Phil Gaimon is getting his call-up to the WorldTour. The Bissell rider has signed a deal to ride with Garmin-Sharp in 2014.
Gaimon placed second overall at Silver City’s Tour of the Gila in May and was the 2012 winner of the Redlands Cycling Classic.
The signing, while notable, will come as little surprise to careful observers. Indeed, its likelihood was telegraphed only days ago during the U.S. professional road championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee. As Gaimon was in the midst of what appeared to be a winning solo breakaway over the race’s closing kilometers — and with his own team’s riders among the chase — Garmin boss Jonathan Vaughters tweeted an unlikely message of support.
“OK, I’m going to show some odd favoritism,” wrote Vaughters. “I’m a @philgaimon fan. Go Phil!!!!!!!”
Though the Athens, Georgia, resident’s attack would be neutralized as the race reached its final kilometer, Gaimon’s move earned him honors as the race’s most combative rider. For the 27-year-old, a leap to cycling’s top division marks both the culmination of a long-standing effort and a new beginning.
“It’s really exciting,” he told VeloNews. “This has been a goal — and a bit of a moving target — ever since I started racing.”
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 explained. “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 U-23 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 professional cycling, signing his first contract for $166 a month. His meager earnings on the U.S. Continental 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.
“Last year [while riding for Kenda-5-hour Energy] I had a good season, but even then I was balancing a couple of other jobs just trying to get by.”
Gaimon’s late success in the absence of systemic support caught Vaughters’ attention.
“A lot of Phil’s story had been kept off of my radar,” Vaughters explained, “but I’d kept in touch with him over the past couple of years and finally I said to him, ‘What’s the deal? You won Redlands and now suddenly you’re showing all of this promise? You’re Pete Stetina’s age. Where was all this talent when you were younger?’”
Gaimon explained his circuitous path to the top of the podium and impressed the Garmin manager.
“It wasn’t easy for him,” said Vaughters. “He was driving around the country and sleeping in the back of a station wagon. So I thought, ‘Ok. You’ve basically bootstrapped yourself to the point where you’ve had this much success. Let’s see what happens when you get a little support underneath you.”
Gaimon’s signing came down to more than just talent for Vaughters. His intellect and personality impressed Vaughters as much as his physiology.
“Listen, there’s a lot of talented guys out there,” Vaughters told VeloNews. “But Phil is also very bright. He’s a good writer and he seems to be a genuinely good person. That stuff goes a long way with me.”
Gaimon writes the monthly “Ask a Pro” column for Velo magazine, as well as a regular online column for VeloNews, and has worked in recent months on a book about his life in domestic cycling.
“You know, with every guy I’ve ever selected for this team, I’ve always wanted his personality to be right for what was going on,” Vaughters said. “I don’t like to hire mercenaries. I like to hire people … good people. People with heart and people with a conscience. Phil’s a guy who’s going to fit right into the culture of our team, which is founded around clean racing.”
Gaimon, who sports a soap bar tattoo reading “CLEAN” on his bicep, is equally convinced of his fit at Garmin.
“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 explained. “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?”
Gaimon knows the leap to European road racing will not be without its challenges.
“Obviously the racing is going to be harder,” he said. “My biggest race this year will be like an average race next year. But I do plan to step up my game and since this became a reality I’ve already been setting goals in terms of what I need to do with my training and lifestyle.”
Vaughters said only time will tell where Gaimon fits best within his team, but already envisions his newest rider as a potential support player to classics leader Dan Martin, winner of April’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège.
“I see Martin as potentially the best one-day, hilly classics rider out there right now. He’s coming up and coming into the peak of his career,” Vaughters said. “To win those races you need a lot of teammates around you in the waning moments of a race. Not just guys who can shuttle bottles during the first hundred kilometers, but guys that are still there after 215 kilometers. At that point, having two or three teammates who are not only still in the mix, but intelligent enough to really read the race is a huge asset. I see Phil as someone who could become one of Martin’s right-hand men in the Ardennes classics.”
For Gaimon, the prospect of supporting Martin through the Ardennes is one he believes even his parents can get behind with enthusiasm.
“When I was in college, I think they thought [cycling] was sort of a phase I was going through,” Gaimon explained with a laugh. “My parents are both college professors at Georgia Tech, so I think they saw me going a nerdier route than pro cyclin g… if that’s even possible.
“They were [at nationals] in Chattanooga, watching me race on the Jumbotron. I think they’ve figured out that I’m doing ok at this. I think I can even put off grad school for another year without making them too mad.”