Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Phil Gaimon's "Pro Cycling on $10 a Day"

Unlike those books explaining how to travel Europe on ten dollars a day, Phil Gaimon's "Pro Cycling on $10 a Day" isn't full of tips and tricks on how to race on the cheap, but is rather a lament on how poorly treated and how little racers on the lowest rungs of professional racing in the US are paid.

When he graduated from college in 2009 and began racing for the Jelly Belly team, the oldest of America's Divison three teams, he received a salary of $2,000, which amounted to a monthly pay check of $166.60.  After his first season, despite some success, he was offered no raise, so he shifted to the Kenda team and a salary of $15,000.  Neither figures add up to ten dollars per day.  Gaimon no doubt took a creative writing class or two as an English major at the University of Florida, and puts more emphasis on catchy writing than on being so precise about monetary matters.

Gaimon was a good enough student for a professor to encourage him to stay on at school in a fully supported master's program.  Though both his parents were college professors, academia did not call him.  Racing his bike meant more, so much so that he skipped his graduation ceremony to take a training ride, though he did dangle a tassel from his helmet as he rode, or so he says. He has been making use of his degree with writing for "Bicycing" magazine and more lately with a monthly humor column for "Velo."  There is no shortage of humor in his book, though in contrast to his column, it is much more concerned with portraying the harsh reality of the sport than making wisecracks.

He describes in detail his less than honest salary negotiations with his first two team directors, Danny Van Haute of Jelly Belly and Chad Thompson of Kenda, and also questions their capabilities as strategists and the basic running of a team, particularly riling Thompson. Michael Creed, a former racer who knows the ins and outs of the sport as well as anyone and is mentioned a couple of times in the book, told Gaimon when he joined him on Creed's Open Mic podcast on September 24 earlier this year that he heard Thompson suggested to Van Haute that they sue Gaimon.  Van Haute declined, saying that everything he wrote was true.  Gaimon had not heard the story, but was not surprised.  He said he held no grudges against Van Haute and "tried not to crap on him too much," but he had no sympathy for Thompson.  "He would lie to your face much worse than Van Haute," he told Creed.

He also told Creed that the Velo Press lawyers went over the book with a fine tooth comb and eliminated quite a bit that would be hard to substantiate.  Under their advisement,  he also toned down some of his rhetoric, such as using the word "dishonest" rather than "a crook."  Gaimon was no stranger to lawyers, as he had once been contacted by representatives of Lance Armstrong to stop selling "Liveclean" t-shirts.  

He has no respect for Armstrong.  His biography made him nauseous.  Gaimon dedicated his book to Armstrong's  missing testicle and Tyler Hamilton's phantom twin.  He is so adamantly anti-drug that he had a bar of soap with the word "Clean" tattooed on his inner arm so it would be visible when he raised his arms in victory.  He inspired quite a few other racers to do the same.  He had a close encounter with the drug mentality of the sport at his initial Jelly Belly training camp when the team doctor suggested he might be asthmatic, which would entitle him to take the drug Albuterol that many racers take.  He declined, partially inspired by a teammate who likewise was appalled by the doctor's invitation into the shady world of performance enhancing drugs.  Viagra too was known to make one a better racer.  At the Tour of Qinghai Lakes in China many of those Gaimon was riding with sampled the easily available local version.

There's little in the way of advice on how to survive on $166.60 a month.  Selling jerseys and writing were two of his ways.  He does advise that one should always carry duct tape.  It came in handy once when he and several of his teammates were driving recklessly to a race in a company vehicle that had been loaned to them by a friend.  Not only did it have the company name on the van, but also its phone number.  When the owner started receiving phone calls complaining about whoever was driving his vehicle, they covered up the phone number with duct tape and sped on their way.

He admits that he was a disruptive smart-aleck in high school.  In the Tour of Californina one year he mouthed off at Tom Danielson when Danielson reprimanded him for sprinting ahead of the peloton when Levi Leipheimer in the Yellow Jersey stopped for a pee break.  Danielson didn't know that he had been given permission by Leipheimer to take the lead for a while to give his small team some attention.  After explaining this to Danielson, he concluded, "Fuck off Christian," to further incense him, making him think that he didn't know who he was, mistaking him for his higher profile teammate Christian Vande Velde.

