Phil Gaimon on risk versus reward, retirement … and reinvention

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Earlier this week Cannondale-Drapac rider Phil Gaimon announced he was retiring from the sport at just 30 years of age. He’s still young, he had offers from teams but, weighing things up, he decided that the lure of the sport and the strength of those offers weren’t enough for him to stay involved.

While he’s still in love with the sport, he believes that having to walk away from the WorldTour for a second time would be too much. Hence his decision. On Wednesday he elaborated on his reasons to CyclingTips, talking about the factors behind his decision – including grave injuries to fellow riders this year – his thoughts on not being renewed by Cannondale-Drapac, a near miss with Dimension Data and much more.

CyclingTips: Phil, you announced your retirement this week. I guess it is only when you make the announcement that it really brings things home. How have you been doing since?

Phil Gaimon: Honestly … psychologically, it is tougher than I thought. I obviously saw it coming for many months. I wasn’t casting a wide net, I wasn’t approaching a million teams. I didn’t want to beg for a contract that I wouldn’t enjoy or that I wouldn’t feel that I would fit in. Or that I didn’t agree with whatever principles.

I wasn’t as desperate for a contract as I was two years ago. I wasn’t, ‘Oh man, I have to do this,’ and staying up at night hoping that I had got it. But then when it did happen, it was still really sad for a couple of days and a couple of nights. It was not easy.

Like any breakup, it will take some time. But this will be a friendly breakup.

CT: From reading stories out there is it correct to say that you had other options – and potentially for more money – but that you decided not to go for those?

PG: Yeah. Nothing got super formal. I was approached and given ballparks by teams that I hadn’t contacted, teams who had contacted me. They said, ‘we are looking for a rider who would fill this role, this is about what you would get paid.’ But nothing really struck me as worth having second conversations.

I told one guy, ‘…or you could pay your 22 year olds more.’

CT: So I guess as much as you like cycling, you didn’t want to stay in at all costs?

PG: Yeah. There wasn’t anything that I was super excited about. There were job offers but to me it would have felt like a job. To me it would have felt like a dream eight years ago or five years or three years ago, but I don’t really want to trade that now. I don’t want to take somebody else’s dream just because I don’t know what else I would do to pay my bills.

I think I will be fine on the bill-paying front. My feeling is that when it feels like a job, when it is a case of, ‘okay, I guess I could do this,’ when that is the way you approach a pro cycling contract, it probably just means it is time to go.

CT: In other words, is it the case that you feel the sport is too tough to just go through the motions?

PG: That is definitely part of it. You have to train really hard, and it is dangerous. There are sacrifices and trade-offs that you have to make in your life. It is all very real the older you get. It is something that you really have to be fired up to do, I think.

I never stopped liking it. That is part of what sucks about stopping. I have always loved everything about the sport and even in races that I am not good at or suffering, bike racing is great. But it is not … with the contracts that I was getting, the teams that I was getting, the opportunities I was getting … I will be 31 next year. I don’t want to hit my head and go to a hospital at the Tour of Guadeloupe … I don’t need that.

There are sacrifices that you can justify when you think you are on your way up. You can put up with a certain level of that. But this year I learned that while I am still getting a little better, this is about where I am going to top out. I am not going to win a WorldTour race. I might get a lucky breakaway and be on a podium. But I know where my physical peak is and it is not worth chasing it that much harder any more.

CT: You mention danger. Are you more aware of that aspect of the sport than before? If so, why is that?

PG: I think this was a really bad year in relation to danger. Maybe I am just too close to it, but how many guys from the WorldTour were in comas this year? Was it three? And one dead. That is a very high percentage for the league.

If you were going to get a job offer for $60,000 and there was a 1% chance of death, that is a horrible, horrible job. You would have to really, really want it. You would have to really think it is going to get better and that there is a lot of opportunities.

That wouldn’t have felt like a horrible trade-off a few years ago, but now it does.

Phil Gaimon in action during stage two of the Larry H.Miller Tour of Utah.
Phil Gaimon in action during stage two of the Larry H.Miller Tour of Utah.

