Gaimon itching to show himself with Optum

This season will start with another period of adjustment for Phil Gaimon, the former Jelly Belly, 5-hour Energy and Bissell rider who earned his way to the WorldTour last year with Garmin-Sharp, only to see himself slip off the roster when the team merged with Cannondale in the off-season.

But any questions about whether Gaimon would fit in and feel at home with another new team were answered quickly at the Optum Pro Cycling training camp when he walked out of the team house for a media interview in his bare feet, pajama bottoms and a bathrobe, joking with his teammates, staff and anyone else within earshot along the way.

The only thing lacking from this picture of domestic bliss was a dog to fetch his slippers and newspaper.

At 29, Gaimon has forged himself into a journeyman racer with a career carved out of the oftentimes cutthroat and financially challenging world of domestic racing. After competing in the US for more than a decade, Gaimon got his shot at the big show last season, now he's back at the Continental level with a hankering to fight his way back to the sport's highest level one more time.

"For this year I could have slotted into a European team and made that adjustment, or it would be just as easy to go back to something that I'm comfortable with and races that I know and guys that I know," Gaimon told Cyclingnews at team camp in Oxnard, California earlier this week.

"I'm on a team of dudes where I don't have to make any friends," he said. "They're all my friends already. I know everybody. I'm going back to something that is comfortable and familiar, ready to regroup and smash everyone."

Gaimon is hoping a lot of that smashing will take place at the Tour of California in May against WorldTour competition. The UCI 2.HC race is his major focus for the season and his best launching pad back to the European peloton. The rider who has come out guns blazing the past three seasons is slowing things up a bit this year with a plan of coming good in time for the California race.

"I'm looking at stuff in the middle of the season and not the beginning of the season," he said. "Obviously I want to win every race that I do, but I think going into it slower this year and getting the basics dialled and then moving in and really coming up and peaking when I want to peak – that's what I'm looking at."

In 2012, Gaimon won the Redlands Bicycle Classic, the first race of USA Cycling's National Racing Calendar. In 2013 he was leading the San Dimas Stage Race before crashing horribly and being life-flighted to a local hospital. He sprang back from his injuries well enough that year to earn a contract with Garmin, and he started last season with a stage win and four days in the leader's jersey at the Tour de San Luis.

This year Gaimon and Optum will start the season in Portugal at the Volta ao Algarve at the end of this month. The race will feature eight WorldTour teams and some of the best riders in the world, like Team Sky's Richie Porte, fresh off his stage win on Willunga Hill at the Tour Down Under.

"It'll be fun to start our season with a little kick in the pants," Gaimon said. "That's really the only way to prep for California is to do something like that. I've done it from here before and you can't compete with 21 European race days.

"Portugal is going to be tough because we're on our first races, and the best guys there are on day 14. So it's always something to overcome, but it's easier to overcome that than it is once guys have Grand Tours in their legs around Utah and Colorado. So I think we're making the right moves as a team to go out there right now."

After Portugal, Gaimon will return to the US and likely compete in NRC races such as Redlands and Tour of the Gila before his big target in California. Gaimon, of course, won Redlands in 2012 and was second overall at Gila in 2013. But after a year in which he competed around the globe and started his season leading a race that he eventually lost to the winner of the Giro d'Italia, where will he find the motivation for Redlands?

"The motivation is that you want to get back over there again and have another shot at that stuff," he said. "It's not like it's a big adjustment to go back to the racing I've been doing for a million years. I made an adjustment last year, and now I'm just kind to back to normal."

But after a year on the WorldTour, there is a new "normal" for Gaimon, who says he's a much improved rider from the one who signed with Garmin after nearly soloing to a win at the US championships in Chattanooga in 2013.

"I kind of thought that racing in Europe wasn't going to be that much harder or that much of an education," he said. "I thought everyone was blowing it up, but no, it was different. It was a lot harder and I figured that out the first couple of races.

"I had Nathan Haas and Dan Martin saying to me in Beijing that the Phil Gaimon in October was nothing like the Phil Gaimon who was hanging on for dear life in March and April. These are just dudes who would notice that," he said. "So I think I'm a lot more comfortable with all kinds of stuff. Just a year of hard races, aside from the education, just what you get from your legs from getting your ass kicked a few times, I'll look for that to pay off this year."

The lessons Gaimon learned from his year in cycling's top division extend beyond the racing, and into the business side of the sport as well. One major lesson he hopes to apply this year will be to start working on a contract for the next season much earlier than he did last year when he put his eggs in the Garmin basket only to lose out in the merger.

"I'm looking to go back over there, and that's part of why I want to make a big show at Cali, because by Utah and Colorado things are already moving and it's a little late then," he said. "I had my performances last year at those races, and it was too late to do much with it.

"And there's just luck," he continued. "There's luck that hopefully we get a new team or two out there, or somebody doesn't fold or whatever, and I'm still in the pool of dudes they're looking at."

Gaimon said his desire to make it the big show in Europe is still "the biggest thing," as strong as it was two years ago before he had ever raced at that level.

"I think I would be better the second time around because I know how to do it now," he said. "I got a chance to learn the lessons last year but not to apply them, and that will be frustrating if somehow I don't get to apply them. I know I can go over there and be two notches better than I was last year, and I'm excited to do that someday with whatever team that is."

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