Book Excerpt: You can make lemonade out of road rash
In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Garmin-Sharp's Phil Gaimon reflects on the day Johnny Sundt taught him a lesson at Univest
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Velo magazine columnist Phil Gaimon earned a one-year contract to ride for Team Garmin-Sharp after several seasons gutting it out on U.S. domestic teams like Bissell, Kenda, and Jelly Belly. Gaimon has written a new book, Pro Cycling on $10 a Day, which is a guide and a warning to aspiring racers who dream of joining the pro ranks. His book chronicles the racer’s daily lot of blood-soaked bandages, sleazy motels, cheap food, and overflowing toilets. But it also celebrates the true beauty of the sport and the worth of the journey. The following is an excerpt from chapter 2.
Saran Wrap makes a good bandage
With my form finally coming around, I lined up with my teammates for the last race of the summer — the Tour de Toona in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Toona was one of the most prestigious NRC races at the time, and its hard climbs suited me well. Plus, the race was at low altitude, so the Colorado-based climbers didn’t have their usual advantage.
We members of the Sakonnet team were true amateurs, and Toona was no exception for us. We washed and repaired our own bikes, and we never had massage or paid feeders like the spoiled pro teams. Instead, we had Barb and Tom, a couple from Florida who were friends of Basil. They were in the area on vacation and had volunteered to drive us around and hand out bottles in the feed zone. Some vacation, huh?
Not that the team had many bottles to hand out in the first place. After each stage, we’d sneak over to the other teams’ trailers and steal the empties from their trash. They threw them out after one use, so we washed out their leftovers. No big deal, but I couldn’t imagine that happening with some of the spoiled kids on VMG the previous year.
We lost almost two minutes in the opening team time trial, but I rode well after that, the only amateur or Under 23 making small selections over the climbs. With no mountaintop finishes that year, chase groups always made it back to us, and we’d race for the stage win from groups of 30. Healthnet’s sprinter, Karl Menzies, barely made it over the climbs, but he had enough left to kill everyone at the finish.
I started at the back of the field for the Blue Knob climb on the last road race stage but flew through the peloton into a front group of 10 riders. It looked like the climbers would finally stay away, and I’d get my long-awaited top 10.
My group rode hard on the descent, trying to stay away from Karl and the other sprinters, and I was pegged at the back when the rider in front of me panicked in a fast corner and overcorrected. We were down before we knew it, sliding on gravel for what seemed like hours, until we finally tumbled into the guardrail. My bike’s frame was cracked into pieces, and the right side of my body was chewed to shreds.
My race was over, but the worst was yet to come. The ambulance pulled to a quick stop to check us out, and the drivers parked in the middle of the dangerous corner. When another group flew through the bend a few minutes later, three riders slammed into the back of the ambulance. Koschara had pulled over, and after begging the EMT to move, he ran up the hill to warn the next groups to slow down. There were tears in his eyes. Matt had been the man on the ground plenty of times when he was racing, but he found the helpless bystander role harder to handle.
I limped to Barb and Tom’s minivan and bled all over their seats on the way to our extended-stay hotel. By the time my teammates returned, I’d scraped the gravel out of my elbow and thigh, grimaced through a shower, and disinfected my wounds with various stinging chemicals. No amount of bandages in the world would have covered all the square footage I needed, so Matt helped me wrap myself in cellophane, which at least kept everything moist. When I packed my car, I grabbed close to a hundred of the team’s supply of lightly used water bottles. They wouldn’t need them for the crit the next day, and I had to go home with something.
I drove all the way back to Florida that night, 15 hours straight. Apart from gas, I stopped only once, at a Wal-Mart Supercenter for a cookie. You know how when you go to Wal-Mart, there’s always some lowlife with fresh stitches, black eyes, or facial wounds, and you try not to stare? That night, I was the guy with the limp and a right leg that looked like roadkill wrapped in plastic. Everyone stared.
You can make lemonade out of road rash
It was humid and over a hundred degrees in Florida that August, but I wore pants for a few weeks to keep my wounds covered. The crash took me off the bike for a while, forcing me to recover from the missing skin, a hard stage race, and a long summer. When I showed up at a small stage race in north Georgia the next month, my climbing legs from Toona were back with a vengeance. I was second overall going into the last stage, with two 40-mile laps and three long climbs each. I was only down by two seconds overall, but I attacked from the gun and stayed away to win by four minutes, despite a full Jittery Joe’s pro team chasing me all day. A year before, I’d begged that team for a contract, and their manager told me to do more NRCs. On the third lap, I saw an awful lot of guys in orange Jittery Joe’s jerseys on the side of the road, dropped from trying to catch me. I guess they hadn’t done enough NRC races.