Why no contract extension?

CT: You were with Cannondale-Drapac this year. Can you talk about what happened in terms of why things didn’t continue? Was it the Drapac guys coming on board: specifically, a lack of team space in relation to that?

PG: I don’t know. I am sure that was a factor – a spot is a spot. Every year there is a new contract. Every year you are basically starting from scratch and finding a new job. You hope it is with the same team. So it is not like I was fired or let go, it is just that they went somewhere else.

I believe that it would have been in their best interests to keep me. I think that I did my job well and in terms of the team [teamwork] did my job well. But I guess they disagreed … that is kind of how it goes.

CT: From the outside, it seemed like you were a good fit to stay. There is your public anti-doping stance, which is what the team has said it is about. You have been probably the most public guy in terms of raising awareness for the team’s sponsors. Are you a bit disappointed that the team didn’t extend?

PG: Of course. It hurts. Obviously I wanted to stay. It is hard not to take it personally. But I also think that hopefully I can do better things with my life than grupetto in the Vuelta. What I was striving for this year was [just] hoping to be in the race, and not realistically being part of it much.

Maybe JV is doing me a favour in kicking me out and saying, ‘you can do better.’

CT: Yet it is twice now that the team hasn’t extended with you …

PG: That’s true. I mean, I came back, I said, ‘thank you, may I have another,’ and I got one. But I don’t know. Yes, it is sad, it is a bummer, I wish they would have kept me. And I think that I did my best.

As any athlete does, I could fool myself … There are a lot of guys who people must be telling to hang on long past when they should. It is hard to know and trust that, ‘I’m a competitive, driven athlete’ voice, versus the practical, ‘maybe it is time to do something else,’ voice.

CT: If we look at your season, was Roubaix your only WorldTour race?

PG: Yes.

CT: I guess you were probably expecting to do more of those, and to do more races in general in Europe. How did it happen that things didn’t work out that way?

PG: Well, it is kind of a chain reaction. I guess the first races … in Catalunya, we had a bunch of guys who were going really well. I was on a list for that. But then Paddy Bevin came out of nowhere and was tearing everybody’s legs off and he deserved a shot. Then we had got big names preparing for bigger events. Obviously that [riding Catalunya] was important for them.

I think it was just race by race that the team saw better options for the bike races. Again, I want to take it personal and say they had it in for me, but it is not that … They are going to take the best roster that they can to each races and if I am not on it, I am not on it.

CT: You are being very philosophical about it all …

PG: Well, I am writing a book about it. You get real introspective. That is how I spent my year … sitting in Girona with my feet up, typing.

The team that nearly was:

CT: Once it became clear that you would not be staying with the team, was Dimension Data the only other WorldTour that you were in talks with?

PG: Yes, Dimension Data was the only one. That was a bummer [that it didn’t work out]. I felt like I was close to a contract there, although that is how every team operates … they have conversations and you never know how long their list is. Then one day they announced their roster. I was like, ‘okay [laughs], take care guys …’

If you look around, there were some teams that I wasn’t going to fit into. And some I wasn’t interested in riding for, for whatever reason. It was different in the past – I remember sending emails to Rock Racing back in the day, knowing much better, but you are desperate. The sport does that to you.

CT: What has changed in you now, in terms of not just going for a team at all costs? Is that maturity, or needing the sport less?

PG: I hope it is maturity. I am a grown up. My dad died a year ago. I got some perspective. I had a lot of friends help me through that and now I want to be there for them, that kind of stuff.

And if I was a little better, it would be easier to make those decisions. If it was compromising my principles to podium a Grand Tour, that is easier to justify [settling for any team] than to grupetto a Grand Tour.

CT: So if you look back at your career now, what are highlights for you?

PG: Well … Making it to Garmin-Sharp. That was my massive mission that took many years. I think I started on a back foot with all that and that was my finish line for a long time. Achieving that was awesome. In most ways, it was everything that I wanted to be.

