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At the beginning of the 2014 season Phil Gaimon got things off to a dream start with the Garmin-Sharp team, winning his first-ever race with the WorldTour team and also notching up the squad’s first victory of the year.
Hitting the line first on stage one of the Tour de San Luis rewarded the team for its faith in him and saw him take the jersey of race leader. He would eventually lose it on stage five, but he battled on and finished an excellent second overall, just 43 seconds behind Tour de France runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
Gaimon’s debut was the ideal scenario for the American, and since then he’s continued to perform solidly. He has ridden for team-mates in a number of events, helping Tom Danielson to victory in the Tour of Utah, and also netting sixth himself in the prologue of the Tour of Alberta.
However, heading towards the end of September, Gaimon is still unsure where he will be racing next year. His first preference is to stay where he is, but the merger of the Garmin-Sharp and Cannondale cycling teams sees several riders from the latter squad moving across. Pre-existing contracts mean that they must be accommodated, and this situation puts Gaimon in a very uncertain place.
“Limbo is a good word for it,” he told CyclingTips. “It is complicated with the merger and who is going to stay and who is not. It is taking longer than I would have hoped, and they don’t really have an answer for me yet. I am still fingers-crossed and definitely want to stay with the team. I am just hoping it works out.
“I have been in touch with other teams as well. But you never want to leave a good situation…I have been really happy with the team. This period is difficult and kind of frustrating, but overall…you don’t want to switch teams unless you have to. At least that is how I feel about it.
“There are other teams, and I am in touch with several. And they all understand; everyone is in a waiting game for different riders. So no-one’s beating down like they need an answer real quick.”
Team CEO Jonathan Vaughters spoke about the Garmin-Sharp/Cannondale situation to CyclingTips and explained how it has complicated things for riders such as Gaimon.
“Phil did a great job in Colorado and Utah. He is a really great guy and I like him a lot,” he said. “But you know, we have got a situation with a tight budget and with two teams who both have riders under contract.
“I don’t know [what will happen]. I am trying to do what I can as I do feel a degree of loyalty towards Phil, but at this point I can’t say in one way or the other whether it will work out.”
Gaimon accepts the difficulty of the situation, realising that the maths complicate things. “For sure if you have a team of 30 dudes, or 29, and then suddenly there are eight that have to be squeezed in, that is going to make things tough,” he said. “There are going to be some people there who are out of a job that arguably deserve it.
“The sport is shrinking, essentially. There is one less team and in the grand scheme of things, that is 30 jobs that aren’t there that were last year. It is going to be tough on the people at that level.”
Still, he’s hoping that something can be worked out. He’s satisfied with his year, believes he has shown his worth, and wants to remain part of the American WorldTour setup.
Aged 28 at the start of the year, Gaimon found himself in an enviable position. He had previously ridden for a string of American Continental teams, namely Jelly Belly, Kenda – 5 Hour Energy and Bissell Cycling and, thanks to results such as second overall in last year’s Tour of the Gila, he earned a place with the Garmin-Sharp team.
Going from Continental to WorldTour level was both exciting and intimidating, but he coped well. Looking back at the results he has got but also the riding he did for others, Gaimon believes that he has exceeded expectations.
“Vaughters would be the first to say that I have done 150% of what I was asked at every race I went to, from San Luis on forward,” he said.
“At the Tour of West Flanders, I am sitting in the bus before the start and Van Summeren found out it was my first time racing on cobbles. He was laughing at me…it was friendly, but he was laughing at me, saying, ‘you are going to have fun today’. But with ten kilometres to go, I was chasing down the breakaway…
“I got sick at one race, California, but other than that… I don’t like to blow my own horn, but I guess that is what you have to do. I was instrumental in Danielson winning the overall in Utah, taking the stage that he did.
“I don’t think that would have happened without a few moments of me kicking everybody’s butt. And same thing with him in getting second overall in Colorado, I think I was crucial in that for the team and Alex’s stage win wouldn’t have happened without me.
“If that is not good enough, I don’t know what is…but it doesn’t come down to that, it comes down to bigger factors that are kind of out of everybody’s control. I just have to hope that the cards fall in my favour.”
