Best known for a love of cookies, self-deprecation, and a knack for writing a book or two, Phil Gaimon is a recently-retired American professional cyclist, his last stint at the WorldTour Cannondale-Drapac squad. His career followed an unusual trajectory. Unlike most Americans racing at the highest level of the sport, he didn't come up through the narrow ranks of the few US-based development teams, instead cutting his teeth racing with domestic Continental squads, the minor leagues of cycling. He documented his rise to Europe exceedingly well in his first book, aptly named "Pro Cycling on $10 a Day".
A Los Angeles resident and Georgia original, Phil is cheeky, intelligent, driven (he's started numerous businesses while racing), and wields a healthy dose of snark concerning professional cycling, as well as a permanent Clooneyesque five o'clock shadow. A waifish 145lbs at 6'1 and at his peak a mere six months ago, he was likely one of the best climbers in the world (though he's quick to note this has little to do with ones ability to race well in a PRO field), and it's reflected in his physique. Now, three years after his first book release, he's finished with racing as of the end of 2016, and has two more books publishing in the near future.
Perhaps because of the course he took, he is an anomaly. Bike riders (PRO tip: "Bike rider" is preferred nomenclature among the tribe vs. PRO, professional cyclist, pro bike racer, et al.) tend to trend towards the single-minded approach of cycling - it's what makes them successful. Phil is different. It came as no surprise that upon retiring, Phil took a different route towards coping with his residual fitness - that "best shape of your life" kind of fitness.
Instead of racing other professionals, Phillip Gaimon has decided to race the internet as a whole, trolling cycling social media darling Strava, embarking on what he's dubbed "The Worst Retirement Ever", a 2017 tour hunting North America's most legendary climbing records. He swung through San Francisco recently to chase two local records (Hawk Hill and Mt. Diablo), and we took it upon ourselves to rip apart his climbing bike and squeeze every gram we could from it, within practical reason - more on this later. We also found it a good excuse to sit down with Phil and grill him with a few pointed questions on his latest endeavor.
AC: What was the genesis of this? Why? Was it the Thorfinn thing?
PG: Actually, no. The story of this whole thing...I was putting on my Fondo at the end of last year, and my partner in it told me I was missing a lot of the potential social audience, that I should get on Strava to connect with the locals (in Los Angeles).
AC: Yeah..a lot of pro bike riders don't use Strava. They shun it on principle.
PG: I get that. They are too cool for Strava...they are too good for it. But it made sense to build an audience there, I had a Strava account, but I didn't really use it - it was there, it existed. So I started using it to build an audience. My season ended last year (and I didn't know I wasn't getting a contract for 2017), and there's a fast group ride that goes up Nichols Canyon. I was just about to start base training, and then I got the "No" from Dimension Data, so I knew I was done racing. And I was pissed, so I went on the group ride, and I took the Nichols Canyon KOM...and that was Thorfinn's. And it was like, the most contested climb in the city. Suddenly I'm getting text messages from 50 friends like I just won a stage at the Tour. I just did it for fun. I realized people liked it, so I was like "Cool!", and I just kept doing it. Eventually, it got to be a story, and people reached out to sponsor me for...whatever it was I was doing. I needed to do something - I needed a competitive outlet to ride my bike hard, and it just sort of fell into place organically.
AC: So going off of that, we talked in the midst of last year and you mentioned that if you didn't have a WorldTour contract for the next season, you weren't going to race anymore. You had offers from Pro Continental (second division) teams to race in Europe. Why wasn't that enough?
PG: From the outside, I can see the confusion. The lifestyle is drastically different from one team to another - as far as the quality of equipment, the staff, the races you're going to. It boils down to safety. One is going to the races you've seen on TV that you've known since you were a kid, and one goes to the Tour of Iran. It's easy to justify those sacrifices, the crashing, and the races that don't make a lot of sense when you're on the way up. And you think the the next year you'll do better - but when you're 31, and you've done the WorldTour thing, and you know what that life is like, and you know what your other options are...You don't want to take that hit anymore, living a certain way thinking it's going to get better when you know where your fitness is (and where you fit in).
AC: You did do that once, in 2015, going from Garmin-Sharp (in the WorldTour) to Optum (a third-division Continental team). How was that, knowing the above?
PG: It was good in a way - I have great friends on the team, and it's a great team. But you know...the massage isn't as long, at the hotel the hallway is on the outside instead of the inside -
AC: Hold it. That might be the quote of the interview: "The massage isn't as long."
PG: It's true! You get 30 minutes instead of an hour. And you're in these races, you start 30 guys back on the climb, your bike is a pound heavier than everyone else's, and it's already too hard. I wasn't good enough to begin with, that's why I'm on Optumm, and then you have 30 other disadvantages, it's very frustrating. Another reason I didn't want to go back was how insignificant the bigger US races begin to feel after racing in front of screaming crowds and helicopters. But you know, now I'm going from that to Strava, where there's nothing to post up. You win and it doesn't feel like anything.
AC: Ha. So going back to the Strava business, do you think what you're doing is going to inspire a whole generation of professional "Strava Hunters"? Sort of like Zwift or video games taken to the real world? Stravathletes?
PG: It's going to have to exist. There'll be another version of it...other people have done something similar, just being engaged and involved with local riders (like Tim Johnson and Ted King), but at some point I think people who specialize in Strava and never do a bike race will happen.
AC: Does that...make cycling, or at least riding hard, cheap? Like we covered, most pro bike riders don't care about Strava. It's one of those things where they'll get KOMs doing an effort up a hill or during a race, but it's not something most gun for.