He and Damielson later became very good friends in spite of Danielson having been a doper.  They trained together.  Danielson respected his abilities as a climber enough to recommend him to his  Garmin team director, Jonathon Vaughters.  The book concludes with Gaimon receiving a contract from Vaughters at the end of the 2013 season.  He is so over enjoyed with the opportunity to move up to the big leagues after five years in the minors struggling on starvation wages that he immediately agrees.  "How could I be expected to negotiate through tears of joy," he wrote.

Tears also punctuate his first place finish in the 2012 Redlands stage race, his most signifcant victory.  After he sewed up the win in the time trial he wrote, "I teared up in my aero helmet." It meant so much to him that he told Creed, "When I typed that I was crying, and every time I edited it, I would tear up."

Gaimon is so intent on giving a full picture of his life in the racing world, that he unnecessarily lapses into the scatalogical.  His judgement on what is worthy of mentioning becomes highly questionable.  Do we need to know that a teammate would masturbate as a pre-race ritual or that another was trying to get his girl friend to try anal sex, but would cry whenever he made an attempt?  

He thinks it so hilarious that an Italian teammate doesn't know what "blow job" or "come on my face" means, that he is brought to tears.  The same teammate demanded that he always flush the toilet when they were roommates.  Gaimon would purposely not to upset him.  Another teammate would never do a number two in a public restroom, and after going at home would always take a shower,  He shocks a female masseus when he takes a break during the middle of a massage and returns with Nutella smeared all over his ass.  After a fellow racer sent him a research study that suggested that direct sunlight on one's testicles would increase one's testosterone levels, he and his teammates texted one another photos of their naked sun bathing.

At least when he tells about taking a piss in his shorts during the Tour of California he includes Thor Hushovd in the story.  The pace was too fast to stop, so he just dropped to the rear of the peloton for a leak on the bike.  It was a cold day.  As he peed, he was joined by Hushovd, who commented in a thick Norwegian accent, "Much warmer now, eh?"  One of the highlights of the week-long tour was  crossing the Golden Gafe Bridge at a parade pace and being able to stop and take a piss off the bridge.

Not too many anecdotes included prominent names in the sport, as he rarely raced against them.  The Tour of California was one of the rare exceptions.  He and a teammate had some fun throwing water bottles againste road signs.  The sound startled European racers unaccustomed to the prank, thinking there had been a crash.  Tom Boonem was so impressed he gave it a try and then sent a teammate back to the team car for more ammunition.

Gaimon doesn't dwell on the pain and suffering of racing, as do many such books.  He acknowledges the toll the hard effort extracts without glorifying or savoring it as did Chris Foome in his biography "The Climb."  Froome repeatedly comments on his love of suffering and is rhapsodic as he reaches pure and exquisite pinnacles of pain.

Gaimon simply says, "I feel pain, but it doesn't bother me: looking around, I always feel like the toughest man in the room."  He cites two occasions of extreme pain though. The first was after a supreme effort at Redlands to just barely retain his lead.  He wrote, "I couldn't speak for close to an hour.  I'd never been in so much pain in my life."

Later at the Nationals he was in a solo break for 45 minutes.  He occupied himself by thinking of friends and supporters, allowing him to "dig deeper and suffer more than I ever had."  He was caught 500 meters from the finish.  He was heartbroken, but the next day he received the offer from Vaughters.

He had a year to exhilarate riding for the Garmin team, but that sadly came to an end.  Despite winning his first race with Garmin, stage one of the Tour de San Luis in Argentina and finishing second overall to Nairo Quintana, who went on to win the Giro that year, his contract with Garmin was not renewed for 2015.  He'll be back racing for a small domestic team, Optim-Kelly Benefit this time, in 2015 hoping for another offer from a World Tour team.  Even at the age of 29 he clings to the dream of riding in The Tour de France and having a Yellow Jersey to hang on the wall of a palatial estate. 

