Retirement means different things to different people, but for Phil Gaimon, stepping away from pro cycling opened the opportunity to scrub some of his local Strava records clean of the previously banned riders who held them.
Gaimon's account on the cycling social media platform has been a flurry of activity since he announced last month that this season with Cannondale-Drapac would be his last, and riders with a doping past have been his main targets.
In an article titled, "Who is Thorfinn-Sassquatch? The mysterious case of a Los Angeles Strava legend," published March 28 on Cyclingtips.com, author Peter Flax confirmed that Thorfinn-Sassquatch was none other than Nick Brandt-Sorenson, a 35-year-old former pro with a clothing line and a growing list of doping-related offenses.
Brandt-Sorenson most recently pleaded guilty last March in Los Angeles to selling EPO over state lines as part of an online business that involved acquiring PEDs from Europe and China and selling them online to athletes through a website called Anemia Patient Group.
Five years earlier, the US Anti-Doping Agency suspended Brandt-Sorenson for two years in 2011 after he tested positive for Efaproxiral, which enhances oxygen delivery, in a sample taken after he won the Masters 30-34 national championship road race in Bend, Oregon.
As detailed in Flax's article for Cyclingtips, Brandt-Sorenson, posting on Strava as Thorfinn-Sassquatch, has been the undisputed Strava king around LA. "This guy had hundreds of KOMs on the most iconic climbs around LA," Flax wrote.
That's where Gaimon comes in. The outspokenly anti-doping rider, who sports a "clean" tattoo on his bicep, needed a new hobby when his pro career came to an end in the face of this year's tight market. Rather than returning to the Continental level with a US domestic team, Gaimon chose to step aside and focus his professional pursuits elsewhere.
Unfinished business on the bike
Although his pro cycling career is done, there are a few more battles Gaimon wants to win in the saddle before his WorldTour fitness fades and the years of sacrifice it took to get there are just stories for one of his books.
"It's hard to figure out what to use it for, because it's just going to go away," Gaimon told Cyclingnews by phone Wednesday from a cabin he recently purchased at Big Bear Lake with the intention of offering it as a rental for cyclists who need an altitude training base.
"I'm just going to watch it go away, and it's sort of sad," he said of his fitness. "It's really sad, because it took 10 years to build up a really good 15 minute power-to-weight ratio. Then it's just going to be gone. It's disappointing. I just want to see how long I can hold onto it. I'm assuming I won't be able to do anything incredible on a bike in a year or two."
Cleaning up the Strava KOMs in his adopted hometown seemed like a good place to start. Although he'd trained in the area extensively over the past couple of years, Gaimon had never had the time or inclination to focus on picking up the many Strava records. But when the few he'd picked up incidentally started falling to Thorsinn-Sassquatch, he began to wonder.
"I was going up these climbs thinking, 'No one's doing more than that who I don't know personally,'" Gaimon said. "There were a couple that were like that. And I have friends who have attempted these or who he's taken KOMs from. It feels like for someone to kind of cheat and race against a bunch of nice dudes from LA who train hard, and then take EPO to take their Strava is sort of ridiculous. So I can be kind of the Robin Hood and reclaim those until somebody gets good enough to take it out."
The most notable former Thorfinn-Sassquatch trophies that now sit on Gaimon's Strava mantle include the climbs up Mandeville and Mt. Wilson. He also took the Latigo climb from longtime KOM holder Levi Leipheimer, another former pro with a doping past.
"Mandeville was the white whale," Gaimon said. "That one took me several tries. Mt. Wilson is a good one, and Latigo. A lot of people have been trying that one. I heard Hincapie did a full team effort at one of their camps and couldn't do it."
Getting out of the house
Gaimon said his effort to scrub the Strava records in his neighborhood is not yet complete.
"There are a bunch in the city," he said. "Like at Griffith Park – I live right near there by the Hollywood sign, and there are a million different ways to go up to the top. He must live near there because he's gotten all those. I've gotten most of the good ones, but there are more. I'm assuming I'm going to be working in an office starting in January, so get up early, ride 15 minutes to the park and go for these is kind of a fun way to stay fit and get me out of the house."
Although knocking riders with doping pasts from their perches atop the Strava segments is its own reward, Gaimon hopes his assault on Brandt-Sorenson's records serves another purpose. He wants local riders to understand the level of fitness that pros possess versus that of the average "local hero."
"The level is real, so that's part of the message too," he said. "This guy has been a cheater and he's the king of the scene, and I haven't had any trouble. Mt. Wilson is his favourite and I got that by four minutes. I was laughing the last 2km. He's not a professional, and I know guys who could go much faster than me on all of these. They just have better shit to do. Everyone in the world who can climb up those hills faster than me has better shit to do in November."
Of course, no good deed goes unpunished, and some of the feedback Gaimon has encountered since he started his Strava effort has been negative, alleging that if he's beating the times of a rider with a doping past, he must be doping himself. He characterised the feedback as "funny," because the accusations are a first for him after more than a decade of racing in some of the world's hardest events.
"They didn't accuse me of doping when I beat Chris Horner up a climb?" Gaimon asks incredulously. "They put these Strava's at such a high level in their heads. There's no sense of what the local hero is relative to the real world. I did 500 things in races this year that are way more impressive than the Stravas I've taken.
"So if you're gong to accuse me of doping, let it be because I shredded the field up Gibraltar at Tour of Cali, not because I beat some chump 35-year-old cheater on Mandeville. But that's what the perception is. I hadn't had anyone accuse me of doping until the last two weeks. It's been multiple times."
Easing into retirement
Aside from reclaiming some the local records, Gaimon says he's been on an extended paid vacation since his season ended in September following the Tour of Alberta. Gaimon raced just 16 days in the second half of the season, so it became clear early on that his pro career would be coming to an end.
"Normally if I was racing next year I'd have a lot of work to be doing," he said. "I'd be doing over 20 hour weeks by now and into the 30s in a couple of weeks, and going to training camps, bike fits and sponsor stuff. That's kind of what goes on right now. But for me, I sort of started getting the message that I was retiring in the summer, so I've been on a blissful, I don't know, call it a five-month vacation, which I needed to get my shit in order.
"It takes that long for a pro cyclist to find a real job," he said. "But also, that was earned through many years of suffering and many bumping of elbows in Belgium. But it's been great. I get to do whatever I want and get paid for it."
Gaimon said he has been moving in a few directions as he looks to the future. He'll keep his Malibu gran fondo and some sponsor relationships within the cycling industry, and, like a lot of people in Hollywood, he's got an idea for a reality TV show that he describes as "Bourdain on bikes with celebrity guests."
"I have a job offer at a media company in LA that I'm most likely going to take and love," he added.
No matter the direction Gaimon finally takes, however, cycling is likely to remain a part of his life for the foreseeable future.
"It says a lot about how great cycling is that I'm still doing it," he said. "I wondered if I would hate it. I read the Andre Agassi book over the summer, where he said he hates tennis. It keeps coming back to that and you're trying to believe it. You're supposed to feel bad for him, and I was reading it as my career was falling apart. I was like, 'He's lucky. Because I really like this thing and I'm going to miss it.'"