If you can see Mt. Baker, you are part of The Experience

Former pro cyclist Phil Gaimon talks Mt. Baker Hill Climb and chasing KOMs

Phil Gaimon at the Whiskey Tango Fondo, a gravel ride in Alabama Hills, California. Gaimon plans to race Whatcom County’s Mt. Baker Hill Climb in September and feature the event on his YouTube channel. Harrison Alpert photo[/caption]

By Ian Haupt

Retired professional cyclist Phil Gaimon will be competing in Whatcom County’s iconic Mt. Baker Hill Climb in September. Gaimon, who raced for UCI World Tour teams Garmin–Sharp and Cannondale, retiring in 2016, will feature the race and climb on his YouTube channel as he attempts to take the mountain’s Strava segment from another former pro.

Since retiring from professional cycling, Gaimon started a YouTube series called “Worst Retirement Ever,” where he documents his journey to attempt and claim some of the world’s most popular Strava segments.

He has also written two books about his time in the pro peloton, “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro” and “Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)” and published a collection called “Ask a Pro: Deep Thoughts and Unreliable Advice from America's Foremost Cycling Sage,” the latter of which was a column published monthly in VeloNews magazine while he was racing.

Mt. Baker Hill Climb is a 23-mile uphill road cycling race from Glacier to Artist Point where racers ascend nearly 4,500 feet on Mt. Baker Highway. This year, the race is Sunday, September 17.

While going for the win, Gaimon will also look to take the Strava King of the Mountain (KOM) segment from former professional cyclist Levi Leipheimer, who testified in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency’s case against Lance Armstrong and admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs between 1999 and 2007. Gaimon has been an outspoken opponent of doping in the cycling world, so much so that he had a bar of soap with the word “Clean” on it tattooed to the inside of his right bicep, making it visible anytime he won a race and posted up in celebration. The tattoo resembles the “Fight Club” movie logo. Both of his books also discuss the cycling world’s post-doping era.

Mount Baker Experience spoke with Gaimon in May after a busy spring of events and making videos, which can be seen on his YouTube channel at youtube.com/@worstretirementever. Questions and answers were edited for length and clarity.

Mount Baker Experience: How’d you hear about the Mt. Baker Hill Climb? When did you decide to do it?

Gaimon: There’s not that many hill climbs in the country, and I’ve been trying to check them all off. I sort of go region by region for budget’s sake, so I’m going to drive somewhere and do a little road trip. The Pacific Northwest is the one I haven’t managed to hit yet and it’s time to give the Mt. Baker Hill Climb a shot.

What other hill climbs have you done?

Mt. Washington [in New Hampshire], Mt. Evans in Colorado and Pike’s Peak.

Have you ever raced in Washington before?

Oregon a good bit, but no.

What’s the goal? Leipheimer has the record of just under 43 minutes in 2016. (The Strava segment begins shortly after crossing the North Fork of the Nooksack River, when the climb really starts, about 12 miles into the race.)

Well, that’s the goal, right?

What’s your summer look like?

I have a place in Big Bear, California. I was going to go up there, reset and train, and the main thing I want to build up to is Mt. Baker. I’ll probably make a trip and do one or two climbs out there as part of that.

Which ones?

I’ll probably try to sneak over and do Hurricane Ridge, which is nearby and kind of a legendary one. That’s one people have been requesting and sending me messages about for years. (This was before the Hurricane Ridge Day Lodge burned down on May 7. Hopefully, the road will reopen past Heart of the Hills before September, or sooner even.)

Of the mountains you’ve climbed — Mt. Lemmon, the French Alps, Tenerife — which psyched you out the most?

The thing with all of the European ones is the leaderboards are guys that have won Grand Tours and guys who consistently proved they were better than me. Like my racing generation is still up there, so a lot of them I go into with no hope of setting a record but curious to see how well I can do.

It’s kind of all gravy. I’m always surprised at how high up I am.

The Col de la Madone (just outside of Monaco) is one that I did recently this year. And I’m seven years retired and there are guys who were using that as their final preparation for winning the Tour de France or the Giro d’Italia. So it's just interesting like, “OK, for a 30-minute climb, I’m two minutes behind that guy.” But that still puts me like 11th overall.

Same for Tenerife, it’s the more recent training grounds. The guy who’s leading the Giro (who at the time was Remco Evenepoel, also the current road race world champion) had a couple of really stiff KOMs there. It’s interesting; it's a barometer. They have no idea they are being raced against. They’re somewhere else, but I get to give it a shot.

Riders head toward Mt. Whitney on the Whiskey Tango Fondo in Alabama Hills, California. Harrison Alpert photo

You did an impromptu climb while you were in Tenerife (a Spanish island off the northwest coast of Africa). Do you do that often — attempt a climb that the locals frequent more?

