Phil Gaimon on the drama between WorldTour vs. Continental teams

Phil Gaimon (Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefits)

Phil Gaimon (Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefits) (Image credit: Sam Wiebe)

It’s nothing new, but there’s been much talk about WorldTour-Continental team relations at Utah and USA Pro Challenge, and I’ve been on both sides of it now, so I wanted to share what’s really going on, and try to calm everyone down in the process.

Bike racing is tough, we’re all in it together, and everyone deserves respect. But in general, the better riders and teams deserve more respect. How much more is up to debate.

WorldTour guys want the Continental teams to never fight them for a wheel, to stay out of the way while the grown-ups race for the win. Ideally, Conti riders would just sit at the back until they get dropped. I get that, but it’s Continental teams that aren’t going to start every climb from 50 guys back. They’re too hungry to make it that easy, and too good.

The best illustration of this conflict is the pee stop. If you’re not familiar, the pee stop happens after the early breakaway is gone, making it the last nail in the coffin for anyone who’s missed the break. Once everyone stops, the gap is too big to make it across, and you’re doomed to be pack fodder. The yellow jersey (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the jersey is pee-colored) pulls off at the front, everyone stops with him, and it’s generally the best part of the day, unless you’re the lucky bastard who wins, or you’re the unlucky bastard who was supposed to make the break, but you missed it.

You can guess which bastard I was in 2009, my first year as a professional. I was on a small American team, racing the Tours of California and Missouri against some of the top names in the sport: Lance, Levi, lots of guys making more money than our entire team budget.

I’m still infamous for an incident that year, when Levi Leipheimer was in yellow at Missouri. The break was just up the road, and my team had missed it again. As Levi pulled over for a pee break, I told him I’d be in trouble if I didn’t get up there, and asked if it was cool if I jumped across while he peed.

Levi laughed and said sure. So I attacked, which of course looked like a massive level of disrespect to the rest of the pack, who didn’t know that I literally had permission from the guy I was “disrespecting.” I was chased down, cussed out, and berated by some of my heroes.

I must not have learned my lesson, because I did it again at California two years later. I didn’t ask permission this time, because the WorldTour teams were trying to block the road when the breakaway was only four guys, and they did it right at the start, when we’d barely had a chance to try. I saw this as an abuse of yellow jersey power. They wanted an easier day, chasing four instead of six or eight.

I pushed my way to the front, squeezed through, gesturing that I would ride ahead and pull over to pee, but as soon as I saw daylight, I went for it. Got yelled at for that one, too. I didn’t make it up to the break, but I tried.

Some of the Americans pat me on the back after those incidents, admiring my guts or something. Mike Creed is still laughing about it. Others were angry that I made them look bad, that I didn’t follow the rules. One teammate later said he was embarrassed to wear the same jersey as I was.

Here’s the thing about rules: if you play by someone else’s, you lose every time. If you don’t mind playing by someone else’s rules, you’re hereby invited to my place for high-stakes poker, and you’ll leave broke.

Last year, I was on Garmin-Sharp, and I was the guy controlling the breakaway at big races for my teammates to win. The director would tell us “no more than six in the break.” So six get up the road, we chase down 15 attacks in a row, and finally a break is out of sight. We’d ride tempo at the front for a few minutes, so that anyone else who wants to attack has a chance. If nothing happens, we line up across the road, ride slow, and take a nature break and a sigh of relief as the gap goes up. Then some guy from some little team blasts around you and into no-man’s land (just like I did years before).

I’d get real mad at my past self sometimes. I yelled, just as I was yelled at, but here are a couple considerations for the WorldTour guy that helped me stay calm and forgive.

Things to remember for WorldTour guys:

-Remember that the little guy has a job to do, aside from the three jobs he works on the side to make rent while you’re shopping for sports cars in Monaco. Don’t be greedy about the size of the breakaway.

-The rider that attacks the pee break is only doing it because he wasn’t strong enough to go when everyone else was attacking. He can’t make it across. He’ll fry in no man’s land for awhile and come back before the feed zone, his jersey covered in salt. When he does, you should yell at him.

-He’s not attacking to disrespect you. He’s doing it so he can keep his job.

-If they break your rule—no matter how blatant—go ahead and yell and cuss, but don’t steer someone into the ditch or take your hands off the bars. We’re all ripping around on real skinny tires, and there’s too much potential for collateral damage.

-But when you’re yelling, there are things you can say that might get you punched. Some guys get real confident on the bike, forgetting that they’re 150 pounds and actually quite wimpy in the real world.

-When you’re a team with a $40 million budget, you’re almost always going to beat the team with $1 million. Let them have their dignity.

-When the races are on camera, your revenge might go viral.

-If you scratch my custom-painted cookie bike, I’ll kill you.

Things to remember for Continental guys:

-You know how you get annoyed when an amateur tries to take your wheel at a local race? To the WorldTour guys, you’re an amateur.

-If they gave you a chance to make the break, but you’re not fit enough be at the front, that’s your fault. Accept it. Don’t worm your way up when it’s gone like I did.

-If you’re always putting your bars where they don’t belong, at some point, they’ll have to do something about it.

-Sometimes, you might have to break the rules. Make sure it’s worth it. And expect to get yelled at.

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