Phil Gaimon of Bissell Pro Cycling recently signed a one-year contract with UCI WorldTour Team Garmin-Sharp for 2014. Gaimon won the Redlands Cycling Classic in 2012; this year he was runner-up at the Tour of the Gila. cyclingreporter caught up with the 27-year-old all-rounder in June to learn more about his rise to the top of the sport, doping, and why he wrote a book.
You’d been trying to get on Garmin for years. How did it finally happen?
My contact with Jonathan Vaughters most years was like, No, we’re not interested now, but here’s what you need to do next year for us to be interested. There was a good six years of that. Last year I was on track to doing it, but then when we weren’t invited to any of the bigger races, Bissell gave me a nice offer at a time when I needed a nice offer to get the hell off of Kenda. So I wasn’t about to hold out. I was worried about my career. I needed to jump ship from a shitty situation.
What was going on at Kenda?
Let’s just say it was a messy situation.
How close were you to signing with Garmin in 2012?
Vaughters wasn’t exactly knocking down my door, so it would’ve been a begging situation. We were still in touch during the summer, and he never quite said no, but I just needed to sign and be done with it. There comes a time when the answer is no even if they don’t say it, because it didn’t look like I was quite ready. In the winter I got to know Tom Danielson and did a lot of training with him in January and February in Tucson. I think Vaughters’ hesitation with me was that it was unclear that I was ready for Europe, because Europe is that much harder. And it’s that difference. So his hesitation was, Does Phil really have the legs? And after a month training with Danielson, Tom told him, Yes, Phil has the legs. Then I came into the season swinging. I won but I really smashed it, and I think that helped a lot, to show that I was a notch above where I’d been the previous year, and that got us talking again. At some point I had enough of a body of work this year, even after a crash and coming back and still being pretty solid. I think Vaughters was impressed and finally made it happen.
You’re 27. Did you or Garmin ever think you were too old to sign with a WorldTour team?
I think I was at the threshold where I was getting too old for someone to take the risk. The riders European teams are looking at in terms of Americans are the 18- to 22-year-olds they can foster, the Nate Brown types. I missed the boat on all that. I was in college and just learning to race a bike at that point. I had to prove that I was capable of something much harder than the racing here in the States. And I think I am better suited to European racing than I am to the American stuff. Like, I’m more comfortable at the Tour of California than I am at the Tour of the Gila. I find myself at the front more often when it’s harder. There aren’t a lot of races here with 45-minute climbs that sort things out. But in the past few years with races here, like Battenkill, when it’s strung out and the race is flying, and I find myself leading onto the dirt sections, it’s like, Huh. That’s sort of like a glimpse that I feel is more like European stuff. I haven’t raced there, but a bike race is a bike race. I think I can be ready for it.
How much is Garmin paying you?
Well, it’s what I’m worth. It’s a fair offer. I’m not buying any big houses anytime soon, but it’s enough to do it right, and it’s more than I’d get on any domestic team. Money at this point, after all I’ve been through, I don’t need money. I just need to prove it to myself. You know, I’m not a young guy and I’m a risk to sign. That’s a fact. I just want a chance to go over to Europe and do it right, and believe me, if I get the chance to do it right, I’ll hit them up for more next year. But I was in no position to negotiate, and I’m no rider to demand a lot of money up front, because I’ve never raced a bike in Europe. Who the hell is going to pay me?
You’ve never raced in Europe?
No. That last time I was there I was 14. My dad’s German and we went to visit his family, and that was before I really ever rode a bike. My dad was born there and came over to the States for graduate school. He’s from a town in the north called Oldenburg. I think his family trade was hay gathering.
As for domestic-rider salaries, it always surprises me how little pros earn.
Yeah, it sucks. Only a few top riders here make any real money. A lot have to get by on $15,000 or so. That’s why this sport is so tough. I wish I had any power over it but I don’t. And it’s nice to be able to leave that shitty world, where I had to watch that every weekend. It’s a shame riding bikes and racing is so awesome. It’d be much easier to quit.
Talk more about the conversations you and Vaughters had leading up to your signing.
