Phil Gaimon Journal: Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated

Bissell rider talks about his hard crash at the San Dimas Stage Race, which left him with a myriad of injuries

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Over my many years at the San Dimas Stage Race, I think I’ve experienced the entire range of emotions — not only as an athlete, but as a human being as well. I’ve worn every jersey, won three stages, helped teammates win the overall twice, but never won it myself. It’s become my white whale.

My first time in San Dimas, I got sick and projectile vomited all over a stranger at the back of the Category 2 race. In 2009, my rookie year as a professional, my first race was the Amgen Tour of California, which is a bit like taking a driving test in the Batmobile. Back then, ToC was in February, and I DNFd late in the race, tired, hypothermic, and miserable.

I was seriously rethinking my chosen vocation until I got to San Dimas, where I finished sixth in the opening time trial. When I attacked on the last lap in the circuit race, I assumed I’d get caught on the final climb to give my teammate (who was fourth overall) a chance to counter, but the big teams screwed up and gave me too much of a leash. I crossed the finish line just ahead of the field, with the sprinters shooting past me seconds later. That moment was a huge boost of confidence, and I still get goosebumps when I think about it.

The 2013 edition of the San Dimas Stage Race was on the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. It started out well for me, as I took the yellow jersey in the opening time trial. But halfway through the circuit race, my teammates had been riding their butts off for 35 miles so I bridged to the break on the climb to give them a chance to recover. As we neared the start/finish, I looked back to see if the Bissell jerseys were with me.

At that point on the course, the road narrowed with a fence that comes out from the curb. I’m not sure if I didn’t see it, didn’t react in time, or didn’t have anywhere to go, but it caught my handlebars and pulled me right down. About 100 meters from where I’d celebrated my win four years before, I was knocked out for several minutes in a pool of my own blood, while my brain did a full reset.

For my “Ask a Pro” column in Velo Magazine, someone asked what it’s like to wake up in the hospital, so I won’t get into that part here, but (spoiler alert!) I was alive all along. I had a concussion, lots of bruises, 17 stitches in my forehead, a broken molar, and a jaw too sore to eat for a few days, but somehow (drink your milk!), no broken bones.

The doctor said that TV, phone, and computer screens would slow my recovery, so I had lots time to think and reflect over the next few days. I decided that I could only blame myself. If I want to credit hard work for success, I can’t blame bad luck for failure. Let this be a lesson, kids: it’s good to know where your teammates are, but you still have to watch where you’re going.

Stuck with a liquid diet and four days on the sofa, it was frustrating how quickly I could go from the top of my game to the very bottom, but almost as fast as they went away, health and fitness returned. Within a few days, my face was reasonably healed and I could ride outside again. I missed the chance to defend my 2012 Redlands Classic win, but my sights were set on bigger goals all along, and my SRM says I’ll be fine for those.

The upside of the whole incident is that you never know what your support network is like until you need it, and I’ve learned that I have some great friends behind me. From now on when I win races, it’ll be for you guys, and I’ll be back to winning soon as long as you stop sending me sympathy cookies. Where were you when I was doing 30-hour weeks in base training?

I’ve been riding well on my own so far, but I’m headed to Boulder, Colorado in a week to train with my teammates, and then the Tour of the Gila should be my final prep for the Tour of California. I still think I’m on track for a good year, at least until I see the medical bills.

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.