During stage two of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge Danny Summerhill couldn’t believe it when he went over the top of 12,095-foot high Independence pass ahead of Andy Schleck.
“I was pleased that I made it with the big guys,” Summerhill recalls.
Though 22-year old Summerhill grew up in and lives in Denver and has ridden with Slipstream’s Boulder-based development team from its earliest beginnings in 2005, he has never considered himself a climber.
At the USA Pro Cycling Challenge he believes Colorado’s nose-bleed altitude has worked in his favor by neutralizing some of the super climbers. “I think that racing here, in comparison to what it would be like racing at sea level, is so different. Everyone is on a much more even basis because of the fact that everyone is limited by altitude. The max speeds, the amount of attacks get diminished.”
Summerhill, a seven-time road and cyclocross national champion, shakes his head at the thought and says, “I mean, I beat Andy Schleck to the top of a climb yesterday. That’s obviously saying something about the conditions that we are in.”
Summerhill is too humble to admit it outright, but his performance also says something about his ability to race a bike. “There is nothing for me here that I plan on doing apart from being the most helpful stagiaire and domestique that I can.”
Stagiaire is a French term for trainee. Starting on August 1 each year, UCI rules allow pro teams to race with up to three under-23 riders like Summerhill. It’s a way for the younger riders to learn and test their mettle in the big leagues while also giving teams a chance to watch how they perform under pressure.
Summerhill also raced with the Garmin-Cervélo squad earlier this month at the Tour of Utah, and says the step up made him anxious. “I’ve been nervous for the last two weeks. Utah I had much more nerves because it was like being a stagiaire for this team was a fluke somehow and I was scared I was just going to get dropped instantly on the first day. Obviously that didn’t happen and it shook some of those nerves out.”
While Summerhill had not before ridden Independence Pass, the 12,095-foot monster on stage two, he does recall riding down it as a teenager. “I remember doing it years and years ago on a bicycle tour of Colorado with my mom.”
In fact, Summerhill’s mom got him into riding bikes, and she still races cyclocross. “She got out of doing the crits and the road races a few years ago. She didn’t want to break herself. I told her she can do a lot less damage racing on dirt.” She lives in Denver and has been following Summerhill at several of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge stages.
“I I got into racing mostly from messing around on my BMX bike and doing jumps,” Summerhill recalls of his introduction to bike racing. “From there I went into racing BMX a couple of times.” That led to racing mountain bikes, including downhill. But the highly specialized downhill mountain bikes are expensive, and crashes happen all the time. “My mom got me out of downhill pretty quickly because of how pricey it was once you broke anything.”
His bike racing progression finally led to road and cyclocross racing. But at first he was resistant. “I was real leery about cyclocross because I was like, why would you want to run? Why would you want to ride a road bike on dirt?”
He adds that at the time he was not yet sponsored, so he was also worried about breaking his cyclocross bike and having to ask his parents to pay for more parts and repairs. “I never really liked cross for the longest time.”
Summerhill did his first road event when he was eleven. He says the secret to his longevity is that his first objective was to have fun. As a kid, regimented training regimes were not part of his world, and that, he surmises, kept him from burning out like other children whose parents might push them too hard at a young age.
“I never trained when I was that little. I would go out and do wheelies for two hours, but I didn’t call that training, I was just having fun.” On the other hand, he remembers other kids his age who were very serious about race preparation. They were out doing two hours of training repeats “and they were eventually burnt out by the age of 18.”
In fact, his fun-first approach to cycling bummed out some of his early team coaches. “They’d give me training plans and stuff and expect that I’d give them Power Tap data and heart rate data and so on and I didn’t even know how to email back then. So it took me a while to really get into it.”
Today, Summerhill takes a professional approach to his training, and he feels like it is paying off during his first two top-level pro races. He’s always thought of himself as a one-day racer, but “the more opportunities I’ve been given to do stage races, a little bit every time, I enjoy them more and more.” This is a change because Summerhill says his mindset has always been to focus on single events. “I have much more of a mentality to set out on one day and kill it, kill myself and be screwed the rest of the week.”
For apprentices like Summerhill, the opportunity to ride with the top professionals is as much as an opportunity for the young rider to learn about themselves as it is for the team’s directors to learn whether or not the rider can perform at cycling’s highest level.
Asked what he’s picked up riding pedal-to-pedal with experienced veterans like Christian Vande Velde, Summerhill says, “I’m so open and ready to do just anything and pick up anything that I can on their behalf.”
He adds that the process of developing as a neo-pro is a series of little steps. “It’s always tiny little things where you start out. For instance, it’s like holy moly, I’m in a van about to go get lunch with Dave Zabriskie, Christian Vande Velde, Tom Danielson—all of which are Tour de France major contenders. It’s like, how the hell did I get here? Trying to chill myself out from that — that’s a learning experience right there!”
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In 2011 Mark Johnson is writing and photographing a book on Garmin-Cervélo to be published by VeloPress in early 2012. You can follow his travels with the team on Twitter @argylearmada