Shortly before 10am, the cyclist on the lime green Cannondale EVO carved right off of Sunset Boulevard onto Mandeville Canyon Road. Los Angeles was cool and cloudy that Monday morning. Phil Gaimon was already in the big ring, and he left it there.
Mandeville Canyon is a beloved and popular climb among L.A. cyclists. It’s not particularly long, and has no steep grades, but the dead-end, five-mile-long road is typically peaceful and easily accessible — equally perfect for a leisurely spin or a withering interval.
Thousands of cyclists have logged ascents of Mandeville on Strava, and on this late November morning, Gaimon was there on a mission to dethrone one of them. The affable cyclist announced he was ending his career as a professional rider in late October, but Gaimon’s retirement has thus far involved more lactate threshold efforts than most.
Precisely 15 minutes and 14 seconds after his right turn, Gaimon topped the last and only tough pitch of Mandeville and reached the end of the road with a Strava KOM. He produced 420 watts over the course of the ascent, averaged 20.6 mph and topped 5,137 other Strava users who’ve done the full climb.
“I smashed it,” Gaimon tells me later that day, after completing a six-hour ride. “That climb today was hard— I actually tapered beforehand and the effort I put out would have been more than enough to win the San Dimas time trial.” But the Cannondale-Drapac pro wasn’t out on Mandeville to win a race or hit a wattage target — he was out there to unseat the reigning King of the Mountain, an athlete who dubs himself Thorfinn-Sassquatch on social media.
Over the course of a few years, Thorfinn snagged hundreds of KOMs throughout Southern California, including many of the most fabled climbs in Los Angles. His identity initially was a mystery to most local riders, but eventually people learned that he was a man named Nick Brandt-Sorenson, who had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs after finishing first in 2011 at an age-group national road championship.
Brandt-Sorenson, who also owns a company that bears his name and makes high-end bespoke cycling apparel, would eventually be ensnared in allegations that he was selling EPO to other athletes, and in July 2016 he accepted a lifetime sanction from the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for second and third violations.
“It’s a pretty complicated story,” says Gaimon. “But the executive summary is that this guy has been cheating.”
(I reached out to Brandt Sorenson for comment but received no reply.)
Oddly enough, Gaimon truly became aware of Brandt-Sorenson’s exploits on the slopes of Mandeville in the summer of 2015. Thorfinn had recently taken the KOM from local legend and longtime elite rider Tony Manzella.
On the annual July 4 Holiday Ride that is a popular event with L.A. roadies, Gaimon showed up to help some local strongmen take back the title. Manzella was there, as were then Hagens-Berman pro Diego Binatena and Stathis Sakellariadis, a Cat 1 racer (presently with SPY Giant Ride) who has netted many big SoCal Strava KOMs under the moniker Jungle Cat.
Gaimon singlehandedly towed an increasingly small field up most of Mandeville that morning, and Sakellariadis wound up with the fastest time. (I have not been able to confirm he reached the top first, but such honors are meaningless in the Strava universe.) His time was equal to Brandt-Sorenson’s, so Thorfinn retained his KOM.
“That really opened my eyes,” says Gaimon. “I was training for the Tour of Austria at the time and that was my best 15 minutes of power, ever. I realize that there are a bunch of guys who can out-climb me for 15 minutes, but the truth is I know them all and can name them. That’s when I realized just how lit up this guy was. His time on Mandeville was world class. There are maybe only 60 guys in the world who can ride that fast up that climb solo.”
Below is a message about my new @Strava mission.
I'm sorry you can't dream big. I'm sorry you don't believe in miracles. pic.twitter.com/eC3e246CFX
— Phil Gaimon (@philgaimon) November 18, 2016
Something about what Brandt-Sorenson was doing on Strava touched a nerve with Gaimon.
“I feel a little bit like someone’s big brother,” he says. “There’s this bully on the playground pushing people around, and I’m the one who can do something about it. I mean, I know a ton of guys who could take these KOMs clean — Mike Woods and Joe Dombrowski could take them with one leg. But unlike me, those guys have better things to do.”
So over a 30-day span beginning on October 30, Gaimon has done something about it, grabbing 152 KOMs in the greater Los Angeles area, many of them held by Brandt-Sorenson. Most of these KOMs are just segments of larger climbs, but among the mix are some of the most iconic climbs in Los Angeles.
Gaimon’s assault began in Nichols Canyon, a three-mile climb from Hollywood Boulevard up to Mulholland Drive that winds past multimillion dollar homes. David Hockney, Steve McQueen, and Ava Gardner are among the Hollywood legends who have lived in the Canyon.
Gaimon cranked out 384 watts and reached Mulholland in 9:57 – 16 seconds faster than Brandt-Sorenson rode it in June 2015. And 11 days later, Gaimon ascended the San Fernando Valley side of Mount Hollywood, a 2.5-mile climb through Griffith Park that more than 6,000 Strava users have ascended, in 8:51, 20 seconds quicker than Brandt-Sorenson’s previous KOM.
