A Note from Fatty: My review of Phil Gaimon’s Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro is below. Be sure to read it, because it’s so insightful and enlightening that you will be unable to refrain from openly weeping.
And be sure to sign up for, mark your calendar for, and otherwise make sure you attend the live Q&A with Phil Gaimon on Tuesday, 12:00noon EDT / 11:00AM CDT / 10:00AM MDT / 9:00AM PDT. You can watch it below, but I really recommend you go to the Spreecast site to watch it, so you comment, ask questions, talk amongst yourselves, and whatnot. This is going to be a pretty fantastic opportunity to talk with one of the most down-to-earth pros you’ll ever meet; don’t miss it.
In general, I skip prefaces and introductions and forewords and dedications at the beginnings of books. And in general, I would recommend you do the same.
But for Phil Gaimon’s Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro, reading the preface is absolutely essential. It’s where Gaimon describes how some kids ask him for advice on how to rise through the ranks to become a pro cyclist.
Gaimon thinks about it, considering ways he could craft his response:
I’d sit them down for a lecture. I would start by explaining how hard it’s going to be, how many hears of solitude and poverty they’ll have to push through, and how many opportunities and relationships they’ll have to sacrifice. Only after the young riders grasped the downside would I feel comfortable explaining the beauty of the sport, what I’ve taken away from it, and why I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
And that is exactly what this book does. Using frequent aphoristic headings — as if they were guidance for the aspiring pro (“Get everything in writing,” “You can say no,” “Being right doesn’t always mean you win,” “Bacon is your friend”) — Gaimon tells his story, starting all the way back when he was a teenager, riding his way through college, and subsisting on way sub-minimum wage as a pro-in-sarcasm-quotes cyclist.
It’s a good story, and Gaimon tells it with a strong, personal (and personable) voice. He’s usually funny, frequently vulgar, sometimes naive, occasionally angry and accusatory, and once in a while he’s even serious and touching.
In other words, Gaimon comes across as a mostly-normal young man, who just happens to be an experienced writer (he’s written for both Bicycling and Velo magazines) with considerable ability, a lot of personal drive and ambition, and no small amount of personal discipline.
OK, so maybe he isn’t that normal.
My short-version assessment is that Pro Cycling on $10 A Day gives you an incredibly realistic and entertaining feel for what goes on in the minor leagues of pro cycling. It’s also the best—by far—of the current crop of cycling autobiographies.
It’s fun, it’s insightful, it’s surprising, and it’s well-worth reading.
So with that said, now let’s dig into what I like—and don’t like—about this book.
The single thing I liked the best about Gaimon’s writing is that he tells a great racing story—he talks about what he’s thinking and what he’s doing before the race, the moves and strategies during the race, and even what he wishes he would have done differently after the race. Early in the book, he gives an example of how he was bullied into doing more than his share of pulling:
I took a hard pull and flicked my elbow, asking Jonny for help.
“Fuck you! You pull us back there!” he replied. I kept pulling and didn’t say a word, but Jonny kept a consent barrage of insults coming, lashing me like a whip.”
And then,, after the stage:
I sat reluctantly beside Jonny Sundt, afraid to make eye contact after our interaction early in the race, but he was fine….It was a tactic, and it earned him a free ride across to the break.
A few things happen here. First, Gaimon pulls us not just into the action of the race, but into the personalities, strategies, and conversations of the race.
The second thing is Gaimon lets us take the verbal beating right alongside him. We don’t know why Sundt is attacking him until after the race is over…just as Gaimon didn’t.
Finally, we find ourselves wondering, after the fact, how we would have reacted to this kind of “barrage of insults.” Personally, I think I would have caved, and maybe not come back for more. And I started understanding—much more than I had before—that the toughness required of pro athletes is more than physical, more than mental. There’s an emotional toughness that’s required, and it’s a pretty critical component.
Gaimon doesn’t do the kind of navel gazing I just did, though. He just tells the race stories — both what’s happening around him and what’s going on in his head — with enough detail that, after a while, you get a much more clear picture of the inside of an elite-level race than you’ll ever get by watching on TV.