PG: The pros don't care - but there are people who care. At some point it's going to get cooler to go for a Strava KOM than race.
AC: What's that tipping point?
PG: Maybe it's me.
AC: Is it Phil Gaimon who ruins it for everyone? There was a definite wave we felt when we saw the glut of doper KOMs falling, and the excitement around it building.
PG: That's actually kind of part of it. I want people to understand the difference between a WorldTour Pro and whoever the King of the Neighborhood is, the guy everyone thinks could go race in Europe because he wins at Strava, but it's different. It's serious over there.
AC: And like you said, nobody who's actually training really goes for Strava KOMs.
PG: Yeah, the pros who are training 30-hour weeks aren't doing a time-trial effort to try to take the local hill record. I could name 50 WorldTour guys who could smash the times I've done (on Strava), but fortunately they have better shit to do.
AC: How much longer are you/can you do this?
PG: It could go two ways. Most likely, I have a job, I'm training a fraction of what I did before, and most likely I lose fitness gradually. The best training is a 30-hour week or a stage race. Or it could go the other way, where my training gets more focused on KOMs, where I'm not doing endurance. My (power) numbers have gone up for 5 to 30 minutes since I stopped training, and I'm becoming more specified for these efforts. I'd get dropped in a bike race immediately, but I am more adapted to these efforts. It could go either direction. Ask me later this year.
AC: Have any peers given you a hard time about the Strava thing?
PG: Oh, everybody! But they know I'm messing around. I think I've done a good job expressing the whole tongue-in-cheek mentality. I feel like Strava is a fun app, and there are people who take it really seriously. I think me matching them in seriousness is making fun of them, in a way. What's funny are the comments on Strava and Instagram. The comments on my bike, how to make it lighter...part of it is the ridiculousness of how seriously others are taking it. I feel like I'm kind of trolling the concept. And I'm uniquely qualified for it, because I'm a good uphill time-trialist.
AC: Do you feel bad putting local KOMs out of reach of "average" riders?
PG: So...yes. But, the thing is, the ones I'm going after, especially in California, are either dopers or pros. None of those were attainable for people anyway, which is why people really liked that I was taking them. They'd been going after them for three years.
AC: A "Robin Hood" kind of mentality.
PG: Exactly. Like in the Santa Monicas, those are all from pro team training camps. Nobody's going to be taking those. There's a lot of the other ones in LA, where there's me there, there's Thorfinn (doper) there, and there's a bunch of guys. What I want to do is take my name off of them if the name after wasn't Thorfinn. I'm going to do is ask for an arms treaty...just take it all down. Turn in your guns, break your sword. I want the locals to have their Stravas back.
While he was here, we took the liberty of ripping apart Phil's purpose-built KOM Hunter bike within the limits of sponsor obligations (we had to keep the wheels, tires, and cockpit). It started life as a Cannondale SuperSix Evo, and it came to us at 14.7lbs with pedals. While that's not heavy, in the grand scheme of UCI-illegal climbing bikes, it is. Phil is pretty explicit about the needs of the bike - it doesn't need to be able to descend, just go uphill. Fast. Originally built with Shimano Dura-Ace mechanical, a Hollowgram SRM, and Mavic Cosmic Carbone Ultimate tubular wheels, our inner weight-weenies bubbled with possibilities, and we set AC mad scientist/service manager Mr. Webber loose.
The first swap? A pair of Look Keo Blade Ti pedals, shedding over 100g from the original Garmin Vector that had been denuded of their power pods.
It's not a svelte AC build without eeCycleworks. They provided a pair of their trick brakes and topcap/compression plug assembly to shed the grams from the KOM gobbler.
We grabbed a SRAM Red mechanical group and swapped it for the Shimano, dumping a couple hundred grams in the process. Yes, we even weighed the chain. CeramicSpeed pulleys made an appearance in the derailleur - while they don't shave weight, they do shave watts.
Phil and Chad geeked out on the goodies hanging around while the build was in process. In this case, a late NOS 1970s Sachs track frame with an incredible iridescent Joe Bell paint scheme.
The weenie-ing reached new heights as Webber plucked a pair of mass-free Lightweight skewers from the parts bin, and began applying custom relief holes to the single Arundel Mandible bottle cage Phil climbs with.
The finished product.
At the end of the day, we managed to knock 1.1~lbs off of Phil's Cannondale, taking it down to 13.6lbs or so. Groundbreaking? No. But, considering our limitations (saddle, cockpit, and wheels, namely), we were pretty proud of it. And yes, Webber lopped more off the already-ridiculous handlebars - 20 grams worth, in fact.
The questions on everyone's minds, then - did he get the two KOMs he came here to take? Sort of. We were witness to the Hawk Hill attempt.
At the top, he tied the previous record of 5:46. But, in Phil's defense, he had a driving headwind, and no team lead-out as the previous KOM did before. And 525 watts for almost six minutes isn't something to scoff at. As for Mt. Diablo, whose KOM was snatched during the Tour of California by Lawson Craddock? We're sworn to secrecy, at least until his first YouTube video releases sometime in April. Phil says he'll be back, as there's a few more hills in the Bay Area on his checklist. We're intrigued to see how long the skinny guy in the barely-there skinsuit on a bike with a half-set of handlebars can keep it up, and what kind of repercussions his serious-not-serious campaign will have. Has Strava finally supplanted bike racing? Time will tell.