Commentary: Reviewing Gaimon’s ‘Draft Animals’ book

By now you are probably aware of the latest maelstrom to envelop pro cycling, a blustery gale that I have dubbed “Hurricane Phil.” Two weeks ago retired pro (and former VeloNews diarist) Phil Gaimon published his latest memoir, “Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once In A While).” The 320-page book chronicles the back half of his pro cycling career, which came to a close in 2016. For two of those years he rode for Slipstream Sports’s WorldTour team.

Full disclosure: I like Phil Gaimon. I’ve had him as a guest on the VeloNews Podcast, and I genuinely appreciate his take on pro cycling. In my opinion, his book is worth reading, however it has several fundamental problems—namely the repeated printing of rumor and second-hand knowledge—that made me squirm. But perhaps that is the point.

The book is an unvarnished and highly opinionated account of Gaimon’s life in cycling’s trenches, as the sport struggles to rebound from the go-go doping era. Cycling is in full decline during Gaimon’s tome, as teams battle over a shrinking pool of sponsorship dollars, and riders and staff worry about their jobs. Money is sparse. Almost everyone — riders, team directors, managers — appears to be consumed by their own self-interests.

Throughout his journey Gaimon battles with doping’s lingering specter. He is vehemently anti-doping, and calls out those riders who he believes to be suspicious. Yet as he progresses through cycling’s ranks, he befriends Tom Danielson, Thomas Dekker, and other admitted cheats. As the story progresses, Gaimon wrestles with the ethical challenges posed by these relationships.

Bad behavior abounds throughout the story, and Gaimon is not afraid to name names and sling mud. Few figures in this book escaped unsullied, and Gaimon spends page after page calling out various riders and figureheads for their supposed misdeeds. One might suggest an alternative title for the book: “Draft Animals: Phil Gaimon Nukes His Cycling Relationships.” Indeed, Gaimon’s book has blown into the cycling space like a hurricane.

Yet the storm clouds brewing around Gaimon’s books have less to do with the mudslinging and are instead due to his inclusion of unverified rumors throughout his story. Gaimon is not shy to print hearsay. In fact, much of the book reads like a literary version of the loose talk you might have with your riding buddies after that third IPA.

As you may know, the segment that has Gaimon in hot water involves Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara, who Gaimon believes used a concealed motor to win races during his career. The section in question reads:

“[Cancellara had] dominated time trials and one-day races with such ease that conspiracy theorists suggested a hidden motor in his bike. I dismissed it until I heard his former teammates talk about certain events where Cancellara had his own mechanic, his bike was kept separate from everyone else’s, and he rode away from a “who’s who” of dopers.”

Last week Cyclingnews asked newly-elected UCI President David Lappartient to comment on the book’s Cancellara segment, and Lappartient’s answer (“Of course, I heard all the rumors, like everybody, and I just want to know exactly. So we will investigate, that is our job,”) placed Gaimon and his book squarely in the crosshairs. Hurricane Phil began to churn, and within two days, Gaimon and his book were splashed across the web. On Monday, Cancellara’s lawyer demanded Gaimon’s publisher, Penguin books, stop its distribution. Gaimon has subsequently issued a statement standing by his book, arguing that “I repeated a rumor that’s well-documented and many years old, and I present it as such. I stand by my opinion, but it’s exactly that …”

That may be true, but Gaimon so skillfully blends his opinions with his personal revelations, that it is sometimes challenging to separate the two. Gaimon passes the Cancellara comment off as opinion, yet he asserts that former teammates told him that Cancellara kept his bicycle to himself. It’s this blend of rumor and firsthand experience that can muddy the waters. And Gaimon regularly uses this blend of what is know and what is not to aggressively flame those riders he sees as enemies.

“I bet [Chris Horner] was off the good stuff by 2013, but the anti-doping system still had some loopholes, and the rumor is that he spent the first half of the year ‘injured’ pumping himself full of cortisone,” Gaimon writes.

While Gaimon may pass these comments off as mere opinion, to the reader, they come across as informed accusations. And there are many, many cyclists who feel the sting of his barbs: Chris Horner, Jens Voigt, Andy Schleck, David Millar, Fred Rodriguez, Ryder Hesjedal, Luca Paolini, George Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, and a long list of others.

As an editor and reporter, I recoiled in horror after reading each besmirching comment. Yes, many of these comments reflect the brand of chatter that even we cycling journalists engage in. To print them, however, is enough to make a defamation lawyer faint. My hope is that Gaimon’s publisher, Penguin Books, has a robust legal department.

As a cycling fan, I was completely captivated by Gaimon’s book, and I churned through all 320 pages in one day. Yes, there is nastiness and rumormongering, and many of Gaimon’s musings come across as petty. But he also has tremendous insight into this very strange period in the sport’s history and recounts the emotional and psychological fallout from each success and failure.

Gaimon is at his best when he details the frustrating and secretive world that he saw firsthand. Jonathan Vaughters verbally promises him $70,000 to ride for Cannondale, yet when the offer arrives, it is $65,000. Andrew Talansky prefers children’s Clif Bar products to the adult version, and Gaimon must ride back to the team car to fetch more of the kid snacks. Wealthier riders pick up Gaimon’s coffee and lunch tabs, knowing full well that his entry-level salary barely covers his expenses.

Whether or not Gaimon’s book will draw further legal ire is yet to be seen. While reading it, I could not help but be reminded of the off-the-cuff conversations about Lance Armstrong and the sport’s doping that went on between riders and journalists 10 years ago. Nobody dared print those chats, of course, fearing lawsuits and a loss of access. Because of this, there was a huge chasm between cycling’s daily discourse, and what ended up in books and magazines. Chalk it up to omerta or the sport’s insular nature, but cycling has maintained a culture of silence.

While it is fraught in many ways, “Draft Animals” is a blatant attack on cycling’s culture of silence. Hurricane Phil pontificates, slings mud, and shoots from the hip. And we should probably listen to what he has to say, albeit with an IPA or three.