Spartacus vs Phil the Thrill: The looming Cancellara-Gaimon fondo showdown

With July looming, it is time for the cycling community to cast its focus on the preeminent and most controversial race of the season — the gran fondo grudge-match between Fabian Cancellara and Phil Gaimon. That highly touted but poorly understood contest between two retired pros of considerably different pedigree will take place this Sunday in the hilly southwestern corner of Switzerland.

“I think it’s something funny that we’re doing,” Cancellara tells CyclingTips in an interview, less than a week before the event.

“I’m not going to deny that this is a circus,” says Gaimon in a separate conversation. “But pro cycling can be a circus, too. I’m just embracing it and having fun. This thing is a fondo race — it doesn’t really make sense to take it so seriously.”

Five minutes earlier, Gaimon was describing the intervals he had been doing at a high-altitude training camp to prepare for the fondo race that he is not taking so seriously.

Most cycling fans will remember how this circus came to town. It all began with a few sentences in Gaimon’s 2017 memoir, “Draft Animals,” which amplified previously reported accounts that Cancellara had used a motor in important professional races, including the 2010 Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, which he won. That passage spawned a few provocative stories that caught fire during a slow news week, causing a contentious war of words on social media, demands for an apology, and reports that the former Swiss champion’s attorney’s had demanded that Gaimon’s publisher halt publication of the book.

But the acrimony ultimately did not lead to a lawsuit — it led to a bizarre tweet in which Cancellara challenged Gaimon to beat him in a fondo.

It’s as absurd as it sounds.

Since that dare was tweeted last November, both protagonists have actively tried to steer all public conversation away from the dispute that spawned the challenge. Both former pros have new ventures to promote — Gaimon has a YouTube program that documents his Strava KOM-grabbing hill-climbing exploits, while his Swiss counterpart is the producer and marquee talent of a series of European fondos dubbed “Chasing Cancellara.”

Long interviews with both riders offered new details about this strange race — the rules of the contest, their approach to training and the ride itself, and the comically illogical but somehow uplifting meaning of the whole endeavor.

Here are the basics. The fourth edition of Chasing Cancellara is a 90km ride that has a total of 2.700 metres (8900 feet) of climbing. I was extremely amused to learn that given the origin of this duel, the event begins in the Swiss town of Aigle, where the UCI’s headquarters are located.

But Gaimon and Cancellara are not contesting this short, hilly fondo like a point-to-point bike race. Instead they will cruise the course together and then go mano a mano on a single ascent: the Col du Pillon, a 6.9km climb with a grade that averages 5.2 percent. A quick check of Strava reveals that all the top times were set during Stage 5 of this year’s Tour de Suisse, where a bunch of current pros got up the climb in a little over 14 minutes.

When asked to describe their training and strategies for the throwdown on the Col du Pillon, the answers Gaimon and Cancelllara offer couldn’t be more different. The answers reflect who they each are, their racing careers and current ventures, and the nature of their personal brands.

Gaimon was a scrappy domestic pro for most his 12-year career who fought his way to the WorldTour for two one-year stints. His biggest career wins came at the Redlands Classic and the Tour de San Luis. He earned notoriety with US fans for his climbing abilities, his literate writing, and his outspoken advocacy for clean cycling.

In his 17-year career, Cancellara won seven Monuments, four world time-trial championships, 11 Grand Tour stages, and three Olympic medals, including gold in Rio de Janeiro at the close of his career. He’s best known for his time trialing ability and his success at winning important bike races.

Gaimon, who says he never has spoken directly to Cancellara since the initial challenge —only his handlers — is approaching the feud with a sense of humor while also training his ass off. He is mostly (but not completely) certain that an actual race will ensue on the Col du Pillon.

“Yeah, I don’t have an actual confirmation that we’re really going to race,” laughs Gaimon. “But he challenged me to it and he’s talked to the Wall Street Journal about it, so I’m presuming it would be even weirder to need a confirmation that he’s going to do what he said he was going to do. I don’t see how he could not race me if he talked to the number two news outlet in the world about racing me.”

Although Gaimon’s entire post-retirement entertainment career has been all about excelling on climbs just like the Col du Pillon, he says that he hasn’t trained for his YouTube adventures like he prepared for races as a professional. “My fitness has never gone bad and I still ride a ton, but I mostly just do group rides,” says the 32-year-old American. “Though my 15-minute power is pretty damn good, I definitely don’t have the legs of a pro. I can get PRs on climbs I did when I was a pro, but now I’m annihilated the day after that.”

With a peculiar mix of sheepishness and pure joy, Gaimon admits that he has done a big block of structured training to prepare for his sportive duel against Cancellara. As silly as the whole race might be, it arguably poses a genuine business opportunity for Gaimon, especially if he wins.

Gaimon says he modeled his training plan off the protocol he used before winning Redlands in 2015. “I went up to Big Bear [Lake] and did a three-week training block,” he says, referencing a mountain town in Southern California that sits at an elevation of 2,058 metres (6,752 feet). “I trained as seriously as I could.”

According to Strava, Gaimon has ridden more than 5,300 miles in the first six months of 2018. By contrast, Cancellara has logged a total of 961 miles on 29 rides so far this year. A former teammate of Gaimon’s called him to report that he’d seen Cancellara noodling around the hills of Monaco with Filippo Pozzato. “I don’t think Pippo has done an interval in 10 years,” notes Gaimon.

“I think Fabian just rides — he just does what retired pros are supposed to do,” says Gaimon, mentioning that he recently peeked at Cancellara’s Strava page and particularly enjoyed a shot of the three-time Paris-Roubaix champion drafting a tractor. “But I think his pedigree and his residual whatever — I feel that him at his worst is probably not that far off from my best right now. My guess is that he’s taking it seriously enough where he’s going to ride hard and he’s probably fresh going into it.”