No question of calling it quits:
As he states, the issue for Gaimon and other riders in the peloton is that squads like Cannondale are stopping. Each and every reduction in team licences in the peloton has a knock-on effect on the whole scene, be it in relation to riders or to team staff.
Gaimon is clear on what his preference is, but also makes it absolutely clear that he doesn’t plan to retire if things don’t work out as well as he hopes.
“I will certainly be racing next year,” he promises. “I can’t…I don’t think I could stomach not doing so. The thing is, I have gotten so much better this year. I have seen it. I am in Europe all spring, I come back and race in the States again. I talk to guys who I have been racing with for five years, and they say, ‘I’ve never seen you riding this well in the pack, defending so well.’
“Friends of mine are saying, ‘you have got so much better this year, it is amazing what you have learned and how far you have come.’ I can’t take that step and then retire.
“If it was a downward flight, if I lost 20 watts this year, if I was over the hill it would be a different story. But as long as I am getting better, I think I have to keep racing. I have to see what I can do.
“It would be a major step back if I ended up going to a smaller team or something like that. But I have had setbacks, I can handle it. But ideally it won’t be like that.”
As Gaimon notes, his performances this year would likely earn him offers from other smaller setups. However he’s conscious that he needs to try to keep his current momentum going if at all possible. He wants to continue improving, and knows that returning to a Continental team in the US would interrupt that trajectory.
“It took me so many years to get my foot in the door in Europe, and then once I did, I got to do it with Garmin-Sharp,” he elaborated. “I was just focussed on making the most of it, making it work. I think it would be hard to go back, and then to get back up here again.
“That’s not to say that I couldn’t, because I have WorldTour legs…if I have WorldTour legs on a small team, I am still going to have WorldTour legs, and I am going to use them. I don’t think it would be out of the realms of possibility to make another leap again, but it would be tough for sure. So [staying in] Europe is the goal.”
Gaimon isn’t riding the world championships but does have other opportunities ahead to show his form. He had a light summer of racing and has been given a late-season programme. He’ll compete in both the Tour of Beijing and the Japan Cup, and will do what he can to show his worth there.
Clock is ticking:
It’s now close to the end of September and Phil Gaimon is conscious that each passing week complicates things in terms of getting a ride for 2015. The Catch 22 situation he finds himself in is that he believes he needs to give Garmin-Sharp time to work out its roster for 2015, but is also aware that other riders are also trying to earn contracts for next season and are chasing up places on the other teams he may have to rely on.
He said that he hasn’t been told of a cutoff date by Vaughters, a time when he will have a definite answer. Instead, Gaimon believes that the crunch time might be dictated by the other possibilities he has. “I guess it will come down to when other teams give me deadlines, if I have to shit or get off their pot,” he said. “But I don’t know if it is entirely in JV’s control what goes on with the eight Cannondale guys.
“I think there are just so many factors that it is really tough to judge. And it is hard JV too, I know he is trying. We have been in touch. It kind of is what it is.”
One additional plus that Gaimon has is a strong identity within cycling. Although there are riders with bigger palmares, he has built up a following with some very well-written and witty journals for VeloNews. In addition to that, he wrote the book Pro Cycling on $10 a Day, which has been very well received.
He also is a rider who has spoken repeatedly about the importance of a clean sport; all pluses for any sponsor.
“I think I have always tried to bring value to sponsors, to bring a return,” he said. “I think is part of the job that a lot of guys neglect. If you think your job is to win races but not sell bikes, you are sorely mistaken. We will see if that logic actually leads to another job for me, maybe I am mistaken.
“But I have always tried to do both. I have always seen pro cycling as two jobs; one, you are an athlete, a racer, and two you are a representative and you are telling a story and you are supporting and bringing value to the sponsors.
“That is something that I think has always been appreciated by teams, but I think it is very hard to quantify and very hard to reward. Take a guy with a few WorldTour points versus a guy who brings the other to the front before the climb, but who has a lot of Twitter followers and with whom the bike sponsor exposure is high.
“That is a tough call for teams. After all, there are no WorldTour rankings for that side of it.”