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Tour of California - 2.HC

USA, February 18-25, 2007

Neo-pro Donald nearly stages coup in California

By Laura Weislo in San Francisco, CA

Jason Donald (USA) Team Slipstream
Photo ©: Mitch Clinton
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Jason Donald, a 27 year-old neo-pro with Jonathan Vaughters' Team Slipstream squad never imagined that he'd be sitting in a press conference, surrounded by photographers and reporters with them all hanging on his every word, snapping photos and laughing at his self-deprecating humor, at the end of his first big professional race. "It's hard to believe you're all interested in what I have to say", the Winter Park, Colorado resident said. "I've never had so many people wanting to take my picture - ever!"

Instead of heading back to the team bus, getting a snack and a massage after his race, this previously unknown rider spent the entire afternoon sitting in the 'hot seat' at the top of the leader board at the Tour of California prologue, watching top name after top name try and then fail to unseat him. It wasn't until the very last rider, Levi Leipheimer, came across the line that he was knocked down to second place, by less than two seconds.

Aided by favorable conditions, Donald was the seventh rider to roll down the start ramp, and as he approached the top and caught a glimpse of his time on the clock, he was shocked: Levi Leipheimer's time last year was 4:53 - and Donald said "I was coming into the last few metres and saw 4:48, 4:49 - I couldn't believe it would hold up!" About the rest of the race, Donald said, "I don't really remember much about the ride - it's all sort of a blur, and maybe it's better that way."

Spending two and a half hours waiting to find out if he'd win was "kinda hard", Donald said, but the fact that he had beat two world champions wasn't something he had even thought about. "For you to put me on that same level is a great honor - and hard to believe - it's so huge I just have to try not to think about it."

An American success story

Such a fairy-tale afternoon was made all the more incredible by the fact that up until last year, Donald wasn't even ranked in a category that allowed him to race against pros. Just six months ago, he was working part-time driving a garbage collection truck to help pay the bills so that he could live his dream of racing his bike.

His boss allowed him the flexibility to work around his training schedule, and the income allowed him to pitch in to help his wife Kristin, who had been supporting him since their marriage after college. "She is an auditor and makes good money, and that was the reason I was able to focus on cycling and I really appreciate that."

The talent to best world champions in an early season, but important stage race, is something that is born, not made, and Donald showed his natural athletic abilities as a nationally ranked runner in college. After graduation, he was finding running to be hard on his body, and a friend, who's father worked in the bike industry, suggested he take up riding. "I said 'OK' - I rode mountain bike for a couple of years but I felt like I wasn't getting enough out of it for all of the training I was doing. My friend came back to me and suggested I try road cycling and I said 'OK'."

"When I heard that Vaughters called me, I started dancing around the house!"

- Donald knew that he would finally get a pro contract.

Once on the road, he quickly progressed through the ranks, and within a year he had won the challenging and hotly contested Tour of the Gila as a cat. 3 rider in 2005. The next year, he showed that this was no fluke, and won the final stage - the 'Gila Monster', an epic 100 mile mountainous course at altitude - against all the domestic professionals. At the time, Scott Moninger said of Donald, "I've been racing with him around Colorado all spring. He and his teammate Garcia are runners from college. They have been training at 9,000 feet so they are aerobic animals. It was just a matter of time before he got a big win like that."

The victory got the attention of Jonathan Vaughters, who always has a keen eye for raw talent, and late last summer, he got a phone call from Vaughters. "When I heard that Vaughters called me, I started dancing around the house," Donald said, "because there's only one reason he would be calling!"

Vaughters feels passionate about teaching young American riders.
Photo ©: Beth Seliga
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Vaughters said that finding raw talent is more satisfying than buying it. He explained how he looks at riders, saying "These guys that have a running background can go fast in a perfectly straight line, but nine times out of ten they need to be able to go around corners fast - it's a cross between being a formula one driver and a marathoner. When I watched him race I could see he had an eye for corners, manoeuvring and sprinting. Then I felt that he could make it to Europe because he had the motor and the skills.

"Most teams will just buy eight of the top riders in the world but we want to find the young talented American riders and organically, slowly, methodically get these guys to where they can be competitive at this level. It might seem like the hard way but it is much more gratifying," Vaughters added.

Donald certainly gave his team director a big dose of gratitude after today's stage. "The team has just been awesome to me. I mean, we go out training and then when we get back someone hands us a sandwich and some water and says 'come back in two hours for a massage' - they just treat us so well, I wasn't used to that!"

Donald's next stop: the cobbled trenches of Paris-Roubaix?
Photo ©: Sirotti
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It's hard to describe how down to earth and charming Donald was at the press conference. Usually, people who win races have been to so many press events, and have had to answer so many of the same questions over and over that the answers come out formulaic. But the enthusiasm and excitement of this young pro were apparent, but completely down to earth and without pretense. It's just this kind of quality that makes Team Slipstream a welcome breath of fresh air to the pro peloton, something that the Europeans will soon get to experience since the team has apparently been granted an invitation to Paris-Roubaix.

Vaughters explained, "Paris-Roubaix is the easiest ProTour race to get a wild card in. It's not as sought after by other teams because it is so specialized. We have a great relationship with the ASO and it is a good starting point for us.

"We have a couple of riders that can do well in Paris-Roubaix, as it is a little bit more about luck and they way you roll the dice and see what happens. Races like Liège-Bastone-Liège we are not quite there yet," he added.

One rider who Vaughters tipped to ride Paris-Roubaix was Donald himself, something that he hadn't even heard until a reporter asked him about it. With such a whirlwind day, he hadn't even had time to think about one other very important bit of information - that he could take the overall lead with an intermediate sprint. "So I'm one second off the lead in the biggest race I've ever done..." he deadpanned, "I don't know what to say."