Yeah, I’ll have one that I think is interesting that I’ve heard about, probably from a race. Or it’s visually interesting, or I have a friend who says they used to train on it. Then you get somewhere and oftentimes the climbs the locals recommend are closer to cities. They’re more accessible.

In Los Angeles, Mt. Baldy is the most famous one in L.A. County, I would say. Which Tour of California raced up, and that was a KOM I targeted. But the more attempted ones are the ones that local folks do intervals on. That’s called Mandeville Canyon, and no one’s heard of that. But when I got that KOM a few years ago, my phone blew up. Everyone was like, “Holy sh*t!”

I want to compare myself to the best, and I think a lot of my audience want to compare themselves to me. So it’s a fun way to give both a shot.

Were you working a day job when you first started “Worst Retirement Ever?”

No, when I quit racing, I had a day job lined up and my start date kept getting delayed. And in the meantime, I was having fun but sponsors were approaching me to do social media, content and events. By the time the job started to pan out, I was like, “actually, I don’t need that.” And that was seven years ago.

What was the initial idea behind the series?

The thing was, I retired from racing on the young side — I was only 30. I still felt like I had a lot to give but nowhere to put it. And I had a few experiences: One, New Years Eve, 2016, so that was technically my last day as a professional. I wasn’t doing YouTube yet, but I was in Hawaii and went up Mauna Kea — another hill climb — on Maui. It’s the biggest climb you can do in one day. It goes from sea level to 10,000 feet. And I hadn’t heard of it until a few weeks before; I had a friend who was doing it.

It was this revelation that there’s a lot of value and cool stuff you can do in cycling that’s not the insular and closed system of European racing. That there’s a lot of adventures to be had and value for sponsors and audience for it. It was kind of a no-brainer to at least try to figure out that puzzle.

Why did you decide to retire at the age of 30?

There’s a lot of things to the sport. The shadow of the doping generation lingered. I think my abilities were there but not to the level where it was undeniable. I was better than a few guys on every team but not a lot of teams are like, “We need this guy to come 35th on the mountain top.”

Between that and I was very outspoken about anti-doping, but there’s still kind of a good ol’ boys network in that I don’t think folks wanted me around. I lost the politics angle of it to an extent. When I stopped, the initial sponsors were all brands that I raced with who saw my value in that context.

What would you be doing if it weren’t for cycling?

I love writing. I don't know if I’d be able to make a living on it. It’s an ugly … (laughs). I’ve published three books. I don't see how to do that full time. But that’s definitely a passion.

There’s always something in marketing, and I think I’m good at it. The job I had lined up was to be a sports agent. There’s a lot of marketing in that.

How has your advice to junior/developing cyclists changed over the years?

Phew, that’s a tough question. I would say I got to the top level, but I wouldn’t say I navigated my career very well. The American racing calendar was a lot more robust then —more sponsors, more events, more teams, to where you could make a living on the way up. Every year or two, one guy would be picked up by a European team and that was the end-all, be-all.

Phil Gaimon, r., at the Whiskey Tango Fondo, a gravel ride in Alabama Hills, California. Harrison Alpert photo

It was already fizzling or shrinking from when I started, but I think Covid probably knocked it down — there’s really only a handful of guys making a living in the U.S. So, my advice to juniors would be to target Europe sooner and get over there as fast as you can. Adapt your training to that. There’s more development teams now. There’s ways to get over there and prove yourself.

For the most part, it’s a lot more competitive. I think there’s fewer spots available over there. I’m not really sure that the way I did it is really feasible today.

What do you consider an overrated virtue?

That’s interesting … I’m trying to think how to word it. I think a lot of folks overemphasize the suffering element in cycling. There’s a mental toughness that the sport fetishizes, in brands and marketing. Never did I finish a race and have a feeling like, “Oh, I could have dug a little bit deeper.” That’s just not the conversation or reality. The preparation, the years, it’s just time.

When I stopped racing, I immediately and pragmatically took my training load down a lot, because I was training for something different. And it’s been pretty shocking how little fitness I’ve lost in that time. I do one long ride a week. I do a couple of intense rides. I do the efforts I’m really targeting less often. I’m not chasing the 80 race days and that whole rollercoaster anymore.

You’ve been doing the series for seven years now. What keeps you doing it?

I mean there are just so many places I haven’t gone yet. Everywhere I go people are super cool. I get to have adventures, and I have complete creative control.

People who ride bikes are great. As a pro, all you do is ride with pros. I didn’t ride with a person who paid for their bike for probably a decade. You don’t realize what a small bubble that is and what other stuff is out there. Pro racing is so Euro-centric and competition-focused that the experience is out there. I’m still going for KOMs, and I still really like the high-performance aspect. But I try to weave in tourism, history and a little more adventure to it than, “Look at my watts.”

I also haven’t touched Africa yet. It would be cool to find a way to ride a bike up Mt. Kilimanjaro. … I’m going to run out of legs and energy long before I stop finding places that I want to check out. x