Phil Gaimon Journal: Hanging with the big boys in San Luis

Phil Gaimon writes about riding onto the podium at his first race as a member of Garmin-Sharp

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Last week was the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, the first race of the year for all in attendance and my debut in Garmin-Sharp colors. It was also the argyle debut of three of my five teammates: Ben King, Nate Brown, and Janier Acevedo, all kept in check by veterans Tom Danielson and Tyler Farrar.

San Luis is known as a pretty chill race. At least, chill relative to a lot of the races we’ll do this year. It was still one of the biggest races I’ve ever done, so I trained and stuff, but I was careful not to train too much. I peaked too early last year, and the year before, and the year before that (in previous years, I consistently sucked throughout the season). A lot of the Euro guys were there for a warm place to train (or so they claimed), with their sleeves rolled up to even out those pesky tanlines.

Argentina was nice, but our race hotel was a casino in the middle of a vast plain (plains are always “vast”), so most of our experience of the country was by bike (that’s the story of my life, but I’m not complaining). We only made one trip into town, for haircuts. Have you ever gotten a haircut from someone who didn’t speak your language? I highly recommend it. I just pointed to a picture of George Clooney in Esquire magazine.

With the haircut out of the way the day before the first stage, I got down to important business. I live in Los Angeles now but I’m still a Georgia boy at heart, so all I need to keep from getting homesick is sweet tea. I always make some in the hotel room. I put tea bags I brought from home in team water bottles, and left it for an hour in the sun by the window. (If you felt the sun in Argentina this time of year, you’d know that’s almost enough to get it boiling.)

I brought my sweet tea to breakfast the next morning, and I just needed some ice to pour it over, but instead I got a taste of what my year is going to be like. You see, I’ll be spending several months in a region of Spain where they speak Catalan. I don’t know a word of Catalan, but I have taken one semester of Spanish at the University of Florida (I got an A-, but to be fair, the curve was ruined by a handful of native Spanish-speakers looking to dope their GPAs).

I brought an empty glass to the hotel bar, and did my best charades for “ice,” which was basically pointing at the glass and saying “ice?” That got me nowhere (in hindsight, I should have shivered). The waiter assumed I was asking for milk, so he kept saying “leche?” We both did the dumb thing you do with a language barrier, where you say the same incomprehensible words slower and slower, hoping that it clicks. Finally, I gave up and went back to my table, and the waiter felt bad to see me leave unsatisfied.

Then I remembered that Ben King speaks fluent Spanish, so I asked him the word for ice. A minute later, after a little practice with Ben, I was back at the bar, with a big smile on my face.

“Hielo!” I said, triumphantly.

The waiter beamed and slapped his forehead. “Hielo!” He gave me a big bucket of hielo, and got a solid “Gracias” in return, which I did remember from college (I can also count to 10, and find an appropriate place to poop).

And then the race started. If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ve read the race reports already, so I’ll keep it brief. I followed wheels into the early break, which looked innocuous and doomed, like every other breakaway. I took the KOM points, assuming that was all I’d get out of the day, and then we had a 12-minute gap because the sprinters’ teams argued about who should chase. And then they realized they’d get their tans either way, so the breakaway could have an hour for all they cared. I won that stage (after accidentally kind of causing a crash that took out half of the breakaway with 25 kilometers to go because that’s how I win races) and wore the leader’s jersey (it was orange-ish) for the next four days.

The highlight of the week was the teamwork. To race for GC, I had to ride hard for five hours total over the course of the seven-day race, but my teammates had to suffer for 20. Plus, I’m new to this team and racing with guys I’ve looked up to for years — guys who have little reason to trust me to hold onto my lead. How could I ask Ben King, Nate Brown, and Janier Acevedo to ride the front for 100 miles a day, in 100+ degree heat? To sweat for me? How do I ask Tom Danielson to pace me up a climb instead of going for the win himself? HOW DO I ASK TYLER FREAKING FARRAR TO GO BACK TO THE CAR FOR BOTTLES? HE’S TYLER FREAKING FARRAR.

It feels incredibly selfish, but fortunately I didn’t have to. When I showed up at the hotel with a bouquet after stage 1, Nate hugged me and said “I can’t wait to kill myself on the front for you, Phil.” I could have cried. My teammates are professionals, and damn nice guys. Even the non-rider teammates were glad to give me what I needed. From the soigneurs and mechanics handling every detail, to Chann McRae giving me pep talks from the team car, I was taken care of in ways I’d never think to ask. For example, someone from POC flew from Europe to Mendoza to drop off new time trial helmets, and then got right back on the plane. WorldTour stuff.

How could I repay my team for their efforts? Winning would be good, but if I couldn’t do that, I had to at least try really hard. I had no idea if I could climb with the best in the world, so it was a huge relief when I only lost 20 seconds to Nairo Quintana on the first mountaintop finish — and I was still 4:40 ahead of him. After that, for a couple days, I really thought I could keep the lead. And then Nairo put 4:35 on me on the 40-minute mountaintop finish of stage 4. I’d tried really hard, too. That day knocked me into reality. Then I lost another 30 seconds in the time trial a day later, which knocked me down to second overall. I took some knocks this week, folks.

The stage 4 podium and antidoping control were a 15-minute drive from the finish, farther up the climb that Quintana dropped us on. It was beautiful up there, with tiny, twisty roads, cattle roaming in the grass, and a few spots where the car had to drive through small rivers. I heard that the stage included those roads in previous years. Nairo would have won by an hour.

Other than that day, I surprised myself by hanging with the big boys, thanks to the teammates loading me with cold water and ice socks all day and Danielson dragging me up the climbs. Exactly one year ago, I was training with Tom in Tucson and all he did was kick my ass up Mt. Lemmon every day. It was the worst/best training of my life. There were moments last week where Tom was on the front burying himself with me on his wheel and it was like we were back in Arizona, except I was trying (eventually failing) to not throw up. I managed to savor it when the pitch dipped below 15 percent, and we finished seventh and eighth on the final climbing stage, ahead of a lot of names I’d never dreamed of dropping before. After all the humbling since stage 1, that eighth place felt great and it made some sort of statement to the world that I don’t suck after all, clinching my second place in the GC.

It was an awesome race overall, and I can’t wait for another crack at it next year. My plan: I’ll try and get six minutes in the early break on stage 1 and see if I can hold onto that.

After this, I have a few days at home in California, and then I’m off to Spain for three whole months. I still don’t know what this year will hold, but I’m going to be just fine because I’ve got some great people around me and I did my training. Also, I’ll try to hang out with Ben King a lot in case I need to ask for something in Spanish.

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