American Phil Gaimon is a former professional cyclist who most recently rode for the Cannondale-Drapac team in the 2016 WorldTour season. Since retiring at the end of the 2016 season he has continued to train and ride, and last year began toppling doping tainted Strava KOMs. He has also written a number of books about his experience as a pro cyclist and hosts the annual Phil’s Cookie Fondo, which brings together his two loves: “climbing mountains and eating cookies.”
Gaimon’s latest book Ask a Pro: Deep Thoughts and Unreliable Advice from America’s Foremost Cycling Sage, published by VeloPress, gathers the best bits from his popular Q&A column in VeloNews magazine with plenty of witty and sometimes sarcastic answers. Below is an extract from his book and his entertaining approach to cycling.
- 6 ways to pedal like a pro cyclist
- Pro bike gallery: What the pros ride
- Top five bike tools the pro mechanics love
Q: I’ve got an old Bottecchia with a classic Team ADR paint scheme that I used to race on. I commute on a Specialized Tri Cross, and I want to have a second bike in the garage for training. Do you think it’s worth trying to update it, or am I better off just selling it and getting something more modern? It seems like upgrades could be difficult because of the older Campy stuff it’s equipped with, but I’ve got a sentimental attachment to this heavy cro-mo bike from college.
It sounds like you’ve got things mixed up a bit, with a fancy bike for commuting and a beat-up old one for training. Use the Bottecchia for commuting, maybe setting it up as a fixie.* It’s a cool old bike, and you don’t need a high-performing, smooth-shifting, fancy machine to get around town. Sell the ’cross bike and get a new road bike to train on instead.
If you can afford it, though, the best bet would be to just buy more bikes and keep them all. I don’t see how anyone can get by with less than seven bikes. Remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from college psychology class? Me neither, but it went something like food, shelter, sex, commuter bike, track bike, ’cross bike, mountain bike, race bike, time trial bike, and backup race bike. You’re not even halfway there yet, and who are you to argue with the founder of modern psychology?
* Proof that I was into fixies before the hipsters.
Q: I notice riders pinning the number 13 on upside-down for good luck. Are all pros superstitious? What other traditions are there like that?
The one time I pinned a number 13 on upside-down, I ended up sliding into the barricades on it, and a spectator stole my favorite sunglasses (they had the photochromatic lenses, and I want them back). One could argue that maybe I was fated to decapitate myself in that crash, and the minor road rash was in fact good luck, but I don’t buy into any of that crap anymore.
There are two other universal superstitions in cycling that I widely ignore, to the despair and shock of friends and teammates, and I will take this opportunity to further challenge the gods of bike racing. Superstition is stupid.
Superstition No. 1: Don’t point out that it’s been a while since you crashed.
Tempting Fate: I haven’t hit the deck since the Tour de DMZ-Seoul in October 2010. When I do crash, it will not be because I mentioned it here. It will be because I either did something stupid or rode behind someone who did something stupid.
Superstition No. 2: Don’t point out that it’s been a while since you flatted.
Tempting Fate: Of course, if you’re on Kenda tires, you don’t have to worry about it very much, but my last flat was in mid-June during the final stage of the Tour de Beauce, when teammate Bobby Sweeting led me up the outside of the field directly into a giant sewer-drain hole. Do we blame fate for that? I blame Bobby Sweeting 45 percent, poor Canadian road maintenance 45 percent, myself (and I’m being generous here) 5 percent, and my high school math teachers 15 percent.
Aside from those major superstitions, I think a lot of riders have evolved their own personal routines for good luck. For example, Chad Hartley punched a teammate in the crotch before the start of the Univest Criterium in 2004. He won the race, so now he starts every race by punching a teammate in the crotch, for good luck. Or maybe he’s just a jerk.
As I said, I don’t have any issues like that. I do bring a rubber chicken to most races, which some people assume is for good luck, but Deborah is merely a low-maintenance, travel-friendly pet who encourages me to pedal harder, and I won’t have you trivialize her role in my success.*
* I’ve lost Deborah, and I have no feelings about it.
Q: How should I explain my shaved legs to girls? Do you shave yours year-round, or only during the racing season?
You don’t owe them any explanation. Instead, explain why they should thank you: Besides the fact that your legs are muscular and beautiful, male cyclists’ familiarity with our own leg stubble makes the girl’s life easier. If I go three days without shaving my legs, they feel like sandpaper. Since girl hair is finer, my girlfriend could go a month without shaving hers before I even notice.
