Please enjoy this excerpt from Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro. In his hilarious debut book, pro cyclist Phil Gaimon tells the improbable story of his rise from plump kid to pro bike racer.
For stage 5 of the Tour of California, the organizers closed the Golden Gate Bridge for us to cross, and I relieved my bladder right over the side, checking an item off my bucket list. My moment soon ended, as we turned into a crosswind/tailwind and attacks started flying to establish the early break. I soon found myself at the back of the group, spinning my biggest gear as fast as I could. The race radio crackled in my ear: “krrrk. Three riders at 10 seconds. It’s Tyler Hamilton, Mancebo, and Jens Voigt. Need somebody up there. krrrk.”
There wasn’t anything I could do about that right now. Besides, at this speed, I knew the break would come right back. They were stronger than me, sure, but the guys attacking had the same gears I did, and it was physically impossible to maintain that pace in a 53×11. I put my head down and gave it all I could, just to stay in the group. The race radio crackled again. “krrrk. Three riders, now at 30 seconds. krrrk. Need somebody up there now. That’s going to be the break and we’re—.” I took my earpiece out before I heard the second krrrk. It wasn’t helping.
With the break gone, the smart move would have been to recognize that the plan had failed and sit in the group until I felt better, or at least take an easy day without digging myself into a hole, but I lacked the experience for that, and I still thought I needed to prove myself. The field slowed as we approached the first climb of the day, and the break still was only 45 seconds up the road, so I attacked. Astana was riding tempo, and that was the first time I actually saw Lance in person that week. Lance always rides at the front, and I hadn’t made it up there a whole lot.
I managed a 10-second lead before I came back. A failed attempt, but I was doing my job. That is, I was trying to do my job, but I was physically unable. Either way, Astana was offended and indignant at the perceived disrespect of attacking after the break was established. I was on the far right side of the road, and as each rider passed me (Lance and Levi included), he’d flick his rear wheel just enough to force me into the dirt, a gesture that says, “Fuck you for attacking without our permission.”
The snow-covered ground at the top of the climb was crowded with spectators, including one wearing a bee suit (for the Livestrong colors), wielding a bazooka-sized needle, with “EPO” written on the side, like “NASA” on a space shuttle. As he ran next to the field hollering at Lance, I watched the seven-time Tour de France winner shove him, sending the poor bee stumbling into the snow, antennaefirst. I was mostly impressed at Lance’s bike-handling.
The group stopped to pee in the next valley, allowing the gap to go out to the three leaders. I stopped beside Floyd Landis on the edge of the road. Shivering in our black Gore-Tex jackets, which we hadn’t taken off all week, we urinated into a cold puddle. He laughed. “This is the best part of the whole day. You’ve gotta enjoy the little things.”
“I hope you’re not talking about your dick,” I said. He’d walked into it. I sat in the group for the rest of the day and finally had my revenge on Astana for riding me into the dirt. They had four guys riding at the front, and we were nowhere near the finish, so the pace was relaxed. One of my teammates rode up to me and said he wanted to show me something. We slotted in at the front of the group, where he took a full water bottle and threw it as hard he could at a metal speed limit sign.
“DOOOONNNGGG,” the sign rang out, vibrating from the impact. The Kazakh riders flinched from the sound and looked around to see if there was a crash. My first bottle missed, but the second one nailed a stop sign. The leaders jumped again, but they’d seen the bottle this time, and fired back at us with Bond Villain-esque Eastern European scowls, which weren’t quite intimidating enough for us to stop. Other teams soon got into it, and Boonen sent one of his teammates back for more ammo (I mean bottles). Floyd was right about the little things.
The next morning I lined up at the front. If I couldn’t get a result and couldn’t be in the break, I would have to stand in front of the cameras to get on TV. Lance stood beside me, probably recognizing me from the day before. “What kind of brake pads are those?” he asked. I couldn’t figure out why he was talking to me.
“Uhh. SwissStops,” I replied, looking down to read the logo.
“Do they work all right in the rain? We’ve been going through these cork pads like crazy.”
I was sore from fatigue, with my nose running from the cold, and tired from coughing all night. Brake pads weren’t in my top 50 concerns. “They’re fine,” I choked, as the start counted down.
I’d like to apologize to my readers and cycling fans everywhere. This was my opportunity to punch Lance right in the testicle, and I regret letting it slip by.
Once again, our goal was to make the early breakaway, and attacks flew early and often. Finally, three guys went up the road with a small gap, and I was about to go across when Levi cruised up to the front.
