Before the start of the 2013 USA Pro Cycling Challenge (under a chairlift at Beaver Run Resort), Manual for Speed talked with Phil Gaimon about finishing out 2013 as a Domestic Dude racing for Team Bissell, and starting out 2014 as a World Tour Dude racing for Team Garmin-Sharp. And some of everything that led to this super momentous and astonishing-considering-the-odds transition. What follows are his own, mildly-embellished, words. Photograph from the Stage 5 ITT in Vail at the 2013 USAPC.
I’m from Georgia. I almost got my ass beat for wearing skinny jeans to a Waffle House once, I should've known. And on rides I used to get "GO LANCE" all the time. Fact is I'd rather get called derogatory names; they don't bother me as much. I have an English degree, God knows why. I'm old and everyone knows it but it's not a factor, I know where I'm at and I know what I can do.
It all started when I was a fat kid in Atlanta.
When I was a kid I never did Jock Stuff, in fact I was fat in high school. When I was 15 years old I had a 40 inch waist. That was no fun. I mean, how do you even find out you're good at racing bikes while growing up fat in Atlanta? We did plenty of stuff together as a family, but my dad was a computer science professor so it's not like he was encouraging me to play football. I played Counter-Strike instead. What happens when you play video games all day long instead of football or anything similarly athletic? Even if you're really good at Counter-Strike, which I was, you get fat.
In my senior year of high school I realized that A.) I was fat and that B.) I didn't want to go to college and still be fat, because C.) eventually I wanted a girlfriend. So I stopped eating and started riding my bike. There was a ten mile loop around the neighborhood I grew up in, and after school I started doing these thirty minute circumnavigational time trials. And I would purposely ride home the long way from my friend’s house as well. All of this was on a Huffy MTB, which is as you know, heavier than your average road bike and perfect for training/weight loss. It worked. By the end of my senior year and the summer before college, I wasn't fat anymore.
The flat office park crit thing I did wrong, but won
I started racing Cat 5 when I was 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Florida. I majored in English which was maybe a waste, but my parents were happy and I needed something to do with my life at the time. I didn't know anyone at UF because all my friends went to UGA, so I met folks through a local cycling club; I'd show up for rides in a t-shirt and on a mountain bike with slicks—at least by that point I had a Specialized Stumpjumper. That spring someone convinced me to get a road bike and to start doing these training races the local club organized. I remember my first one, it was a flat office park crit thing. I pulled the last five laps and won the sprint.
At the end of the race someone told me, "Hey you’re not supposed to do that." I just said, "What do you mean? I won." I had no idea that you're not supposed to pull, then sprint, then win. And in some respects I still haven't learned that lesson. It definitely doesn't work anymore.
In regards to the Institution of Professional Cycling, starting my racing career at 18 was really late, especially by Euro Standards. It would have been cool to have gotten into it earlier and to be further along the curve than I am now, but in 15 years I’ll probably be glad I went to college and did some other non-cycling, real life-type stuff. I think I've learned more from bike racing than college—or anything else—though.1
Blogging, washing the RV at TOC, San Dimas the race, San Dimas the concept
The first year I signed with Jelly Belly my salary was one hundred and sixty-seven dollars a month; I was bumming a room in the Mountain Khaki's team house and writing blogs for Bicycling on the side. I wrote a post as I was leaving the team—and I was respectful about it—about at a race we had done in China where a mechanic fucked up and my bike went to hell. It was a bad situation and I got disqualified from the race. I blogged about it honestly, no name calling or anything petty, and subsequently got lit-up. At least there was a lot of candy available. I remember doing “candy signings” after every other stage in little candy shops around the country. They had me do it because I was willing to and I because I had a pretty good attitude about it, even if none of those kids knew who I was. Kids see a table and a poster and a professional athlete, kids want an autograph. Kids are dumb that way.
At the end of my first year the team told me, “You got some of our best results this year, you worked hard, we're offering you a $6,000.00 salary for the year.” In a lot of ways that's basically the same as $2000.00 a year—either way you need to find other work. Everybody coaches, it’s hard not to. If you're a pro you know enough by default to bring a Cat 5 to a Cat 2 without any difficulty. If they do what you tell them to do, at least.2
I've survived a lot of lows points to get here. My first race on Jelly Belly was the Tour of California, back when the race was in February. Lance came back that year and it was the hardest field imaginable, and so of course it rained the whole time. It was a horrible experience, I made it to the second-to-last day.
I was trying so hard to contribute and to be good enough but I wasn't. I wasn't good enough to finish, let alone compete, in the Tour of California. So that last day, I washed the RV.
I asked if there was anything I could do and I was handed a brush and a garden bucket full of soapy water. I was like, “Alright. I’m on it.” I was happy to do it, too. It’s hard to not tie yourself to the last race you did, so at that point I felt guilty about my performance. It’s difficult to live with the mentality that “you’re only as good as your last race,” and that mentality is everywhere in the sport. Three weeks later was San Dimas, my second race with Jelly Belly. I won the road race and all of a sudden I thought, “OK, maybe I can do this.”