Gaimon has no idea how the contest will play out tactically—whether Cancellara will go the front and control affairs or try to draft until the end. “I think a 5% climb is entirely draftable, so it’s not going to be easy to drop Cancellara,” says Gaimon, right before expressing how he’ll try to drop Cancellara. “The only way I’ve ever won a race is riding a hard tempo and then doing hard accelerations. I’ll go recon the course a couple days before, so I can see where it kicks up where, that kind of thing. I’m only going to have 10 or 15 minutes to soften him up and drop him.”

When asked what will happen if they are together with 300 meters to go, Gaimon laughs. “That would be bad,” he says.

Not surprisingly, Cancellara offers a different narrative about his approach to this peculiar race. He is far more comfortable promoting his fondo and expressing genuine but carefully calibrated generosity and talking about the mutual benefit for both riders than talking about his training or engaging in anything resembling trash talking. The hatchet, he indicates at least a dozen times, has long been buried.

“I’m not training from morning until night,” says Cancellara. “In the past, my only interest was in performance and winning bike races. Now I ride the bike much, much less than I thought I would — this is my life now. My only intervals are having fun chasing when I’m riding with friends.”

I thought about making a Pippo joke on our phone call but decided against it.

The former world champion and Monuments winner who challenged a retired domestic pro to a fondo race after a few sentences about motor doping clearly signals that he’s not taking the whole thing too seriously. When asked again about his training, Cancellara laughs out loud. “This is not a professional bike race,” he says. “Phil is preparing for the hill-climb world championship. In the end, we’re going to laugh. Of course, I will suffer — we will not do something fake. But I will not do a comeback so I’m definitely not coming back to race Phil Gaimon on a Strava segment.”

I can’t tell you how much I was enjoying this interview.

I ask Cancellara if he remembers racing against Gaimon. “I can look online and see that I rode with him in races but I honestly don’t remember him,” he says. “But that’s one thing that’s great about the event on Sunday — now I’m sure I’ll remember riding with him.”

Both riders retired after the 2016 season. A quick scan on the ProCyclingStats web site shows that they raced against each other a total of three times — twice at the 2009 Amgen Tour of California, where Cancellara won the prologue and then abandoned the next day with fever, and once at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, where Cancellara finished 40th and Gaimon did not finish.

Who has the advantage? Cancellara had the better pro career, but Gaimon has been training much harder since retirement. Screenshot from ProCyclingStats.com.

I ask Cancellara if there’s any bad blood and he says no. “He’s not my best friend—we don’t have to hug each other but we can have fun,” says Cancellara. “Now we’re going to have fun on the bike.”

Still, some shade is carefully thrown. Asked to contextualize Gaimon’s career, Cancellara offers this gem: “He became professional and he did what he could do. And then he wrote a book and he had his opinion on everything.”

And after saying he’s glad they’ve put the past behind him, Cancellara notes “That’s not nice — the way he called me fucker.” (In his book, Gaimon wrote “When you watch the footage, his accelerations don’t look natural at all, like he’s having trouble staying on the top of the pedals. That fucker probably did have a motor.”)

The Swiss legend quickly pivots to offer Gaimon a compliment. “Now, with what Phil’s doing on YouTube, he’s not against cycling,” says Cancellara. “He’s doing something positive.”

Cancellara is clearly more interested in discussing an uplifting future rather than a negative past. “We want to create something positive after the bad attention that began this,” he says. “I’m happy that he’s coming. The past is the past. We turned the page. We both don’t know each other so much. And now we’re each doing something for his community.”

Both men are raising money for charitable causes — Cancellara for the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, and Gaimon for an organization called Don’t Get Hungry. (“I’ve raised $16,400 so far,” says Gaimon. “They go to schools and make sure that kids who get dropped off at school with no food get a good breakfast. Those are the same kids who get bad grades and don’t go to college. I’m really happy to support this cause.”)

When asked to predict how the much-ballyhooed grudge match will play out, Cancellara describes a kind of gentleman’s race. “We will ride hard and we will have fun,” he says. “But no one has to lose face — we both have to come out as winners.”

Gaimon is bringing a small film crew to Switzerland to shoot and produce footage, which will post on YouTube two or three days after the fondo. He has a sponsor, too.

Both men are trying, and arguably succeeding, at putting a contentious and stressful scenario behind them. It is factually true that the whole circus would not exist if those sentences from Gaimon’s book hadn’t made their way onto the internet, but now both riders are determined to move on.

Seven months after a few sentences caused a social-media bonfire, Gaimon still feels the sting. “It was really stressful to be this guy who was widely hated for a week on the internet,” he says. “That was like a horrible time for me. There’s a lot of people who never heard of me until after my book came out and suddenly my decade of hard work and being a great representative of the sport was reduced to, ‘this guy’s a mud-slinging jerk.’ Fabian and I agree that there’s nothing more to talk about.”

Gaimon insists that he and Cancellara are on the same page — determined to entertain fans, promote their post-retirement business ventures, and have fun on a hard ride. “We’re focused on the positive now,” says Gaimon. “More than anything, Fabian and I just want to put on a good show.”

Cancellara, who plans to expand the Chasing Cancellara series to Abu Dhabi and other international destinations next year, agrees.

“Hollywood is all about telling stories. This will be a story,” he says, before offering a 12-word summary of the upcoming fondo battle. “I will eat Phil Gaimon’s cookies, and he will do my ride.”

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