CT: Winning your first race with the team [stage one of the 2014 Tour de San Luis] has to be pretty big as well …

PG: That was cool, that was a fun one [laughs]. Yes – it’s ‘welcome to the WorldTour, go head to head with Nairo [Quintana –ed.].’ That was super cool. The eight years of bad luck I had were all flipped in one day and I got to wear a leader’s jersey at a big race and fight through adoring mobs in Argentina for a week. That was surreal. I will never forget that for sure.

Dream start - winning his first-ever race with Garmin-Sharp at the 2014 Tour de San Luis.
Dream start – winning his first-ever race with Garmin-Sharp at the 2014 Tour de San Luis.

Life post-peloton: what’s next?

CT: So now you are heading to a new phase of your life. What do you see happening?

PG: Well, I accidentally ended up living in Hollywood. I was training in Big Bear one year and I met a girl in LA. I was like, ‘I am going to stay here.’ I bought a house on the edge of Hollywood, we split up and I was like, ‘I like it here, I am going to stay here.’

But there are all kinds of cool dudes here and I have met some bigwigs in TV and film who are into cycling. I found myself pitching a TV show, which is pretty interesting. It is a ridiculous long shot. But it is something I have time for and I will play with it. I will walk through the doors as they are opened.

How I have been putting it is I have got much further than I should have already. So that has been fun.

I will also have a couple more books coming out in the next two years.

CT: What are the themes for those books?

PG: Well, one of them isn’t announced at all. But the first one … next spring we are going to do a collection of my columns from VeloNews. That will be in all the bookstores. That will be a ton of fun.

Then I have also … just from making efforts with sponsors, I have made relationships and I have had people – be it sponsors or be it people in marketing and stuff – saying, ‘hey, this guy kind of knows his stuff.’ I have had a couple of conversations that have been promising. I think I will have a job that is exciting and interesting and something that I am not depending on pro cycling for a living any more.

CT: You have also been doing your own podcast about people who are gifted in sport and elsewhere. Do you see it as one avenue in your new direction?

PG: It is something that I will keep doing. I don’t think that it will ever be a living. But I want to stay relevant in the sport, to remain in the sport. I like having access … all my favourite people are in cycling, one way or another. I will want to stay relevant. I will keep doing my fondo and I have two books coming out, so I can’t fall off the face of the Earth … even if I want to!

CT: Before all that, you have your own Malibu Gran Cookie Dough gran fondo coming up this Sunday. What is planned for that?

PG: My dad died of cancer last year. I am supposed to be the marketable guy on the team and felt it would be cool to do something with sponsors for sponsors in the off season, and that it will be nice to raise money for a cancer research hospital.

I started doing all that just thinking it would be part of my job as a pro cyclist. If I am the guy who we know for social media and being engaged, this can be part of my resume. And it can be my retirement party as well.

But it has been fun and, assuming it goes well, which it should, I will definitely keep it going in future years.

When I was planning it, I wanted it to be the most fun … to be what I want out of a bike ride. I am going to like it more than anybody else, but I think that everybody is going to like it too. And there are cookies … I ended up meeting a guy who is a celebrity chef. He is always on the Food Network, he has a restaurant in Santa Monica and he makes the most insane cookies in the world.

A sense of humour and love of cookies both come across here...
A sense of humour and love of cookies both come across here…

I told him I was thinking about putting on a Gran Fondo and he was like, ‘I will make 5,000 cookies for you.’ I was like, ‘Fuck, I have to do this now [laughs].’

There is this really good cycling community here and most of the team sponsors have jumped on it. And Cannondale is giving away two bikes to us to raffle for the charity. It is just going to be an awesome day. It is everything that people want out of a sweet bike ride.

CT: So can people still sign up at this point?

PG: Yes, people can sign up on the day if they want. Online registration is open until Thursday, but on the day there will be lines for people doing all that.

So Cal is an awesome cycling scene. People’s experience of LA is being stuck on traffic on the 405. Every time that I tell a pro that I live in LA, they think I am insane. And then they come visit and it is like, ‘no, this is literally the best riding in the world.’

So I am showing that off. And this is from a guy who lived in Girona … The coffee may be more expensive here, but the riding is better.

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