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Phil Gaimon Journal: Another round of the Tour de Phil

I had some ups and downs in my 2014 with Garmin-Sharp. Being strong enough to race in Europe is half the battle (maybe three-fifths), but learning how to navigate the pack, control the breakaways, and help the leaders win big races is a process. It’s not rocket science, but it takes time. By the second half of the year, I’d carved out a role for myself on the team, and proved that I could be a factor in the big races.

Cycling is a business (at least, for those of us making a living at it), so while I was bummed that I wasn’t re-hired for 2015, that’s the way the cookie crumbles. I didn’t take it personal, and I blamed myself. (You know how I could have kept my job? I could have won five races.) So in the fall of 2014, despite the end of my contract, I trained hard for the upcoming WorldTour race in Beijing, and Japan Cup the week after. Instead of showing up unmotivated and unfit (which is very temping in October when you know you’re off the team), I brought a good attitude, made all the front splits, and played a role in several stage wins. My teammates told me that I’d learned in one season what takes some guys two or three (although that was after a few end-of-season beers, and one teammate — I won’t say who — also insisted that the McDonalds we had at the Tokyo airport was the best food he’d ever tasted). Jonathan Vaughters noticed, and said I should continue to train hard, because he’d do his best to have me back if a spot opened up.

Optum provided a great home for me this year. Going from a WorldTour team to a Continental team, you do feel a difference in budget, and I always jokingly pointed it out to my teammates. “On Garmin, we got an hour massage and had five kinds of cereal” or “wait, you guys have to wipe your own butt on this team?” But overall, management, staff, and equipment were all as pro as it gets, so the adjustment was easy. I felt right at home, and was glad to be on a bus with a bunch of old and new friends. Also, THEY MADE ME A COOKIE BIKE.

With Optum, I was able to apply what I’d learned in Europe. At Volta Algarve, I lost time after attacking in a hilly finale, but still finished 20th overall. At California, I managed 14th. In the past, I always wussed out when bumping started, but a year in Europe got me over that, and I came around a lot of lead-out trains this season, dropping our sprinters off in good position.

When Utah began, I was ready. I attacked on the finishing circuits in early stages and climbed at the front, but I had some trouble at home that began to wear on me, and it only got worse, as my dad went from healthy to not feeling well, to a bad cancer diagnosis over just a few weeks. I thought I could wait until the races were over to go home and visit, but I wasn’t sleeping much between stages, and my head wasn’t in it.

Kiel Reijnen rode up to me during a stage at Colorado and said he was sorry to hear about my dad, and I had to hold back tears. I ate one of those Clif Organic dark chocolate/almond bars, thinking maybe if someone saw me, I could just say I was really emotional because this snack is so damn delicious. Then I stopped at the feed zone and booked the next flight home. It was tough, but I got lots of love and support from the team, and I’ll never forget that (although they still refused to wipe my butt for me).

Fortunately, my next year is still looking up, as Vaughters still sent over that contract. At the lower levels of cycling — a world of folding teams and one-year contracts — it feels like you’re always one twisted ankle away from flipping burgers (or one win from the big time), but at the top, they look at your body of work. They don’t care so much whether you got 8th or 14th (or went home to sit with your folks at a hospital). They want to know who you are and what you’re capable of, that you’re physically able to do the job, that you know how, that you’re a team player, a hard worker — bonus if you can crack a joke on the bus and your teammates or sponsors like having you around.

Vaughters knows what he’ll get from me because I already showed him, and I’m excited to exceed those expectations now that I have more experience under my belt. Of course, that didn’t stop him from sending me on another late-season grand tour simulation, lovingly (hatingly?) named the “Tour de Phil.” The idea was that I ride really hard, about five hours a day, for three weeks (with two rest days), simulating the wattage demands of a grand tour, which will help my legs adapt to the demands of the longer races I’ll face next year. It sounds crazy, but it worked last time.

By the end of stage 10, I was starting to enjoy the Tour de Phil. I was eating everything in sight, going from bed to bike to bed, and I’d been having those great days where it’s hard to go less than 300 watts. Then the morning of stage 11, my dad passed away, so instead of getting on my bike and heading to the canyons in Malibu, I got into my car and headed to the airport.

On my way to dad’s funeral, I noticed that my bike had two flat tires. They say these things come in threes.

So I DNFed the Tour de Phil, and I start my offseason with time to focus on family before I put it all into bikes again. If racing has taught me anything, it’s how to push through a rough time, and look forward to better days. One good thing about a fake grand tour: No one cares, and you can try it again later.

It is sad to leave for Europe when the sponsorship scene in the U.S. is looking ugly again, with fewer teams and fewer jobs. I hope it turns around, because there are lots of great humans and bike racers here, men and women. They all deserve a longer massage. And a clean butt.

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