on Axel’s [Axeon Hagens Berman] team anymore. I was really hoping for a result here today, so I can hopefully go on to the WorldTour – or really any team honestly.”
Asked if he thinks the stars and stripes of the national champion will attract the attention of a WorldTour, Daniel demurred.
“Oh, who knows? It definitely doesn’t hurt!” the rider laughed. “I do think it will help with teams in general though.”
Despite his pending departure, Daniel had nothing but rave reviews for Merckx’s development team, which has spawned an entire collection of well-known U.S. pros.
“It’s definitely a privilege to work with Axel and to be a part of this program” he explained. “We go to the biggest races in the United States and in Europe, so just to be part of this program is special. When you leave this program, it’s still a family, you know? A bunch of the guys, like Ben King was on this team. And Taylor Phinney. So you see those guys and it’s like, ‘Yeah, a few years ago we were all in that same place.’ We look out for one another. It’s very cool just to be a part of this family.”
But while Axeon Hagens Berman may be a family, it was surely a small one on Saturday. Daniel rode with only one other teammate in Logan Owen. The experience moved the rider to credit the win not only to his teammate, but to his friends, family, and the good sportsmanship of his competitors.
“I want to thank my team and my friends for being out here and supporting me and the man upstairs for making it possible,” Daniel said. “But I also want to thank the other teams for helping me out today. I know that I didn’t have full on-site support, but there were other teams that gave me bottles out on the course. I really don’t know if I could have finished the race without the extra water. It’s just nice to have, like, a cycling family where even though I’m not on their teams the guys were giving me bottles. It was nice to see that camaraderie out on the road.”
Asked whether he could have imagined – even the night before – that he might be wearing the jersey of the national championship, Daniel admitted to surprising even himself with his performance in Winston-Salem.
“I’m kind of a spiritual man, so I was definitely praying for strength. But I think that deep down I didn’t believe it was possible. I thought I had, like, maybe a point one percent chance. But I had good legs today. I still can’t believe it. I’m still kind of expecting myself to wake up in bed like, ‘Oh yeah, that was just a dream.’ To be here and participate in this race with only one teammate here and come off with the win? It’s just a dream come true for sure.”
Now that dream will come with the right to wear the colors of his nation for the next twelve months.
“I can’t even describe it. Every race I do I’ll get to put on the American flag. That’s just … I don’t even know how to describe it except to say it’s a complete honor to get to represent the United States.”