Most of our conversations before signing were really an extended interview, where he was trying to figure out whether the arc of my career was on the way up or on the way down, and me sort of explaining that I have to drive to every race. I was getting paid nothing the past few years. His question was, How did it take you so long to develop? I explained that I’d missed the national team. And I literally wrote a book about that, which I just finished. It’s about the last six years or so and it’s called Pro Cycling on $10 a Day. It’s not official yet. I don’t have a contract signed with the publisher as of today, but hopefully it will come out next spring. But it was funny, because Vaughters asked me that question and I said I could do 85,000 words on it. But through all that it was about him trying to understand who I was and whether I was the right fit and a smart move for him.
We also talked about what I needed to do to prepare as far as next season. It’s great, because I have plenty of time. Some of what we did was look at my power at certain intensities or at certain levels of exertion, and we looked at which ones I’m good at and where I need to improve. In the lab the curve was, at one level, WorldTour, and, at the second level, “best in the world,” and this is based on averages that their lab guy had done. He’s tested Contador and tons of other dudes. And so they had “best in the world” and “normal WorldTour” guy, and I was directly between those two for everything. There were certain levels where it was down, certain others where it was up. But I know exactly where I need to train and improve for next year. It’s actually refreshing how much science there is to it, sort of Moneyball if you think about it. That’s what the testing is. They test your lactate threshold, the amount of power you can stand to do, and how much you weigh, and that tells you if you’re good or if you suck.
Is it really as simple as that?
Different testers have different protocols. I know what I can do for, like, 20 minutes, and that was sort of my best curve on their chart. I can do between 430 and 450 watts for 20 minutes and I weigh 66 kilos [145 pounds], so whatever that divides to. But that’s a point Vaughters made about the testing, that that stuff means more now that nobody’s doping, or that fewer people are doping. That it used to be that a guy could test this in the lab and shoot a few needles and 40 watts just showed up. But now, and this is nice to hear from J.V. and Danielson, the way you test in the lab is about the way you do in the race, because that is what you’re capable of. So from the inside, I can tell that pro cycling is cleaner, but from the outside I know a lot of people are still hesitant to accept that. But it’s been that way the past few years. I’ve watched guys get slower. You can tell when you’re next to them. There are still guys doing drugs, but it’s not systematic. It’s not like it used to be.
When Danielson reported on you to Vaughters, did he provide data files from a power meter or was it more anecdotal feedback?
Well, Tom knew the numbers because I was riding right next to him, so he knew what he was doing and could figure out the rest, even though he’s about 15 pounds lighter than I am. I also did that lactate-threshold testing in the lab, and Vaughters can do the math. He saw at San Dimas that I won the uphill TT by 16 seconds over Acevedo, who’s been winning big races.
Have you ever seen any doping?
I never saw any doping. I’ve raced dopers, I know that. There were definitely a few moments when I was racing in my first or second year and I’d be on a guy’s wheel, like at a little race in Florida, and be like, Nope, that’s not even humanly possible. There’s no way someone is that much better than me. And sure enough, that guy would go positive a year later for growth hormone. There have been those moments. And there have been moments like that racing the NRC. The closest I had was a team doctor who tried to prescribe me asthma medication. It’s legal but it’s stupid. Like, No, I don’t have asthma! So that was the culture I’ve had to deal with. No one ever said, Take this, Phil, you’ll go better tomorrow. There’s been zero of that. I don’t think it’s been around any team I’ve been on. I have a thousand percent faith in every teammate I’ve had as far as that stuff goes, at least that they’re all presently clean. There have been a few guys I’ve had to race against where I’m like, This is bullshit. I wish you weren’t here. But other than in the press and in the public, it’s had very little effect on my career. The worst is the stigma of it. That’s why I got the tattoo. I went to a doctor in Florida one year and he’d heard I was a pro cyclist. He closes the door and says, O.K, what are you on? I’m like, Oh, fuck this. He says, The door’s closed and you can be honest with me. What is it? EPO? Steroids? I was like, Fuck. That’s what we look like.
As a rider who’s outspoken about racing clean, were you at all hesitant to sign with Garmin knowing that the team has several former dopers, including Vaughters himself?