Fat Kid, But Not For Long
Pro Cycling on $10 A Day doesn’t have this kind of detail everywhere.
It seems strange to me that it has the subtitle, “From Fat Kid to Euro Pro,” and that the back cover text leads off with the “fat kid” angle, too (“Plump, lumpy, slumped on the couch and going nowhere fast at age 16…”). That kind of emphasis promises a central theme or plot point in the book.
As a guy who constantly fights to keep the weight off, I was interested.
The thing is, though, the book itself only barely mentions this “fat kid” phase. Indeed, a scant two pages is devoted to this transition, and is behind us before the middle of page 5.
In a book full of detail, it’s a pretty weak delivery of what the cover promises.
Mentors and Villains
Pro Racing on $10 A Day isn’t a thick book — just under 300 pages, plus the front matter and the glossary. However, thanks to the itinerant lifestyle and numerous races of a young, hyper-under-employed pro (Gaimon’s not kidding about the “$10 A Day” thing), Gaimon moves in and out of peoples’ lives with incredible frequency, to the point that my head was spinning with all the names, trying to remember from one page to the next who they were and whether I needed to remember them.
Which, come to think of it, is probably what Gaimon was doing, as well.
As the book progresses, however, there are certain people who emerge as standout characters—people who have strongly affected Gaimon’s life.
Jeremy Powers, more than anyone else, seems to be a mentor, as well as the person perhaps most responsible for helping Gaimon turn a corner in taking his career seriously, on investing in himself. Looking at the sparse food and almost non-heated status in Gaimon’s house, Powers tells Gaimon:
“How can you be fast when you have to wear a jacket in your own house?” he asked. “You can sit here and half-ass this thing, and you’l always make $20,000 a year, or you could do it right, invest in yourself, and make 10 times that. You know you have the talent, so stop being scared!
Over and over (63 mentions by name, according to my handy Kindle version of this book), Powers emerges as almost a North Star for Gaimon.
Gaimon’s admiration for / friendship with / loyalty to Powers comes through as a very touching thing. It also made me want to read Jeremy Powers’ autobiography; he comes across as a very centered, focused, and insightful person.
But where Gaimon has boundless admiration for Powers, he has nothing but scorn for Chad Thompson, who at the time was the “the boss” of the Kenda pro team, which Frankie Andreu directed and Gaimon rode for. Gaimon relentlessly ridicules Thompson and his apparently unbroken string of bad decisions, to the point where it starts feeling a little bit lopsided. I found myself wondering, “I wonder what the other side to this story is?”
And Shades of Grey
Gaimon starts his career — and the book — out brash, with a lot of youthful bluster. I don’t know how he manages it, but in a lot of cases he writes with more nuance and understanding as the book progresses; this mirrors his own growing experience. Early on, for example, he apologizes to the reader for not taking advantage of an opportunity to punch Lance Armstrong in the testicle.
Later, he relates how he trashes Tom Danielson for not knowing that he had made an agreement with Levi Leipheimer that he was going to go across to a breakaway. Still brash, but no longer straight-up juvenile.
Then, toward the end of the book, he’s training with the same Tom Danielson, and admiring his work ethic and dedication to training.
Eventually, he concludes, as he tries to resolve his disdain of doping with his friendship of those who have doped:
…You have to look at a person’s full body of work before you judge him. Frankie Andreu doped and I couldn’t have asked for a better friend or mentor. Jonathan Vaughters doped, and then brought cycling back from the edge of a cliff. Tom hadn’t made up for his doping yet, but I’d seen him pull over to help a stranger change a flat tire, and I could tell that he was just another normal guy who did something wrong.
It’s a well-put statement of someone who has strong convictions, which are beginning to be tempered by a complicated world.
Gaimon’s book ends essentially as he’s being brought into the big league. He’s still brash, he’s still himself. But he’s growing, and he’s interesting.
Phil Gaimon is a good writer, and it feels like he’s on the path to getting better. His story is compelling, honest, and funny.
I strongly recommend Pro Cycling on $10 a Day: From Fat Kid to Euro Pro.