Culture

Phil Gaimon Journal: ‘Tis but a scratch

American Phil Gaimon writes about the emotions of leaving Garmin-Sharp, and the WorldTour, to ride for Continental team Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies

As folks start thinking about cyclocross treads and winter clothing, some of us roadies still have work to do. I’m off to the Tour of Beijing, and then I finish my season at Japan Cup the following week.

Japan Cup will be my last race in argyle. Obviously, as a professional cyclist, I want to race at the highest level, so the main goal of the year was to stay with Slipstream, and the secondary goal was to at least stay in the WorldTour. I suppose my dreams of winning the Tour de France just took a small hit, but I won’t give up. Like the black knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” who has his arm chopped off, but insists “’Tis but a scratch!”

What happened? Well, I did what I’ve seen a hundred guys screw up, where you assume your job is safe, you don’t look around or talk to other teams, you’re caught up in a crazy whirlwind of bike races, and then something happens and suddenly it’s too late. The thing that happened in this case was a merger, which meant one less team at the WorldTour level, a handful of spots on Slipstream handed over to dudes from Cannondale, and fewer jobs available overall. I didn’t have quite enough time in the WorldTour to rack up results, show my value to teams, and make contacts in the right places.

I’m bummed about losing my spot in the big leagues. I was happy to get a chance, but after performing well and missing out, it seems like maybe I never had one to begin with. Mentally, it would be much easier to fail because I actually failed, rather than being the victim of bigger forces and a shrinking sport.

All you can do in life is make the most of the opportunities you have and hope it works out, and I know I did my part. I won a race, I learned how to survive cobblestones and snow, how to control a race for my team, how to be strong from January to October. I made a lot of progress on the powermeter and in the pack, so I know I’m not one of those old guys who needs to just hang it up, but can’t see the forest for the trees. Alex Howes put my car in his garage in Girona for the winter, there’s a closet full of my stuff at Tom Danielson’s house, and I’m pretty sure I owe Nate Brown a coffee. I’m going back to tie up those loose ends some day, and someone else will pay for the plane ticket (economy is fine).

I’ll always remember the mobs yelling for autographs and photos when I was in the yellow (but it was actually orange) jersey at San Luis, the grin from Danielson when he looked down from the podium after winning a stage in Utah to see me and Alex Howes yelling in the crowd of photographers, and the hug from Alex after he won the Pro Challenge stage in Denver.

It took a lot of years to figure out all the little things it takes to win, to find the determination and make the sacrifices I needed to get to Europe. I earned a seat in a room full of guys who’d all figured that out and perfected it, champions who’ve won some of the biggest races in the world. I got to know them as humans: what makes them tick, how they act. At times, I even got to feel like we were peers. You wouldn’t believe how great it was to be in that room.

I’ll bring that feeling and those lessons into the rest of my life, but especially in 2015. I’ll be riding for Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, and I’m excited about it. Sure, it’s not a WorldTour team, but it’s a team I would have cried for joy to ride for just a couple years ago, and there’s a ton of upside. The life of a low man in the WorldTour is tough: lots of time on the road, lots of race days and events, but the pay isn’t too different from the guys at the top of the continental teams.

Next year, my race schedule will be more predictable, I can focus more on races that suit me, and I’ll be training at home, so I probably won’t miss my fiance’s birthday, or my friends’ weddings. I have a lot of friends in Europe now, but I feel very at home and comfortable in the American peloton. I know most of the guys on Optum really well, and when Brad Huff wants to show me something vulgar next year, he can just walk into my hotel room, rather than send a dirty text message.

For a decade, my experience of bike racing was getting in the car, eating rice or oatmeal out of a Tupperware, pinning my race numbers in a camp chair, and ripping it up for $200 in prize money. As cool as it was to race on TV and sign autographs at the finish, I also missed how it used to be. Optum is going to be a great mix of comfortable surroundings and great friends, but with lots of opportunities to kick ass in bigger races while I chase a 2016 return to Europe.

Off to China now, then Japan, followed by a well-earned vacation. Espresso or cortado, Nate Brown? I won’t forget.