I keep my legs shaved year-round.* I always try the lazy route in the off-season, but I can never fight through that itchy/prickly phase when you first let it go, so I’m forced into this perpetual losing battle. I’d say about half the pros I know let their leg hair grow in the off-season. The day before photo shoots at training camp, everyone busts out the buzzers (some teams actually have communal buzzers), and the poor maid at the hotel must have a horrible time the next day, having to clean up what looks like some sort of fetish party in every room.
* WorldTour riders pretty much only shave before races. I’m down to once a week these days.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you like group rides for training. Since you’ve probably done them all over the country, what are some similarities and differences?
I do love a good group ride. It’s almost as much fun as a race, minus the need to save energy, so you can really go nuts, but it’s not mentally taxing like an interval. The biggest similarity is the people. It seems like every group ride has a common cast of characters. Some of these overlap, but see if you can match most or all of them to folks on the ride you do at home. Maybe we could play Bingo somehow.
The Cocky Pro: I’ll start with myself on this one (no one is safe here!). I’ll show up and make sure you know I’ve been riding for four hours already, but I’m still going to drop you if it goes uphill, and even though I’m a climbing specialist, I’ll win the sprints. This is my job. I’ll go back to my crappy house in my crappy car,* and I’ll be on the road most of the year getting my teeth kicked in by the cocky pros from other towns, so you won’t have to deal with me very often. Let me have this victory.
The Time Nazi: If the ride officially starts at 8 a.m., he’s clipping in and rolling off, even if you’re still sipping your coffee.
The Superfan: He wears the complete kit (sometimes including the bike) of his favorite team. If it weren’t for the gut and the hairy legs, you’d swear it was George Hincapie. He signed up for the special Eurosport package from his cable company, and he will ruin the ending if you DVRed the Tour stage.
Inexplicably Strong Big Guy: You can’t figure it out, but no matter how hard the climb is, he’s right there every time you look back. The guy doesn’t race, his helmet is crooked, and you know you’re much stronger than he is, but he keeps coming back, like the Freddy Krueger of cycling.
Shortcut Guy: He joins in somewhere in the middle of the ride, when everyone else is already a little tired. He goes to the front and uses his fresh legs to make you suffer, but when the sprint approaches, he’s disappeared like a ghost.
Guy Who Waits for No One: He cruises through the yellow light, even though it’s clear that the whole group won’t make it, and keeps on motoring. If you complain, he’ll say you should ride at the front if you don’t want to miss the break. He hopes you’ll get a flat so he can leave you stranded.
Team Tactics Guy: Yes, it’s a team sport, but there’s no prize money, so you shouldn’t “block” on the group ride just because you have a teammate up the road. This is exercise. God, you’re annoying.
Mountain Biker: “I just do this road stuff for training, bro,” he explains, as he finds crazy lines through the corners, bunny-hops curbs, and shows off his skills by taking pointless risks on descents.
Bike Nerd: He has all the newest stuff before it’s even available to the public. You’ve only seen photos of it on Mark Cavendish’s bike, but he’s got it. He says he knows a guy, just so you understand he doesn’t pay retail. Bike Nerd has a ton of bikes and spare parts out the wazoo (he even has a spare wazoo), but you heard he lives in a trailer.
Aerobars Guy: No matter how many times you yell at him, he’s going to be in the aerobars in the middle of the group. He’ll even take corners in them, and you’ll cringe as you watch him barely keep his bike upright, secretly hoping he doesn’t.
The Rustbucket: He rides an old steel frame, with downtube shifters, threads sticking out of his tires, and clipless sandals. He can’t hold a straight line. If he sneezes, his whole rig will turn to dust.
The Geezer: He’s been showing up on this ride since it was all penny-farthings. He might die after an intermediate sprint, and they’ll have to peel his rotting flesh off his Selle Italia or just bury him right there.
You might have noticed that I didn’t mention any women here. It’s not because I’m sexist, it’s because of . . .
The Creep: If a woman shows up on the ride, he’s all over it. She just wants a workout like the rest of us, but The Creep is full of unsolicited advice, pushes her up the hills as an excuse to touch her butt, and offers her a free bike fit at his house. She won’t come back. †
* I have since traded the Toyota for a Lexus Hybrid, but it was used.
† This mention of The Creep scaring away the women was the punchline of the whole thing, but I still got hate mail for not mentioning enough female riders.
More options—if you need them!
Q: I was thinking about getting weekly massages for recovery, but the whole idea is weird to me. Is it awkward to get a massage as a male?
