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by Peter Flax
July 1, 2018
Photography by Laura Fletcher
In one of the most intensely followed gran fondo battles of the 21st Century, Phil Gaimon has defeated Fabian Cancellara on a Swiss climb where nothing but possibly pride was on the line. In an interview that might be called “exclusive” in another context, Gaimon detailed his triumph in southwestern Switzerland with sheepish humor.
“I dropped him and he ate the cookie I gave him,” observes Gaimon. “So I guess that’s a win.”
Recounting his morning on the road at the Chasing Cancellara fondo, which began in the Swiss town of Aigle, Gaimon spent much of the ride in the company of his friend (and Katusha-Alpecin pro) Nathan Haas. “I told everyone that Nathan was there as my domestique,” Gaimon says. “But I suspect he was there for the food and drink.”
Gaimon said that many, but not all, of the ride participants wished him luck against Cancellara on the Col du Pillon hill climb segment. There was one particularly enthusiastic fan who was there in a Garmin-Sharp kit. “Once I got to talking to that guy, he told me that it was literally my old kit,” says Gaimon, noting how the guy had purchased the apparel on eBay at the end of that season with the WorldTour squad. “That was kind of cool, and kind of weird.”
Gaimon and Haas got to the bottom of the Col du Pillon, the 6.9 km climb where the American and Cancellara would contest their now-friendly grudge match, and waited for the former Swiss pro to arrive. “He was relaxed and talking with participants on this ride and having fun,” says Gaimon. “In every way he had been managing expectations about the race.”
And then it was on.
Gaimon says that he went to the front at the start of the climb. “I’d estimate I was going at 80% at the start,” he says. “And Fabian was just sitting on my wheel.”
Around the midpoint of the climb, the road flattened out for a kilometer or so, and Gaimon says that Cancellara came around him and got in the drops. “That was a funny moment for me,” Gaimon says. “I felt like a fanboy for a minute. It was just like riding with the guy I’ve seen on TV, looking like there’s some shit about to go down.”
With perhaps a mile to go to the summit, the gradient kicked up. “I gave it everything right there,” says Gaimon. “He cracked pretty quickly. He showed that he’s a retired pro just like he said he was.”
Gaimon said that originally had hoped for a Strava KOM for the climb, but wound up finishing more than two minutes off that mark. “We just didn’t ride the bottom hard enough,” he says.
Cancellara arrived at the top a couple of minutes after Gaimon, and the two former pros took some photos and did interviews for the upcoming YouTube episode that Gaimon is producing. Gaimon says that Cancellara was gracious and lighthearted. “He was laughing and smiling,” notes Gaimon. “You could tell he really didn’t care that he lost.”
Looking back on the whole odd episode, Gaimon says he’s happy at how things turned out. He reached his goal of raising $20,000 for charity. He won the climb. And he has video of Fabian Cancellara eating a cookie that he brought to Switzerland. “He took a couple bites and said that it was good but too big to finish,” Gaimon says. “And then after he wandered away, Cancellara’s team destroyed the rest of the cookies.”
But perhaps most gratifying to Gaimon was getting the opportunity to show a different side to European cycling fans who really didn’t know him before his book excerpt, suggesting Cancellara had used a motor to win the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix in 2010, became clickbait news last fall.
“There were some people who came to first know me as just a mudslinging piece of shit,” Gaimon says. “This was a chance to correct that.”
And Cancellara, who turned an acrimonious situation into an opportunity to promote his new gran fondo series, also seemed to get what he wanted out of the episode. “It was a beautiful course,” says Gaimon. “Cows wearing bells and wonderful scenery. It was a lot less racy and more civilized than many European fondos.
Gaimon says his team will hustle to produce the footage they shot on Sunday and publish it within a day or two. “I think people who watch it will be entertained,” he says. “it was like a pay-per-view fight that no one took too seriously.”