“Who has to pee?” he asked.
Knowing that the pee stop was the traditional nail in the coffin for anyone hoping to make the early break, I asked Levi if it was okay for me to go across while he took a nature break. “We’ve missed it every day,” I explained. “Somebody’s going to get fired if we do it again.”
As he pulled over, Levi laughed and told me to go for it. At least he recognized that we also had a job to do.
Five minutes later, some of the riders had managed to pee, the field had shattered, Levi was back in the group after a hard effort, and the breakaway had been absorbed. I’d tried to go across solo, but Tom Danielson hadn’t overheard my conversation with Levi, so he went to the front and chased me down out of principle.
“Didn’t you see Levi pull over? Do you know how disrespectful that is?” he asked. It was funny how all the rules for respect favored the big teams. I didn’t feel like taking a lashing from Danielson.
“Levi said I could bridge. You’re the one that made the field go hard with the yellow jersey stopped, instead of just letting me go. Now fuck off, Christian.” I called him the wrong name on purpose, pretending I thought he was Christian Vande Velde. My teammates and I had been doing that all week. I wish I could have raced in a sandwich-board sign that said “I make $166.66/month, so everyone give me a break.”
Thanks to Tom, the breakaway reshuffled, this time with Jelly Belly’s Matt Crane in the mix, so I’ll say we actually accomplished something that day. Crane had a pre-race ritual. On the way to the stage, he would go back to the bathroom in the RV and masturbate, and he wasn’t shy about it. Matt’s motto: “When in doubt, rub one out.”
Levi rode up to me around the halfway point of the stage. I’m not sure if he felt bad for flicking me into the dirt the day before. Maybe he found out I was writing a blog for Bicycling magazine and wanted to suck up to me. Whatever the reason, we had a friendly conversation while his team rotated at the front. Levi asked if any of the Euro sponsors had been around longer than Jelly Belly.
“This is Jelly Belly’s 10th year,” I informed him. I’d paid attention during the factory tour. I also could have listed the steps in the all-natural flavoring process, or told him that Ronald Reagan kept a jar of red, white, and blue Jelly Bellies on his desk.
Levi hit the button and talked into his radio. “Hey Johan, what year was it with Rabobank that you rode off a cliff ?” He looked back at me. “That was 12 years ago.” So maybe we were the second longest-running team. And people say race radios are unnecessary.
Since Levi was in yellow, riding next to him meant that I was on TV for close to an hour. It was much asier that way than trying to get in the break.
Later that day, with nothing else to think about, I had to pee again, but with the slippery, pothole-filled roads, I didn’t feel safe trying to pee off the bike as usual. I went to the back of the group and let it go in my shorts. I was ashamed of myself, until I looked to my right, where Thor Hushovd was doing the same thing. He smiled at me. “Much warmer now, eh?” he said, in his thick Norwegian accent.
The next day was the time trial, and I was glad just to have a rest to try to get over my cold. The kitchen table at the back of the RV was set up with a set of plastic drawers, each one filled with a rider’s favorite flavor of jelly beans, and labeled with his face. I scarfed the last handful of peanut butter from the “Phil” drawer. On the way back to the hotel, I fell asleep while we drove, spread out on the floor like a liquid.
When I stepped out of the elevator onto the fifth floor at the Hilton that afternoon, I noticed a room service tray in the hallway. Too hungry to resist the untouched chicken finger on the plate, I ate it. Yes, that’s gross, but what are the odds that the original diner licked it?
By the penultimate stage, my legs were empty. Sick with mucous and fever, I was dropped from the field the moment the hostilities started. Thanks to the strategic pessimism I’d brought into the week, I was pleasantly surprised to make it that far, and I don’t think the team had expected much more from me. That night I was quarantined to my own hotel room, so I got to sleep in, and woke up just as the racers were lining up at the start. Desperately wanting to contribute, I asked Danny if there was anything I could do to help out. He handed me a scrub brush and a bucket. While the guys raced, I washed the RV.
Only 84 out of 130-something riders finished the race, so that was actually a decent performance for my first race as a professional. Starting the Tour of California as my first pro race was a lot like driving the Batmobile in a driver’s license exam, but I learned both how close and how far I was to the top of the sport, and there’s nothing like a swift kick in the butt to get motivated.
I took a few days off when I got home, and did some easy riding by the end of the week. That Sunday I finally felt recovered enough to ride three hours. Meanwhile, Thor Hushovd had finished the ToC, and he won Het Volk that day.