A review of:
Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: from Fat Kid to Euro Pro
Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)
by Phil Gaimon
Reviewed by Tom Abray
Phil Gaimon went to university to get an English degree, but while he was there he also learned how to race bicycles. He made up for his late start in the sport with his natural aerobic capacity and a lot of hard work on and off the bike. Gradually, (mile by mile) he climbed through the ranks of professional road cycling in the United States until, in his late twenties, he signed a contract with Team Garmin-Sharp to race on the World Tour, the highest level of men’s road bicycle racing.
Gaimon has made a second career (or maybe third; he also started a biking apparel company) out of recounting the behind-the-scenes life of a post-Armstrong era professional cyclist. His first book Pro Cycling on $10 a Day follows him from high school, to his introduction to bike racing at university, until he finally secured an offer from a World Tour team. In addition to being a huge accomplishment in his cycling career, moving to the World Tour also provided a climactic ending for his first book, which was published while he was still a pro.
Both books are engaging and well-paced. Gaimon recounts the action of many of his races, capturing the experience of being on the bike for hours, suffering, asking more of his body, finding a second-wind, being barked at from the team car and taking risks on descents. He writes about interactions with teammates, rivals, directors and support staff with wit and energy, as if the race had taken place just a few days ago. He either has an excellent memory, or he took notes, or he’s good at breathing life into what for many former racers must be mostly a blur of pedalling, punctuated by a few near-death experiences and, if they’re really good, the occasional moment of glory.
Compared to most sports writing and celebrity autobiography, the writing in both books is refreshing. Careful not to let the action lag, Gaimon still manages to include concise passages of self-reflection and to sketch in enough of his life outside of cycling to raise the stakes of his athletic adventures or place his sporting life in a larger perspective, where there is love and loss and more important issues than who wins a bicycle race.
The books, which are not ghost-written, give the impression that Gaimon enjoys and cares about the literary craft, and that he has read some good books. It seems that he has taken some pride in his work, his writing work, and that he isn’t motivated solely by an opportunity to cash in on a career in pro sports, although, given the modest financial rewards he received from a decade of racing, that would be understandable.
The “$10/day” of the first title is not much of an exaggeration. Despite being a contender in some of the biggest road races in the U.S., Gaimon was being paid less for riding his bike than he would have been for working at the local bookstore. He supplemented his income by selling sportswear and writing articles for cycling magazines, and he made himself valuable to sponsors by developing a following through the emerging world of social media. He lived out of his car much of the year, commuting across the U.S. to races and training camps. During the off-season he shared a house with other riders, often brought together more out of necessity than domestic compatibility.
On one level the first book is a survival story. Gaimon had to make important decisions almost every day: which race to go to, how to train, how to get there, how to race. Most of the time the looming question was, “Who would he ride for next year?” Good results were a means to an end, a way to impress team directors, so that he might move from a $15, 000 to a $25, 000 contract. A bad day of racing could mean future unemployment. A freakish crash, a flat tire, a stomach bug could undermine months of relentless training.
There is something romantic about it—travelling North America, living out of a car, scraping by, free to be a slave to a hopeless dream. Early in the first book, Gaimon says that he has always liked the word “precarious”, and it certainly seems that one has to half-embrace the race-to-race lifestyle and laugh along with the cycling gods in order to keep up morale. One also needs a lot of raw, perhaps—Gaimon acknowledges—reckless, will.
Although the story has a romantic side to it, Gaimon does not romanticize. He had just achieved his dream of racing on the World Team Tour when $10 was published and yet in the introduction he says he is hesitant to advise young cyclists to follow their dreams. Unfortunately, added to the list of challenges facing all athletes— like relationship sacrifices, self-discipline, and injury—was the current state of his sport.
As well as being a kind of quest for elusive athletic success, Gaimon’s two-volume story is to some extent an exposé of the underbelly of professional road cycling. In Gaimon’s view pro-cycling is still righting itself after being knocked off course by the drug-scandal era that disgusted many fans and scared away sponsors. To complicate matters, a lot of Americans of Gaimon’s generation were drawn to the sport at a time when it was energized by the successes of Lance Armstrong. With positive tests and overdue confessions, early heroes were turned into despised villains.