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Étape" by Richard Moore

With "Étape" Richard Moore returns to the formula of intimate interviews in the homes of cycling luminaries focusing on a specific race that worked so effectively in his masterpiece "Slaying the Badger," and produces another gold-nugget of a book that will thrill anyone who enjoys insights into the nitty-gritty of the sport and its principals.  Moore once again demonstrates he is part-master conversationalist, part-confessor figure and part-incisive inquisitor. He makes his subjects feel so at ease that they reveal previously unreported telling details that fully bring to life and illuminate the stories he is writing about.

While "Slaying the Badger" concentrated solely on one race, the 1986  Tour de France won by Greg LeMond, "Étape" devotes a chapter each to twenty significant stages of The Tour de France between 1971 and 2012.  Moore declines to go any further back, as the crux of his book are his penetrating interviews, knowing how fascinating it was for him and his readers when he was able to sit down with Hinault and LeMond and others in his previous book, resulting in a captivating and incisive understanding of the first of LeMond's three Tour wins.  

LeMond and Hinault are involved in four of the twenty stages recounted here, but none from 1986, since he already so thoroughly covered it.  The 1989 time trial when LeMond overcame a fifty second deficit to Laurent Fignon on the final stage to win by eight seconds, the closest Tour ever, was one of the obvious choices to include in the book.  Likewise was the 1992 stage to Sestriere dramatically won by Claudio Chiappucci, holding off a fast-charging Miguel Indurain.   

That 1992 stage was also noteworthy for LeMond finishing fifty minutes back.  He was one of eighteen riders who missed the time cut, eliminating him from The Race.  Just two years before LeMond had won The Tour.  This was one of the early indicators of the advent of EPO into the peloton.  Moore doesn't bring up drugs when he interviewed the flamboyant Chiappucci sitting on a couch in his villa surrounded by pillows adorned with his face and trophies and trinkets and photographs of himself, including one with the Pope.  He did ask him, though, if he felt sympathy for LeMond.  Not one bit.  He still harbored ill will to him after their battle in the 1990 Tour, won by LeMond.

Moore is such a respected writer Lance Armstromg agreed to be interviewed by him as long as he stuck to the two stages he wanted to talk about for the book--his first Tour stage win in 1995 after the death of his teammate Fabio Casartelli and the stage in 2003 when he was dragged down by a boy's musette bag in the Pyrenees.  But Armstrong felt so comfortable with Moore when he visited him in Austin, even driving with him to a golf course, that he brought up his antagonism towards Travis Tygaart, the investigator who brought him down, and his many haters.

Armstrong was most frank, providing one of many superb interviews.  He described Casartelli as very jovial and fun-loving, and added, "He didn't act like all the other Italians.  He was less serious, he whined a lot less.  A lot of the other Italian guys, I always considered them to be whiners."  

During his long breakaway on the 18th stage of the 1995 Tour, his team director Hennie Kuiper kept driving up to him to tell him how far ahead he was of his pursuers, as this was before the introduction of radios to the peloton.  Armstrong didn't want to be told and grew irritated.  "Hennie was kind of an annoying guy anyway," Armstrong told Moore, "but finally I told him, 'Hennie, don't come up here again.  They're not going to catch me."

Moore was able to include Shelley Verses, one of his favorite interviews from his earlier book.  She was the first female soignieur in the European peloton in the 1980s, causing quite a stir.  She was the masseus for Jean-Francois Bernard during the 1987 Tour that he lost to Stephen Roche.  He fell out of Yellow on the 19th stage in the Alps. After he crossed the line four minutes after Roche, he fell into the arms of Verses in tears.  Even on the massage table later he was still crying.  "Every time a tear came out of his eye, I just dabbed," she recounted.  Verses, who was briefly married to Phil Andersen, is a great wealth of fascinating details.  Moore should make his next book her biography.  He got a good start on it with a nine-page profile of her for Rouleur magazine.

