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Phil Gaimon Q&A: Danielson, doping, and WorldTour return

Phil Gaimon talks about his second chance at racing the WorldTour, how clean the peloton really is, and what to make of Tom Danielson.

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As the calendar readies to flip to 2016, Phil Gaimon would like to put the last 12 months behind him. The 29-year-old American entered the 2015 season reeling from a demotion; he’d been cut from the Cannondale-Garmin team, after just a season, one of the many who were collateral damage as two WorldTour programs merged.

Gaimon’s opportunity to race at the WorldTour level had seemingly ended before it began. He landed a spot at the Continental squad Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies, and started the 2015 season with a second-career GC win at the Redlands Cycling Classic.

From there, however, it was mostly downhill. A strong climber with a decent time trial, Gaimon’s spot as a protected GC leader ran parallel to another Optum rider, Canadian Michael Woods, a former runner with similar cycling talents.

When Woods finished fifth on a summit finish at Volta ao Algarve, alongside Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski, and then won Clássica Internacional Loulé, it was clear that Gaimon would spend some of 2015 riding as a super-domestique, rather than for personal results. Such was the case at the Tour of the Gila, where Woods finished fourth overall, and the Tour of Utah, where Woods was second to Joe Dombrowski.

Behind the scenes, Gaimon struggled with personal issues. His father, a professor at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, was diagnosed with cancer. He coped with the news during the Tour of Utah and abandoned the USA Pro Challenge to return to Atlanta to be with his family. In the same week that he received a contract offer to rejoin Cannondale in 2016, Gaimon’s father died.

There was also the news of Tom Danielson’s positive drug test, in August, for an anabolic agent.

After time spent training together in Tucson, Arizona, ahead of the 2013 season, Danielson introduced Gaimon to Cannondale manager Jonathan Vaughters; his recommendation played a major role in Gaimon’s contract with Garmin-Sharp in 2014. The two had become teammates and friends, with Danielson riding in support of Gaimon at the Tour de San Luis, where Gaimon won a stage and finished second overall. Gaimon returned the favor later in the 2014 season at the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge, where Danielson finished first and second, respectively.

Gaimon, who writes a column for VeloNews and authored a book published by VeloPress, sports a “clean” tattoo on his right bicep. A few other riders got the tattoo — Brad Huff, Nick Waite, Isaac Howe, Michael van den Ham, and Adam Myerson — and each promised to allow the others to scrape it off with a cheese grater if ever proven to have used performance-enhancing drugs.

So the news of Danielson’s positive, on top of everything else during the second half of the 2015 season, was tough to accept.

Gaimon spoke with VeloNews this week, and discussed Danielson, his views on doping in today’s peloton, and his return to the WorldTour in 2016 after a season away.

VeloNews: Was returning to the Cannondale team, which you rode for in 2014 [when it was Garmin-Sharp], always in the back of your mind? Did you stay in touch with Vaughters throughout the year? How did that come about?

Phil Gaimon: I earned a spot on the [2014] team, I learned a lot, I did what I was supposed to do at every race, within reason. As the 2014 season was winding down, when it came down to it, with the sponsors, and everything that was going on, there wasn’t space for me. I had to be careful, and go to Optum, rather than try to wait out Vaughters. I don’t think it would have worked. I was careful not to burn bridges, and be cool about it. A month after I knew I was leaving the team, I showed up fit at the Tour of Beijing and kicked some ass there. That was the hole in my game, that I hadn’t done a lot of WorldTour races. I hadn’t proven myself at the top level. Then I’m kicked off the team — nicely, but still — and then I proved myself, but it was too late.

VN: When you say you ‘kicked some ass,’ what exactly did you do at Beijing?

PG: I just ripped it at the front. The stage that Dan Martin won, I attacked with 8km to go on a mountaintop finish. I made all the splits. I helped Tyler [Farrar], and he won a stage. At the Japan Cup I was on the front a lot. I didn’t do anything spectacular, but I did something that most guys aren’t doing in the first year on the WorldTour, that the team didn’t really know I was capable of. I trained hard for that. I think I earned it with my legs, and Vaughters appreciated my loyalty, on the bike and off the bike. The media was calling me, everyone wanted me to complain about JV [Vaughters] not keeping me, and I wasn’t going to go there, because I understood. I wasn’t going to play the victim. This year rolled around, and I was good in the spring, and JV said, ‘Hey, we’ll do our best to make room and see if we can have you back.’