I mean, not really. I’d thought of those demons a long time before. Becoming friends with Tom Danielson was interesting because I’d never known someone from that era all that well. I knew Frankie Andreu well. Frankie taught me a lot about all that, because he’s a guy who did the same shit. He took needles from Lance Armstrong, but from working with him for three years, I know there’s no better human being than Frankie Andreu. So good people can do good things and make mistakes, and I think that the sport as a whole has forgiven Frankie, rightly so. He’s done more good than harm. It has forgiven Vaughters for the same. I think I’d say the exact opposite as far as was I hesitant to ride for him. Vaughters was the first to figure out, You have to be clean if you want sponsors. There was a period when teams were going away left and right and Vaughters was like, Here’s my clean team. And here’s why it’s important and our biggest focus. And within a year, the teams, the ones that survived anyway, they stole that model. They looked at it as a business, and that was the direction things were going. It proved successful. He brought the sport back from that precipice. There are still guys doing drugs, but it’s not systematic. It’s not like it used to be. And I think watching that from the outside, well, there might not even be a pro cycling if not for that.
As far as Danielson and Vande Velde and Zabriskie, I think when they went to Garmin it was a risk. When Vaughters went to Tom and said, Look, this is gonna be a clean team, that was unheard of. If you look at it from Tom’s perspective, it was a risk for his career. He’s on Discovery. He’s making a ton of money. And he’s thinking, If I go to this clean team, I won’t get a result. And if the team goes away, and it doesn’t work, then I’m out of a job. Those guys had to gamble to make that leap. That’s something they deserve credit for. And I think, as with Frankie, Tom’s helping me out is sort of a way he’s trying to make amends. You talk to the guy and you know he’s not a bad person. He just hasn’t had the time yet to go the route of giving back. But in his work with me, Tom went very far out of his way, not just to ride with me or help me get on the team, but to teach me a lot about training. He’s got some of the best resources in the world, with great coaches and physiologists, and he because he knows his shit. My training has been entirely different since I started talking to him. But I think I’m sort of a project in the “good” category for Tom, and I think that should be considered when people judge. A lot of people are like, Oh, you’re going to hang out with these dopers. It’s like, No, this guy’s done a lot for me. And I think he’ll continue to, and all those guys on Garmin, and Vaughters, will continue to make positive strides in the sport, and people will look at the body of their work as you would Frankie’s or Jonathan’s.
So will you be racing mostly in Europe?
I don’t know yet as we haven’t gotten into a schedule. The first I’d heard about my schedule was on VeloNews saying I’d probably do some of the Ardennes classics. Which I like, because I’m good at getting in shape for the earlier stuff. I’m guessing he’ll try me out in a stage race or two. California makes sense since I’m American. I’m guessing I’ll be based in Spain, because that’s convenient for the races that are the hardest. Then I could see coming back here for blocks. I know a lot of guys come back for the California-nationals block, go back to Europe, then come back here for Utah and Colorado. That’s sort of what I’m guessing, but I’m open to doing whatever. I am hoping to do more in Europe than the U.S., since I’ve done the stuff here.
What about the rest of this season with Bissell?
I have a little break now, then I’ll do Cascade, Utah, and Colorado. Those will be the big ones for me. The team is invited to Alberta but I’m not sure if they’ll want me for that one. I hope I get to, but right now I’m focusing on those big three. I know I can do well in those. I’ve got a vendetta with Cascade, then Utah and Colorado are good for me too.
I botched it last year. I should’ve won it and I didn’t, for a couple reasons. I finished fourth overall. The first day I attacked on the climb at the end and had everyone dropped. I had Mancebo cracked. He was chasing me and he blew up. Then Joe Dombrowski came across and for some reason he wouldn’t work with me. And I should have just dragged him and pulled him to the line. But instead I looked up, because I forgot I was racing for the GC and I’m thinking about winning the stage. And I didn’t want to drag Dombrowski to a free stage. We cat and moused and Mancebo came back with a group of six or seven dudes, and of course he won the stage because Mancebo can do shit like that. I lost time that day and had a shitty time trial. But that’s something I’ve worked on this year. Last year I think I was 30th or 40th at Gila in the TT and this year I was eighth. So I’ve made improvements there and I have more maturity as a bike racer. With the work I’ve been doing I think I can go back to Cascade and not mess it up this time.