Bernard's weren't the only tears in "Étape."  Chiappucci admitted he was cracking and nearly in tears on his breakaway to Sestriere.  Fignon said he cried for the first time since he was a child on the podium in 1989 after losing to LeMond.  And LeMond acknowledged tears during the 1989 Giro when he was struggling, yet to regain his form after his shooting accident two years earlier.  After losing seventeen minutes on one stage he called his wife in tears and told her, "I can't do this any more.  Get ready to sell everything."   But the tears were the emotional release he needed.  He finished second on the final time trial and realized that there was hope and that he might have a chance in the upcoming Tour, which he went on to win.

Two chapters are devoted to Mark Cavendish, a notorious crier.  Moore describes him as "highly sensitive, he would burst into tears and declare his love for his teammates."  One of the stages in the book describes his struggles climbing the Tourmalet in last place accompanied by his teammate Bernie Eisel, who is prodding him to make the time cut.  Cavendish is pissed at him and they ride parallel to each other on opposite sides of the road, not even drafting.  Cavendish tosses aside his radio and sunglasses to eliminate weight to seemingly make it easier.

Cavendish refers to the series of cols he had to cross that day as the "Ring of Fire."  Moore correctly identifies it as the "Circle of Death."  He also corrects Hinault for saying he never rode Paris-Roubaix again after he won it in 1981.  Hinault hated riding the cobbles and boycotted the race.  Enough chiding made him go and do it proving he could win it and be done with it.  He likes to say he never rode it again, as he tells Moore.  But Moore points out he rode it again the year after winning it and finished ninth, something he would prefer to forget.  

As thorough and knowledgeable as Moore is, he's not immune to mistakes.  He wrote that when LeMond first met Armstrong, he told him he looked like a soccer player.  Moore is English, and he must have been confused, knowing the rest of the world refers to soccer as football.  Armstrong had a bigger upper body than most cyclists from his years as a swimmer and triathlete before focusing on cycling.  To LeMond he had the physique of a football player.

Moore includes a rest day as one of his stages so he can interview and tell the story of the Swiss rider Urs Zimmerman, who wrote a semi-autobiographical, obscure novel, "In the Crosswind," about a cyclist contending with depression. He had an aversion to flying, so rather than joining all the other riders on a transfer flight during the 1991 Tour, he drove several hundred miles with the team mechanics.  It was mandated that all riders fly on the same plane, so none could have the advantage of traveling by private jet.  His drive was actually more draining than flying, but The Tour authorities kicked him out of The Race for breaking the rules.  The peloton protested, and he was reinstated.

A chapter on Eddie Merckx focuses on three stages during his 1971 Tour battle with Luis Ocana.  Moore reveals that Ocana named his dog Merckx, so he could accustom himself to being in command of a Merckx.  It didn't work.  His lone Tour win came in 1973 when Merckx wasn't competing.  Moore only had Merckx to interview, as Ocana is no longer alive, so dug up the dog story from another source.  

Both Armstrong and Bobby Julich speak with great respect and affection for Jan Ullrich.  Julich finished third in the 1998 Tour, just behind Ullrich. Pantani won the overall and cemented his victory on stage fifteen in the Alps, another of Moore's choices for his book.  When Pantani attacked on the Galibier, he turned around and  looked back with a smile on his face that Julich said he'll never forget.  Earlier in The Race, Julich had admired the watch Ullrich was wearing, a Tag Heuer.  Ullrich told him he had an extra and to come around his room and he could have it.  Julich never did, even though Ullrich reminded him several times more.  In Paris after The Race Ullrich saw him once again in the lobby of his hotel and told him to wait and ran up to his room for the watch.

Moore tells a similar heart-warming story about David Millar in his chapter on the stage Millar won in the 2012 Tour.  During another Tour Moore noticed Millar giving a gendarme a team jersey after a stage outside the Garmin bus just as Christian Vande Velde did for me in Corsica.  Millar told Moore that the gendarme had shepherded him through the crowds clearing the way on a stage when he had had a bad day and was way behind everyone else. He greatly appreciated his efforts, helping him make the time cut.  

Hardly a page passes without such untold, insightful glimpses into the world of professional cycling.  There is not a better book on cycling than "Slaying the Badger."  I can't recommend it highly enough.  And this book is a very worthy companion to it.