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The following is an excerpt from ‘Draft animals: Living the pro cycling dream (once in a while)’ by Phil Gaimon, an account of his professional cycling career. In the book, published last week, Gaimon pulls back the curtain on WorldTour racing, taking listeners along for two seasons spent competing in Europe, covering everything from rabid, water-bottle-stealing Belgian fans, to contract renewals, to riding in poisonous smog, to making friends in a sport plagued by doping. The chapter below takes place in Spring 2016, during the second of Gaimon’s two one-year stints with the Slipstream Sports organization. The book is available from Penguin Random House.
When the team finally sent me to Critèrium International, a hilly stage race that suited me, I covered breakaways all day and still finished 11th on the final stage and the overall GC. But it wasn’t enough to earn a start at the Tour of the Basque Country the next week, so I headed back to Girona to train for the Ardennes Classics. On the list for Amstel Gold and reserve for Flèche and Liège, I sprinted up short climbs, visualizing myself delivering Mike Woods and Alex Howes to the front of the pack with 1km to go. Then I got a phone call — the team needed me at Paris-Roubaix. In 48 hours.
Here’s the thing about Paris-Roubaix: It would be an honor to line up at such a historic race, and I was excited for it, but sending a climber to Roubaix is sort of an insult. It’s the equivalent of benching a baseball player (if the bench is painful and 260 kilometers long), or putting a draft animal out to pasture. Half of our sprinters were sick, and [Cannondale team manager] Jonathan Vaughters would be hit with a 5,000-euro fine from the UCI if he didn’t start a full team, so when I finally got the call for a race I’d dreamed of as a teenager, it wasn’t because I was ready and they needed me. It was more of a booty call, like when a douchebag strikes out at the bar and just wants someone to come over (“Yo! You awake?”).
Well, I was awake, leaving Girona with just a backpack containing my passport, one set of race clothes, spare underwear, a T-shirt, and a bar of dark chocolate. My teammates felt bad for me when I arrived, but they patted me on the back for having the guts, and the media loved the story of my last-minute call-up, starting a #prayforphil campaign on Twitter (someone compared it to losing my virginity to Ron Jeremy). There was no time to try out the Roubaix-specific bike or preview the cobblestone sectors, but let’s not pretend that one ride would have made me any more prepared. In fact, you could argue that it would spoil the surprise. Confession: That night, I still imagined myself winning.
I teased the guys as they taped their knuckles before the race, like boxers getting ready for a fight, some puffing prescription asthma inhalers or taking Advil like it would make a difference. Wouter Wippert and Ryan Mullen had been targeting this race, and they were glad I was there to help everyone relax, but even I got nervous when Wegelius told me to make the early break.
The breakaway is a tall order when a hundred guys are fighting to get there, but guess what? This climber fucking did it. I fought for the front and read the attacks, and I even got on TV if anyone in the States happened to be awake at 3 a.m. Then the break got caught, and the rest of my day was a perfect metaphor for my racing career — if you’re not in the top 20 going into a cobblestone section, you’re just part of a mile-long line of shrapnel. Someone crashes, you slam your brakes, work your way around them, and catch up to the front guys just as the next cobbles start, so you can get stuck behind crashes again. You repeat this process until you can’t see the front anymore, and soon you’re just riding as hard as you can, dodging drunk fans in the streets while team cars work their way around you.
If you’re me, your seat slipped when you hit a pothole five minutes into the race, so your balance is off and your muscles are cramping from a tweaked position. You’re also cross-eyed from an hour in the breakaway, you’ve never ripped a turn on that bike (or the Roubaix-specific wheels and tires), and you weren’t even supposed to be there that day, so of course you slide into a hay bale in a dusty turn.
Fabian Cancellara crashed twice that day, so I didn’t feel bad. If you don’t bleed a little at Roubaix, you’re not getting the full experience. I never figured out what it was, between tire pressure, rim width, and just being in my own head, that made me crash so much in 2015, but my skin was mostly intact with Cannondale, and I felt great on descents.
Video: Racing and crashing at 2016 Paris-Roubaix
I kept riding, just hoping to finish, until I realized I’d missed one of the 325,987,239,842 turns and I’d gone off course somehow. I was about to ask a stranger for directions when the team car happened to pass me on the way to the feed zone.
I’d never felt more defeated than when I climbed into that backseat, but the soigneurs cheered me up. They said they were pounding the roof, yelling “Legend!” when they heard my name in the break — a reminder that friends were surely cheering and toasting me at McKiernan’s Irish Pub in Girona, and what more can you really ask for? They posted a photo of me safely in the backseat with a Coke, captioned “He’s alive! #prayforphil.”
My flight home wasn’t first class, but the team did spring for a seat with extra legroom, and I ate the whole bar of dark chocolate.
I was still beat up from Roubaix a few days later when I pinned my number for Brabantse Pijl, the warm-up race for the Ardennes Classics. It was pouring rain, so to stay safe for Amstel at the end of the week, I didn’t go crazy fighting for wheels. I rode support for my teammates and came out of the pack with 20km to go, cruising in to the finish. Nate Brown lost the front group 10km after I did, and when the team car passed him, they said he had my spot for Amstel.
I couldn’t believe they’d make the decision to take me out of my first Ardennes Classic during a race, without even talking to me first, and I begged Johnny Weltz to go to bat for me, but he said the decision had already been made, and he was sorry.
“Dreams don’t come true, eh?” he said. I swear he looked me in the eye and said those words. A kindergarten teacher would gasp.
Adding insult to . . . well, ten other insults, I was still on the reserve list for the Ardennes, so rather than letting me go back “home” to Girona, the team had me stay at the hotel for a week in Gent, Belgium, in case someone got sick.
It’s a good thing Joanna and I weren’t together anymore, because bouncing around Europe with no say in your schedule and no plan makes it hard to be an adult, and it certainly would have strained a relationship. But as a single dude, my week in Belgium was a great opportunity to explore and catch up on training. I knocked out six hours every day, enjoying the steep hills and bike paths, crossing the border into the Netherlands, and stopping for coffee in Maastricht.
One afternoon, the bike path led to a restaurant by a river. It looked familiar, with a waterwheel at the entrance, so I stopped and called my mom.
“Remember when we rode bikes in the Netherlands? That windy day when I was a kid? Where was that exactly?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Somewhere near Maastricht.”
I’m sure there are lots of restaurants with waterwheels around there and there’s no way of knowing if this was the same place, but it’s not important. What matters is that the yellow pancake was delicious, and this time, I didn’t need a push to make it back through the headwind.
They dropped me off at the airport as some teams were arriving for Amstel, so I sat with my bags as a parade of pro cyclists came in, said hi, and then asked why I was headed the other way. It was a pro cyclist’s walk of shame and a dark day for my career, but my agent cheered me up, offering his guest room in L.A. for a few weeks since my house was rented out. I spent time with him, recharged, and harnessed my anger for three brutal weeks in Big Bear in May, training specifically for the Amgen Tour of California’s time trial, and the big mountaintop finish on Gibraltar, where I’d first been humbled by Mike Woods.