Gaimon’s win the culmination of unconventional road to the big show

American's win in Argentina has a lot of cycling observers asking, "Who is Phil Gaimon?"

Photo: Tim De Waele

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VILLA MERCEDES, Argentina (VN) — In the moments after stage 1 of the Tour de San Luís ended on Monday afternoon, the race’s international press corps was, almost in unison, asking the same question, albeit in varying languages and accents: Quien? Chi? Fee-leep? Fee-leep Gai-mon? Garmin, o Gai-mon? Ah, Gaimon de Garmin. Claro. Gracias.

As an American journalist, and as the chief editor of the magazine and website that Gaimon has contributed to since 2009, it was as if the script had flipped. I could picture myself at a U.S. stage race like the Amgen Tour of California or USA Pro Challenge, in the moments after an unknown-to-me South American climber has won a stage or taken a KOM jersey, with Colombian journalist Luis Barbosa correcting my pronunciation of his name.

Yes, the international press corps could be forgiven for not knowing Gaimon’s name.

It was, after all, his first day of racing for Garmin-Sharp — his first day racing for a UCI ProTeam after a five-year pro career spent racing for Continental teams like Bissell, Kenda, and Jelly Belly.

Though it will change next month, Gaimon has never raced his bike in Europe. And because the UCI only considers ProTeam and Pro Continental squads as “professional,” Gaimon is, technically, a neo-pro this year with Garmin.

“I certainly didn’t expect this,” Gaimon said at the finish, swarmed by cameras, microphones, and smartphones. “I don’t think anyone in the world would have expected this.”

Monday’s solo victory, in the town of Villa Mercedes, was the culmination of an unconventional path Gaimon has traveled to show his abilities on the global stage.

Gaimon, who turns 28 a few days after the Tour de San Luís ends, came to cycling relatively late. As explained to VeloNews contributor Dan Wuori back in June, when he announced that he’d signed with Garmin, Gaimon’s road to the European peloton took an unorthodox path. He began racing as a freshman at the University of Florida, foregoing the support enjoyed by the nation’s top young riders.

“I guess most guys who make it to the WorldTour start in the 14- to 16-year-old range. In the U.S., if you’re one of the top guys at that age, you end up on the junior national team and they take you over to Europe to live and race in Belgium,” Gaimon said. “But I missed the boat on all of that. I didn’t start racing until college, when I was 19. I never got invited to do the U23 development stuff, and I didn’t pursue it too hard because I was in college and my parents would have murdered me. So I didn’t even attempt it.”

Instead, Gaimon waited until graduation to pursue pro cycling, signing his first contract for $166 a month. His meager earnings on the domestic road circuit required Gaimon’s effort both on and off the bike.

“A lot of my time had to be spent hustling and trying to survive in a way that I really couldn’t focus 100 percent on bike racing,” Gaimon told VeloNews. To make ends meet, he took the odd coaching job and worked to maintain his own small business.

“[In 2012] I had a good season, but even then I was balancing a couple of other jobs just trying to get by.”

Gaimon’s first big win came at the Redlands Cycling Classic in 2012, and in many ways, 2013 was his breakthrough season. After a winter spent training in Tucson, Arizona, where he spent a fair amount of time riding with Garmin’s Tom Danielson, Gaimon looked to be the strongest stage racer in America, winning the overall at the early-season Merco Cycling Classic. He then won the opening time trial to take the race lead at San Dimas Stage Race; however, a horrific crash saw him airlifted from course. He still has no memories of the incident.

He returned and finished as runner-up at the Tour of the Gila, and after abandoning the Amgen Tour of California with a stomach bug, Gaimon lit up the U.S. professional road championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with a solo move in the final 25km that was only brought back inside the final kilometer.

Soon after, he announced he’d signed with Garmin manager Jonathan Vaughters — one of 11 new riders to join the team for 2014.

In an extensive interview with Daniel McMahon in June, Gaimon explained how, and why, it wasn’t until he was 27 that he’d signed with a WorldTour-level team.

“I think I was at the threshold where I was getting too old for someone to take the risk,” Gaimon said. “The riders European teams are looking at in terms of Americans are the 18- to 22-year-olds they can foster, the Nate Brown types. I missed the boat on all that. I was in college and just learning to race a bike at that point. I had to prove that I was capable of something much harder than the racing here in the States. And I think I am better suited to European racing than I am to the American stuff. I’m more comfortable at the Tour of California than I am at the Tour of the Gila. I find myself at the front more often when it’s harder. There aren’t a lot of races [in the U.S.] with 45-minute climbs that sort things out.”

One question folks were asking at the finish line in Villa Mercedes is “where is he from?” And the truth is, Gaimon is kind of from all over. He was born in Columbus, Ohio; lived in Atlanta, Georgia, through high school, went to college in Gainesville, Florida; lived in Athens, Georgia, after college; and is currently living in Los Angeles. His parents are both professors at Georgia Tech, in Atlanta, which he considers home, though he said he’s “bounced around a lot,” and for the time being, plans to stay based in L.A.

Gaimon writes a print column for Velo magazine, titled Ask a Pro, where he fields questions from readers, always in his trademark dry, sometimes-juvenile tone. Yet he is also very much a man of principle. On his bicep, he sports a “CLEAN” tattoo, the word imprinted into a foaming bar of soap. He wears his pride in racing clean quiet literally, on his skin.

“When I started racing [in college] I set this goal that I wanted to be a pro cyclist and race at the highest level and, of course, do it clean,” Gaimon told VeloNews in June. “Looking back at what we’ve learned [about that era in cycling], I recognize it was an almost impossible dream. But since then things have moved in a direction — thanks largely to Vaughters and Garmin — that makes [the dream of riding clean at the sport’s top level] possible. So who better to do it with than the team that made it so?”

He’s also working on a book for VeloNews’ sister company, VeloPress, on the trials and tribulations of living on a low-budget salary, titled Road Rash and Ramen Noodles. His VeloPress bio claims that he is “a writer and entrepreneur who retired from laziness and computer games in 2004 in favor of riding a bike to lose weight.”

On Sunday night, Gaimon attended the high-glitz Tour de San Luís team presentation, and was clearly a bit overwhelmed by the flashing lights and large crowd that gathered. From the side of the stage, he tweeted a photo of fireworks over the crowd, with the caption, “This is going to be a cool year.” He couldn’t have known how prescient that tweet would be.

On Monday afternoon, during a sweltering four hours riding in near 100-degree temperatures, Gaimon went into the day’s early break, and rode it all the way to the finish, crossing the line alone to take the stage win and race lead.

The win didn’t come without a touch of controversy. With 20 kilometers remaining, four men in the winning breakaway, and a chase group coming from behind, Gaimon momentarily followed a pair of errant race motos off course. His action caused two others in the break, Marc de Maar (UnitedHealthcare) and Leandro Messineo (San Luis Somos Todos), to crash. Gaimon, and the other man left in the breakaway, Emiliano Contreras (Argentina), soldiered on.

Was it intentional, or in any way malicious? Absolutely not. De Maar said as much himself, and Gaimon was quick to apologize at the finish line.

In hindsight, might Gaimon have waited, to allow the victims of the mishap to regain contact? There’s no rule that says he should have, but pro cycling is filled with unwritten rules of conduct. What’s clear is that it was a long, hot day, and, in Gaimon’s words, he was “cross-eyed” during the finale.

As it is, heading into stage 2 — which features a summit finish — Gaimon holds a 1:17 lead over de Maar, and a 4:35 lead over the rest of the field. He could well hold his race lead all the way through Sunday’s final stage.

Now that would be a hell of a way to kick off a pro career.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.