'Draft Animals' and What it Means to be 'the Best' in Cycling

Oct 23, 2017

Last weekend in southern China, the little-known Tour of Guangxi officially ended the season for World Tour cycling, a tour that includes better-known races like the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia.

Except for a brief period in the late 20th Century, professional road cycling has never been a popular, mainstream sport in the United States. The exception was the Lance Armstrong era, which ended in infamy amid allegations of doping and admissions of guilt.

Today, there are still many high-level cyclists from the United States competing on world tour teams. Until recently, Phil Gaimon was one of them. But even within the relative obscurity of the sport, he was best-known for his climbing prowess, and of course, his love for cookies.

But in addition to cycling, Gaimon has another impressive skill: writing. He’s the author of three books, the latest of which is a memoir of his two seasons on a World Tour team, called Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)For fans of sports books, it portrays a story that’s not often told - the story of an athlete who topped out somewhere in between success and failure. 

"What I came to peace to going into my last couple of years was, like, 'OK, I’m not gonna win the bike race, but I’m the best guy whose gonna be in the bike race and can tell you about it,'" he explains. 

"The people who kind of came in when I did, all we saw was just the mess of it - from the sponsors running away to people's scandals coming out from 5 years before."

Gaimon is a cyclist who rides with a tattoo which reads "clean," so it's fair to say he wears his feelings on doping on his sleeve. But he admits that when he first became a cyclist, the doping issue in the sport was already dying down. 

"My first year was like Lance's last, there was very little overlap. And the people who kind of came in when I did, all we saw was just the mess of it - from the sponsors running away to people's scandals coming out from 5 years before," says Gaimon. 

He continues, "I was always sort of good enough that I never - I never had to turn the stuff down. It just wasn't part of my world when I was coming up, but I was a victim of it. I was a victim of... the people who grew the sport that made it unsustainable." 

But sadly, Gaimon concedes that suspicion still follows nearly every rider who gains a measure of success in pro cycling, even five years to the month after the US Anti-Doping Agency issued its report on Lance Armstrong.  "I feel like when the whole [Armstrong] bubble burst, people felt betrayed," Gaimon says, "and now people roll their eyes at the whole sport." If anything, Gaimon says, the long-term legacy of the doping era lies in suspicion of the best, and relegation of cycling to lower-tier status among pro sports in this country.

"I don't know what can fix it, though," Gaimon says.  "I don't think cycling is ever meant to be mainstream - you know, we're the guys in the way in the bike lane.  Or we're the guys who wish there was a bike lane, and until then, you honk at us.

"And part of me - I liked it that way when I was coming up in the sport.  Everyone who was on my team was getting paid $6,000 to $45,000 a year and they're on the road all year - you just don't do it unless you love it."