VN: The time period that you signed with the team overlapped with the period that your father was dying. What was that like for you, emotionally, to have something positive and something so painful happening at the same time?

PG: I signed a WorldTour contract, which is the dream I have been chasing for 10 years, and it was still the worst week of my life. They were days apart. I was a wreck. We sort of had it worked out before Utah started. It wasn’t to ink yet, but I knew, and that was a good thing, because the personal stuff just completely tanked Utah and Colorado. I wasn’t able to do much there. And JV knew. Halfway through, I told him, ‘Here’s why I suck this week,’ and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it, I understand.’

VN: When you first went to the team, Tom Danielson played a big role in that. We know what’s happened since. Have you had contact with Tom? You’re a guy with a ‘clean’ tattoo on your arm, and Tom is facing a lifetime ban, based on a second offense. Where do you stand, with Tom, and with the whole situation?

PG: I wish anybody knew what was going on. I wish I knew. I’ve spoken with Tom. He’s my friend. We all know he’s made mistakes in the past. Maybe he made another bad decision, maybe he didn’t. I don’t know. He met me on a group ride, and I ripped his legs off at a Florida gran fondo event. He invited me to Tucson. He trained with me. His whole lesson, the takeaway I got from him in a year and a half of being with him, was ‘Yeah, I used to do this stuff, and now we don’t have to. This is how we do it now.’ He called Vaughters, to help make my dream come true. He pulled me to the top of the climbs in San Luis, where we were hugging and crying on top of mountains together. So it’s really confusing to my entire understanding of the world, and human beings. I don’t know what’s going on, but that’s not the guy I know. I hope it gets sorted out, and I hope that my instincts, and my feelings about him, are proven true.

VN: You’ve got a ‘clean’ tattoo on your arm. You’ve raced at the WorldTour level. If you’re to be taken at your word, as a clean rider, what was your take on the sport’s highest level? Being one of the top guys in the U.S., you know it is the next level, you know it’s going to be harder, but were there instances where you had to question what you were seeing?

PG: There were some moments where I was like ‘That’s insane, what that guy is doing.’ What I learned is that there’s a thing called real talent. I have some talent, and then there is Dan Martin, who is clean as a whistle, and his worst day is better than my best day. Take, for example, the Japan Cup. We were swapping off at the front of the pack for three hours, to help Nathan Haas. This is a race Dan doesn’t care about — he wouldn’t have doped for this — no one cares, really, it’s the last race of the year. He got bored of flicking his elbow, and just rode the front, by himself, for three hours. And every time we went up a hill, guys were blowing up, and getting dropped. I was suffering on his wheel, and it was a realization. Or look at Taylor Phinney. He broke himself as badly as any pro could. I heard a rumor he was never going to race again. And in his first race back, he’s on the podium at Utah. Then he wins a stage at the Pro Challenge. He’s better than us with one leg. And Taylor’s not doping. I’m sure it’s still there, there are still guys doing stuff, but I don’t think it’s rampant. You hear rumors, but I don’t think it’s that bad. At my best, I was able to win a race, and play with the hitters, top 10 on mountaintop finishes, and I’m thinking, ‘If that guy could only put 15 seconds on me, how could he be dirty?’

VN: You have this second chance at the WorldTour. What’s your objective? Will you only be riding in support of other riders? Do you have a personal goal? What would make it a success?

PG: I’ve learned that I can’t control what happens with my career. I can make the most out of the opportunities that I have. I finished this season, and looked back at the last two years, at my training logs, and asked myself what mistakes I may have made, what might have slowed me down. How many nights did I sleep poorly, and what might have caused that? I shut down small businesses I was running on the side — a small clothing company, and a recovery product — which were making a little money, but ended up being a distraction. The writing that I do, I think it’s therapeutic. Journaling, I think that is healthy. It’s not like I have hard deadlines, or massive word counts. Everything else, I put away. I’m going to rent out my house in Los Angeles, and move to Girona, and that’s going to be home. I think that mental shift will help my focus. I told the team that, and they appreciated it. I think that will turn into a few more race starts, and a few more chances to prove myself. Obviously I hope to do a grand tour. I just want to do all the biggest races I can. I know I won’t get a third shot at the WorldTour. Before I get too old, I want to see what my physical potential is, if I give it that focus, and put in all the work, and don’t screw up. That’s my goal, and hopefully that turns into a fat raise, and more years with the team. Then I’d be happy with it.

An American in France

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