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.
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.