Yelling is a tactic
It was a good sign for the legs to come back around, because the next weekend was Univest, the last race of the year. I expected to improve on my DNF record, until I woke up weak and nauseous the morning of the race, with a bad headache and phlegm everywhere. I knew from experience that even minor illnesses sap your fitness, so my heart sank as my hopes for the race went into the toilet, along with my dinner from the night before.
Not wanting to wake my teammates, I snuck outside and around the corner to a gas station, where I bought two sausage breakfast biscuits and a Coke, and walked around part of the finishing circuits for the stage. If we were still in the group after all the climbs, we’d get to race five 4-mile laps around town to the finish. When I got back to the house, the guys were up, so I joined them for oatmeal, and we headed out to the staging area.
Basil and Thurston had driven in from New York to watch the race from the team car. They were disappointed to see me coughing and pale, but they were glad I still wanted to start. My secret plan was to attack from the gun, make the early break, which usually got caught on the second of three climbs, and then hop into the car early when my job was done.
My first attack looked promising, and we had 20 seconds on the group when I went through the rotation behind Jonny Sundt, riding for Kelly Benefits. As we both drifted to the back, Timmy Duggan from Slipstream flew by with 10 guys behind him. We’d been caught and countered, and the new break was going away. With Sundt behind me, I sprinted ahead of the break we were in, trying to grab onto the back of Duggan’s group, but the two of us found ourselves in no-man’s-land between the break and the peloton.
I took a hard pull and flicked my elbow, asking Jonny for help.
“Fuck you! You pull us back there!” he replied. I kept pulling and didn’t say a word, but Jonny kept a constant barrage of insults coming, lashing me like a whip.
“Don’t you get us dropped from the break, you fucking idiot!”
I figured I must have messed up somehow for him to yell like that, so I managed to drag us across without Jonny’s help. After a little more reshuffling, the break of 11 was established with me, Jonny, Stefano Barberi from Toyota-United, John Fredy Parra from Tecos, Timmy Duggan and Will Frischkorn from Slipstream, and a handful of European riders.
The course was mostly flat at first, with lots of tight turns through Pennsylvania’s countryside, interrupted by three progressively harder King of the Mountain climbs (KOMs). As the rest of us kept the pace, Jonny and one of the Germans were battling for the sprinter jersey. The German was leading in the points, but he came off the pace on the first climb, and it looked like he held onto his team car to catch up to us.
On the second climb Sundt’s rival came off again, but this time, once Jonny had chased back, his director stopped the car and waited for the Germans to approach. He knew that if someone was watching, they wouldn’t hold onto the car again. The German didn’t finish the race, and Jonny got the green jersey.
After a couple hours in the wind, it was time for the field to bring us back for their sprinters. The lead moto approached with a time gap, and I was looking forward to hearing that we were almost caught so I could call it a day.
“Your lead is nine minutes,” he said.
My heart sank. The plan to make the early break and quit had backfired. The field had given up, and I was in for a long day.
Duggan went to the front on the third climb, shedding everyone but me, his teammate Frischkorn, and Parra. The four of us entered the finishing circuits with a massive lead, and when we made the first turn on the second lap, the whole peloton was standing there, pulled from the race, wondering who the skinny Sakonnet kid was. I made sure not to acknowledge them, to act like I knew what I was doing. Frischkorn attacked and easily stayed away for the win, and I was dropped on the final lap, cruising in alone for fourth and the Best Young Rider award. I was sure I’d get a pro contract from that effort.
After the stage, my result got me more chamois time at the press conference. I sat reluctantly beside Jonny Sundt, afraid to make eye contact after our interaction early in the race, but he was fine. Jonny’s rudeness wasn’t because he was actually angry, or even a bad guy. It was a tactic, and it earned him a free ride across to the break. He felt bad that I’d fallen for it, and he explained that I, too, could yell at less-experienced riders (he might have said “suckers”) to make them do my bidding. I’ve always appreciated the lesson. I woke up the next morning too weak to move, hit hard by the illness and the effort from the day before, but I knew that from then on, no matter how sick I felt, I’d always at least start the race.
Frischkorn’s Team Slipstream was the continuation of the TIAA-CREF development team, still run by Jonathan Vaughters and moving up the ranks fast. Vaughters was the first director to figure out that the doping era was over — he saw that teams with scandal and questionable riders were having trouble finding new sponsors — so he designed and marketed Slipstream around the idea of clean racing and internal testing. Other teams quickly followed suit, and in a way, pro cycling was rescued. I watched Frischkorn finish second (by a tire width) on a stage at the Tour de France the next summer.