Culture

Phil Gaimon Journal: Good legs and bad omens

Phil Gaimon opens his season at the Volta ao Algarve, getting acquainted with stray cats around town and launching attacks out on the road

I’m currently seated on a small sofa at an apartment in Vilamoura, Portugal, and my teammates/roommates are trying to figure out where the purring sound is coming from. They have a problem with stray cats around here, and we think there might be one inside the apartment. This is partly because I lured a cat into Ryan Anderson’s room the other day with some “Mountain Berry” Clif Blocks (non-caf) as a prank, and maybe someone put a cat in the cupboard as joke? It’s like a cat opera at night, with all the purring. Someone needs to translate reruns of “The Price is Right,” because Bob Barker will solve this. Will anyone get that joke?

Optum Pro Cycling just wrapped up our first race of the year, the Volta Algarve, in the Algarve region (duh) of Portugal, a five-day stage race. It usually takes a few races to get in shape, and about 10 months to learn how to work together as a team (and then half the team changes and you start from scratch), but we had a pretty good showing, and rode well together.

The field was probably the hardest we’ll face this season, with solid rosters from some of the top teams, but it’s still February, so most of the Euro pros aren’t in full Euro pro speed (or motivation), and my teammates and I were very much in the bike race. I attacked with 25k to go in the first climbing day, and was caught with around 10k to go. It was one of those attacks that if the big teams had hesitated, we would have stuck it, and I’d have looked like a genius. But it didn’t, so I lost 90 seconds on the GC, and I’m still kicking myself. You get so few chances. Do you gamble it on a win that might never come, or be conservative to maybe get top-10 or 15 overall? I ended up trying a bit of everything this week, but top-15 sounds pretty good now that it’s finished and I was top-50 or something (even if I wanted to look at the results, there’s no wifi at the apartment).

There was one more climbing day, and my goal this time was to wait until the hitters went. That sort of patience is tough. You always think “If I go now, they’ll probably give me a decent leash, because the who the hell am I?”

But that backfired on me before, so I stayed in the field and saved my energy this time. Then the hitters went on the final climb. I rode away from some of them, and watched as the other ones rode away from me. I finished 15th, pretty good for where my form is at the moment. Teammate Mike Woods was fifth. Like, only four dudes were ahead of him. So there’s a top-15. Richie Porte did a thing where he pulled on the front for about 15k, chasing down everyone who tried to attack in the valley. I thought with all that work, Richie would go backwards on the last climb like he’d pulled a parachute. But he won. So if you’re gambling on the Tour de France, bet on that guy. And cut me 10% for the insider tip.

The last stage was for the sprinters, but I felt pretty good, despite starting the day with blood and feathers in my chain and cassette, from a bird that hit my bike on the roof racks (I also found a dead blackbird in one of the hotel rooms this week. I’m happy that I don’t believe in bad omens, although I do believe in Alfred Hitchcock). We were working for our sprinter, Eric Young. The plan was for me and [Tom] Zirbel to take the front and lead into the last turn of the race, with around 4.5k to go, and then our sprinters would have to fight from there. I was next to Guillaume [Boivin] at the start, and he hit me with a dose of reality: “Let’s be honest. You guys won’t be there with 6k to go, same way I’m not there on the big climbs.”

It hurt my feelings a little bit, but he made a valid point, if you consider my skinny climber body, and what I’ve been able to contribute to lead outs historically (very little). You see, it’s scary near the end of a sprint day. It’s more like a hockey match, without the referees. We were talking about it after the stage.

“I wish we could have just hit ‘Pause’ for a minute,” said Jesse Anthony (who might have watched too much “Saved by the Bell” growing up), “at that left turn with 15k to go, where some guys went the long way around the roundabout to move up, some went inside the turn on the wrong side of the road, others bunny-hopped the median at full speed. There were just riders everywhere, volunteers, cops, spectators with their cellphones out.”

He didn’t mention the stray cats watching, but it was a crazy scene that happens all the time. Nobody even crashed.

Maybe it was Guillaume’s pessimistic pep talk, but Zirbel and I were on the front with 5k to go (I might have looked like I knew what I was doing), dropping off our fast guys in pretty good position for the finale. Of course, things got a little nasty in the last 4k, with more roundabouts, poles separating the bike lane and the road, short cobblestoned speed bumps, and large men named André Greipel. I think if he just stands up and puts his weight on the pedals, he’s going 50 mph.

I went to the back, which is generally a happy place that close to the end. And then as the pack was blasting through a roundabout with 800m to go, a local team flew underneath me, full sprint, with two sets of handlebars tickling my hip as they went by. I understand the urge to sprint at 800m to go, except we were at least 80 guys back, and Greipel probably crossed the line 5 seconds ago, so maybe this isn’t the time to take risks in a roundabout. But whatever. “No crashes, no apologies” is my motto. Also, “Have your pets spayed or neutered.”

We decided that the stray cat was outside all along. Maybe he smelled the dead bird in my chain.