Escaping financial pressure (it's huge!), sappy works (so do massages!), forty one dollars a day
There were three more years of getting paid shit. But every year I would have at least one moment like San Dimas, a result good enough to convince me I should keep racing for one more year. At the Continental level, if you’re not one of the guys winning races, you’re expendable. At the $0-10,000 level there is an enormous pile of dudes who just get crushed. To break-out of that is tough, especially when you’re working for the guys who are winning. But if you can break-out, then you're making a living, and if you're making a living you can afford to eat, and if you can afford to eat than you can do more than simply survive. Until you break-out however, it's a struggle just to meet your basic human needs, and that struggle can be all-consuming. Escaping that financial pressure/trap...what it does for your racing, it's huge.3
I never really thought I would rise through the Continental ranks until two years ago. Jeremy Powers—who by the way is really good at all the being-a-professional-racer stuff—was staying at my house. He saw where I was living, how I had one foot out the door, how I was ready to go to grad school as soon as I got an offer too shitty to take. He sat me down and told me, “If you are going to do this, then you need to really do this. You’re good enough but you need to start getting massages, you need to start training, you need to start doing all the shit that's required to race professionally.” That plus a bunch of sappy stuff. You can call bullshit on the sappy stuff all day, but when it’s true it works. And things like getting massages, those things make a difference; however, it’s difficult to explain a $70 weekly massage to a guy making approximately forty one dollars and nine cents a day—I was making about $15,000 a year with Kenda at that point.
Coming in hot, thinking differently, winning anything
The first time I started to think I could legitimately race on the World Tour was at Redlands in 2012. Up until that point I'd had a couple of Top Five finishes at some NRC races, but at Redlands that year I won the Prologue and eventually the GC as well. Everyone says they’re going to come into the season hot, strong for Redlands, et cetera et cetera, but I actually pulled it off. Once you know you can win, you start to think differently. You go into every race looking to win because now you know it's possible, you know you can win anything.
I've actually been trying to get onto Slipstream from the beginning; I was almost good enough when I first went pro to get on the U23 team. Every year since I’d send an email, and every year Jonathan would read it and send a terse response—but it was something, it was a response. Finally, last year after Redlands he considered it and promised to keep an eye on me. Naturally, my team didn't get invited to any of the big races, so he never got that chance. This year I came out swinging and it finally worked out, though at first it didn't.
I had a big crash at San Dimas. It was completely my fault, which to be honest, I prefer. I don't like having anyone to blame but myself. I was in the yellow jersey at the top of a climb that had split the group, and as I looked back for my teammates I put my handlebar into some of that stretchy orange fencing stuff. It was really bad, we're talking Cat 4-type antics. Helicopter, hospital, all that. It cost 15 grand and messed up the rest of my year. Coming back in the middle of the season has been weird training-wise; I’m kind of past my peak but hoping to find another one. I was not the best guy on the team at Utah: Carter was riding really well and Torckler took the KOM jersey. I have been the GC guy, but after Utah I know it won't be clear how this race will play out for the team until a few days in. A lot of times you can’t know what the team’s strategy will be until you’re in the race. Sometimes it’s different, for example at Cascade I sat the team down and said, “I’m going to attack with 5km to go and I’m going to win the stage.” And then I did it. I’m pretty proud of that one actually, especially after I tried the same thing the year before but got caught with one kilometer to go. But that attitude does not translate to a race like this (USA Pro Challenge), you need to be more thoughtful.
This isn't a parade, I'm old, everyone knows it, I still have teeth, regardless it's an adventure
This is my first time in Colorado, though I’ve done California so I understand this level of competition. This is a real race. It is not a parade, as nice as that sounds right now. The guys coming from Europe, they are here to win. Maybe not Chris Froome, he's probably feeling pretty good about his season as it is, but in general everyone is racing to win. The thing is, to make a race difficult you only need one guy who wants to win—take Danielson for example. He’s a world class climber, so when he decides to go, everyone is going to have a shitty day behind him. The team will figure out what my plan is by the end of the first day hopefully. In a larger sense, now that I'm going to be on Garmin, I need to become comfortable in races like this, so that’s on my mind. I am also strong in uphill TTs; that day would be great for me at an NRC race, but here I might be thrashed by the time we get there. I probably don’t have the endurance to get to the TT with any sort of fresh legs.4
I’m kinda old. Everyone knows it, it's in the open, but it’s not really a factor. I know where I'm at in my curve and I'm realistic about it. I'm not going to win the Tour de France but I am getting better every year. 15-20 watts a year, that’s how I've been building. It'll slow down eventually, but right now I know I can finally-actually compete in all these races I've been watching on TV for so long.5 I think the hilly Spring Classics are most likely what my focus will be, as I typically have good form that time of year. I don't think I have the endurance for crazy long stuff right now but I know I'll get better and better at it as the year goes on.
I've been getting my teeth kicked-in from the start but every year since, I get my teeth kicked-in less and less. And I know what I'm capable of. Regardless, it's an adventure.
For more information about Phil Gaimon please buy/pre-order Phil Gaimon's forthcoming book. He knows it will be published by Velo Press, he thinks it will be called Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro.6
- FTR #51: WORRY ABOUT YOUR OWN CURVE [↩]
- FTR #52: YOU CAN ALWAYS COACH [↩]
- FTR #53: AIM TO SUPPORT YOURSELF FIRST [↩]
- Gaimon would finish the TT 50th, 3:07 down from Tejay van Garderen and tied with Chris Froome. [↩]
- FTR #54: DON'T OVERANALYZE [↩]
- It is actually called Road Rash and Ramen Noodles: True Tales of Pro Cycling on $10 a Day. [↩]