The first time I got a massage, it was hard to get over the concept that another human being was being paid to rub me. Who am I? Cleopatra? But it does really help, and everybody does it, so you get over it quickly. Halfway through, when they tell you to flip over onto your belly, ask to use the restroom and smear your rear end with Nutella. Never gets old.
Q: Where was the worst place you had to race your bike, and why?
I have so many horrible memories from horrible places I’ve raced, this question is like if you asked a parent which child is their favorite. I’ve done nighttime criteriums in urban areas where the only safe way to warm up was laps around a parking garage, and I’ve raced through parts of Alabama where locals pelted the pack with cigarettes and beer cans, but the Tour of the Demilitarized Zone in Korea takes the cake.
The Tour de DMZ was such a bad idea, you’d think I made it up. We raced for three days, right along the barbed wire between North and South Korea. The only spectators were soldiers with M16s, and we all choked on dust kicked up from low-flying military helicopters.
Q: On average, how many times per year does a pro cyclist crash?
I haven’t seen any survey results, so I can’t tell you the exact mean or median, but I can say that in my first year as a pro, I crashed three times. The following year, I crashed twice, but then I put together a solid three-year streak of keeping it upright, which ended with a dramatic whack on the head that nearly killed me in 2013. I would have gladly traded that one for a football field’s worth of road rash or 10 broken collarbones.
I think it would be useful to define “crash,” though, because that’s a tricky word in pro cycling. What if you tumble onto a pile of bodies but never hit the ground? Maybe your bike was broken in half afterward, but you landed on your feet? What if some idiot totally just took your front wheel out and there wasn’t anything you could have done?
In my humble opinion, for an incident to be considered a crash, all of the following must happen:
- Your knee, elbow, or hip hits the ground. If you catch yourself with your hand, it counts as a save, just like if you tripped on the stairs. It wasn’t graceful, but you made it.
- Some part of your body, clothing, or bike has to be at least slightly damaged. Even if it looked like a full action-movie wipeout, if your helmet was unscathed, your clothes weren’t ripped, there’s not a scrape on the saddle, your derailleur hanger is still straight, and your bar tape is pristine, that’s not a crash.
- Someone has to see you. There was this one time, this guy, let’s call him a friend of mine (it wasn’t me), hit a patch of ice that just washed his bike out from under me. I mean him. (I’ve got to get a computer with a backspace key.) But he got up, everything was fine—no bruises, no road rash, and most importantly, no witnesses. Like a tree falling in the forest, that wasn’t a crash, either.
Q: Have you ever had random cyclists race you on training rides?
Unfortunately, all pros have run-ins like that. Part of it is just the basic human urge to compete, so I understand when a kid on a BMX bike races me to the next block, but it’s sad when adults can’t restrain themselves. I once had a 40-year-old man drop his wife and kids to attack me for an hour on a bike path, on Christmas. I was training, so I kept my heart rate to a strict coach-prescribed 140 beats per minute, while he shot past me on every hill and came back on the flats.
I can only imagine the conversation when he got home: “I know we were just out for a nice ride together, and then I was late for Christmas dinner, but don’t you understand that this was my big chance?”
Q: Is there anything you’ve learned in racing that you’ll apply to the outside world or in an office someday? What will you take away from cycling when you retire?
For the most part, being able to pedal fast probably won’t look great on a résumé, but there are a few skills that translate.
1. Playing hurt. In a big race, if you’re suffering from illness, scrapes, bruises, or injury, you have the attitude that they’ll have to peel your rotting corpse off your bike before you quit, and dumb stoicism like that applies anywhere. Remember when Tyler Hamilton finished the Tour de France with his broken collarbone? If he ends up at a desk job, do you think he’d call in sick if he got a bad case of the sniffles?*
2. Professional cyclists are the best drivers in the world, except for professional drivers. We drive fast, we’re good at staying attentive for extended periods, and racer instincts keep us safe. Also, we learn to save energy by avoiding accelerations and conserving momentum, and that leads to good gas-management habits, like coasting up to stoplights instead of using gas and brakes.
3. Mostly, what I’ll take away are experiences: good times, places I’ve been, and things I’ve seen. I’ve raced across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I’ve climbed around the Tibetan Plateau. Once, on a training ride in my own town, I even saw a unicorn (it might have been a goat with one horn broken off).
Those memories will be with me the rest of my life, as long as I don’t crash on my head and forget them. What was the question, again?
* He’d blame Lance Armstrong and have someone ghostwrite a tell-all book about it.