What do you make of Dombrowski, who’s seen as the bright future of American cycling?
I know him reasonably well and we’ve exchanged some emails. During one of my shitty years on Kenda I was living in Baltimore with a girlfriend, and he grew up near there, so I did some local races with him, when he was first getting good. He was all the talk and riding on Livestrong then. Everyone was like, This guy’s gonna be good. But I’d have moments where I’d lap this guy in a crit, like, He sucks. Then I’d have moments like, Ouch. That guy’s gonna be all right. Joe’s having the career that I didn’t quite have the opportunity for, having started a little too late. They didn’t have those development teams when I started, so yeah, it’s nice to watch him. It’s a bright future and he gets to have these opportunities and gets to be over in Europe. He’s a guy who’ll never see a needle in his career. I know his coach, Jeremiah Bishop, pretty well. We’ve talked about all that stuff. It’s a zero factor in his life, and that’s a beautiful thing, if you know your history of the sport.
So why did you write a book?
The idea was, there are all these books written, like Hamilton’s book and this and that. There’s bullshit stories, like Lance’s, like, How I won the Tour, except for all the needles. You just throw all those away. Then there’s these tell-all bullshit stories where Hamilton gets to cash in on his crimes that he’s already made millions off of. So my idea was sort of an anti-tell-all. What’s great about pro cycling is this world that I experienced in domestic cycling, where I never saw any doping. I never had to make that decision. And it’s a beautiful thing because people do it because it’s awesome. Because there isn’t any money in it. Because there’s not that much at stake. No one’s famous. No one’s rich. It’s kind of this great, pure little world. And what it’s taught me as an athlete and a human being. How I’ve grown and how hard it is but why it is worth it. And Vaughters gave me an awesome ending. And that’s what closed the deal with VeloPress as well. I’d had this book that I’d been working on for years, and it didn’t really have much of an arc because there was no ending. But I got that nailed down now. I basically wrote it last year when Kenda ran out of money, around June. I was thinking, Well, shit. I’m not going to sit on my ass for six months and do nothing. I just sat there and wrote. I wrote this massive mess of stuff. The VeloPress guy was like, You need to cut it in half. I think it was 130,000 words. I got it down to 85,000 and got the ending with Garmin in there. So now it’s coherent and not 500 pages.
When you’re not writing, what do you like to read?
Well, I thought I’d write fiction. That was my goal when I majored in English. I’d first told my parents I’d go to law school because they wouldn’t let me major in English otherwise. I read a ton of fiction after I graduated. I made a list of books I wanted to read that I thought would be applicable, and I figured after that I’d start writing. I realized I have a book about bike racing in me. So I worked through the 100 best novels according to the Modern Library. I read those. Now I’m doing the same with nonfiction, just because I enjoyed the other list so much.
Do you follow the Tour?
The last time I watched every stage of the Tour de France and gave a shit was when Floyd Landis won and I was too young to know what was going on. My teammates and I were all sitting around the house that summer in Pennsylvania and we were so inspired by Floyd that after he won that stage we all went for a ride and beat the shit out of each other. And then three weeks later we hated ourselves and we hated Floyd. Like, What the fuck are we doing? So since then it’s been hard to watch. It was a different sport for a while there. It didn’t seem like the same thing. It went from there to I can’t watch it because I’ll never be there. That was hard too. I have a lot of trouble watching races I can’t be in. Redlands this year was the biggest torture that I’ve ever experienced, watching Mancebo win that race and knowing I could chase him down. I couldn’t watch it because I wanted to be in it. But now I know guys who will be in the Tour, future teammates. I need to start knowing who’s who. I’ll be watching to see if my friends do well. It’s also homework at this point. I need to know what guys look like from behind and as a team.
Interview, photo by Daniel McMahon // Twitter: @cyclingreporter