It was an era filled, understandably, with strong emotions. In a kind of pious rebelliousness Gaimon and a few similarly-minded riders made a trip to the tattoo parlour to have “CLEAN” inked into their skin, swearing that if any of them were ever caught cheating the others would track down the offender and scrub the tattoo off with a wire brush. However, the clean vs. dirty = good vs. evil equation was soon complicated.
Gaimon ended up training with Tom Danielson, a reformed EPO user, and couldn’t help but like and respect him, although the friendship earned him disparaging comments from less forgiving peers. Gaimon continued to view former cheaters warily, but he tended to give them a begrudging chance to prove their redeeming qualities. By the end of Draft Animals, having spent most of his twenties trying to carve out a living from bike racing, he almost seems half-ready to allow for the slight possibility that even Lance Armstrong might be an okay guy on some level, which suggests an incremental change of opinion (a maturation perhaps), given that he began $10 with a mock dedication to Armstrong’s “famous missing testicle”.
At the beginning of $10, Gaimon says that cycling transformed him from an overweight, underachieving, sarcastic teenager into a fit, keen university student. The sharp-tongue of his sarcasm, however, stayed with him. This gives the books an edge that mostly contributes to its engaging style, though at times it seems slightly gratuitous.
Despite his impressive athletic skills and achievements, Gaimon never comes off as a braggart, which can definitely be a pitfall in books about success stories. As an autobiographer he does not hesitate to laugh at himself and the humble sport of cycling. He also laughs at others, sometimes maliciously. Occasionally, he is a little self-righteous, playing the role of a kind of good bad-boy who doesn’t filter his often critical, sometimes petty judgments of others.
Some readers may be a little surprised to see Gaimon take the time to raise suspicions about fan favourite Jens Voigt’s “clean” status and to portray him as a bit of a flake. Gaimon shows even less love (for various reasons) for stars of the sport like Ryder Hesjedal (a teammate), Bradley Wiggins, Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellera. It’s not about envy, though. He expresses admiration for his teammate, the successful rider Dan Martin. And even though up-and-comer Mike Woods outclimbed Gaimon at training camp, Gaimon praises his talent and character.
Gaimon’s retelling of jokes and high jinks can amount to “had to be there” moments. Perhaps they are best taken as a symptom of the desperate monotony that needed to be relieved on long drives and five-hour training rides, or the byproduct of living in close quarters with half-starved men who spared the best of their mental and physical energies for pedalling up mountains in the rain. The sense of humour works better when it’s observational. When a woman sitting next to him on a bumpy flight rushes off the plane toward the smoking area to soothe her anxiety, Gaimon asks the reader which is more likely to kill her, flying or smoking?
Stylistically, the books are similar. In fact, his whole career could have been covered in one book. (A couple of chapters at the beginning of Draft Animals, which recap the main events of $10 would have been unnecessary.) But this would have changed the author’s proximity to his “early years”. When it comes to sports writing a front row seat is usually more entertaining than fading photographs.
After assessing his contract options after his second year on a World Tour team, Gaimon decided that he had gotten all that he could get out of pro cycling. It is no weakness of the book that the final pages feel less like an ending than a new beginning. If there is a final “scene”—a last passage where Gaimon sets us down in time and place—it is when he is sitting on his porch, writing, and it feels just a little as if his decade-long cycling adventure has been given new value as material for a book. The adventure of becoming a pro cyclist is wrapped inside the adventure of becoming a writer.
In the Afterword, as Gaimon ponders for a final time the wisdom of chasing one’s dream, he observes, “Most people who chase a dream don’t get a happy ending. The best I can do is ride off into the sunset.” In fact, he’s done more than ride away. Out of his experiences, he has created two engaging books that offer an intelligent account of a young American pro cyclist chasing his dream in a transitional era of pro cycling.