As a reference point, only 49 of the 6,327 Strava users who have tackled Mount Hollywood have eclipsed the 11-minute mark on the climb.
— Phil Gaimon (@philgaimon) November 10, 2016
The following week, Gaimon took two of the most iconic KOMs in Los Angeles County: Latigo Canyon and Mount Wilson. Latigo arguably is the crown jewel of the Malibu Hills — the proper climb runs the full 10.3-mile length of Latigo Canyon Road from the Pacific Coast Highway to Kanan Dunes Road, with a little more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain. Gaimon rode that stretch in 35:27, taking numerous KOM segments from Brandt-Sorenson and the overall climb from Levi Leipheimer, who notched the previous record in September 2013, a few months after his professional career ended.
“I really don’t have any beef with Levi,” Gaimon notes. “His situation is a little more complicated than someone who is just doping to get KOMs.”
On Mount Wilson, Gaimon completed the 18.2-mile climb from Interstate 210 to the summit, a route that ascends more than 4,300 feet, in 1:10:42, nearly five minutes faster than Brandt-Sorenson.
And the day before Mandeville, Gaimon took Brandt-Sorenson’s KOM for the locally famous Trash Truck Hill, located in Griffith Park near the Los Angeles Zoo, climbing the short but painful grade averaging 578 watts, and more than 20 mph, for 2:07.
For these, and all of his recent KOMs, Gaimon is still representing the Cannondale-Drapac squad —wearing the kit and using all the team gear. “I’m still with the team through the end of the year,” he says. “I’ve essentially been on a paid vacation for months now. It’s been rad.”
When asked why he spent his first month as a retired pro cyclist wresting KOMs away from a rider he’s never met, Gaimon laughs.
“Part of it is that I need a reason not to get fat,” he says. “I don’t think I have it in me to go to local races next year, so this is perfect. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to train for KOMs. Right now, I still have this world-class 20-minute power-to-weight ratio. It’s going to go away and I have to make peace with it. So I’m going to have fun with it while it lasts.”
Gaimon admits that he’s already ticked off most of the big climbs on his to-do list, but he’s still got a few KOMs he wants to nail down — not all of them owned by Brandt-Sorenson.
Topping the list is a trip down to northern San Diego County to try and take the KOM for Palomar Mountain presently owned by Chris Horner. “Chris and I never got along,” says Gaimon. “I think he got away with some stuff. I think he was doing some stuff that wasn’t completely upright. And last year he came back into Continental racing with an attitude that was offensive and it was fun to beat him. It would be fun to beat him again.”
Santa Barbara’s marquee climb of Gibraltar Road is not on Gaimon’s bucket list. “I was there the day that KOM was set and I know I can’t touch that one,” he says, referring to Peter Stetina’s performance at the 2016 Amgen Tour of California summit finish. (Stage winner Julian Alaphillipe, who beat Stetina by 15 seconds that day, is not on Strava.)
Also off the list is the KOM for Tucson’s fabled Mount Lemmon, presently owned by Tom Danielson, whom Gaimon has defended in recent months. “Putting aside a bunch of complicating issues, I just know I can’t beat Tommy’s time on that one,” he says. “I don’t really want to go after any of Tommy’s KOMs.”
Gaimon isn’t taking his quest too seriously — “I mean, there’s no way I’m going to get on a plane to go after one,” he says — but he’s surprised how enjoyable it’s been.
“I’m almost embarrassed to admit how excited I am to upload the files after these rides,” he says. “But for years, I rode these same climbs doing workouts my coaches gave me. I’d do a couple 20-minute efforts and then sit up a quarter-mile from the top. Now I can just smash it like everyone else, and it’s fun.”
One thing that has surprised Gaimon is the reaction on social media to his assault on Brandt Sorenson’s KOMs.
“I got more positive feedback on social and more media interest in the 24 hours after taking the Mandeville KOM than I did last March after I finished 11th in the Criterium International,” he notes. (We do not pause in our conversation to deconstruct how messed up that is.)
“I don’t think I’d keep going after these KOMs if people weren’t responding. On one level, I don’t give a shit — he’s a chump and I know I can beat him. But it’s resonating and can see it means something to people.”
And what would Gaimon say to Brant Sorenson if he ran into him on the road?
“Oh boy, I don’t know” says Gaimon. “I kind of feel sorry for him — you’ve got to have some kind of a personality disorder to justify doping to get digital KOMs. But I guess I’d tell him, ‘You’re not special. And you had to cheat to rule this pathetic little kingdom.’”
About the author
Peter Flax, the former editor in chief at Bicycling magazine, presently works as features editor at The Hollywood Reporter. He is the proud owner of a Strava KOM on the Jersey Shore.
This article was originally published as a first-look exclusive for VeloClub Insider members. Find out more about VeloClub here.