A professional road cyclist’s resume might be full of stage wins, King or Queen of the Mountain honors, and time trial records. But barring any victories in the Grand Tours—la Vuelta a España, il Giro d’Italia, and especially le Tour de France—few outside of the pro tour pay much attention.
Ex-pro Phil Gaimon found that out late last October, the same weekend he also found out his pro career was over. After the team he’d been hoping to sign a contract with named its 2017 roster, and he wasn’t on it, Gaimon went out on a group ride in Los Angeles. Without intending to, he set a new fastest time on the Strava segment that runs up Nichols Canyon Road to Mullholland Drive—one of more than 10 million user-generated timed routes on the social cycling app.
“My phone blew up like I just won the Tour de France,” he says.
In his eight-year career, Gaimon won the Redlands Bicycle Classic twice, in 2012 and ’15, and finished second to Colombian Nairo Quintana in the 2014 Tour of San Luis—that same year, Quintana won both il Giro and la Vuelta. As proud as Gaimon was about his achievements as a pro, somehow people were more impressed by this 9:57 Strava record on the Nichols Canyon route. And, Gaimon says, “I could name 50 guys who could smash me.”
“People are taking Strava too seriously,” he says. So while he still had some lasting fitness from his pro career, and before he has to get a real job, Gaimon figured he’d become the cycling version of that Internet fiend: a Strava troll.
Gaimon—who has a tattoo of a bar of soap with the word “clean” on it—initially saw this idea as a way to take King of the Mountain records away from drug cheats, and began by targeting records held by cyclists suspected of doping. But he quickly realized that there might be more fun to be had by targeting iconic rides rather than trying to enact revenge.
This year Gaimon has been traveling around the U.S. attempting to set new records on routes like Palomar Mountain in Southern California, Mount Lemmon near Tucson, Ariz., and Mount Mitchell in the Appalachians in North Carolina. Each attempt is being filmed for a 10-part web series called Worst Retirement Ever.
To shave weight he cut most of the curved drops off his Cannondale’s handlebars and took off the brakes—the bike is now below the minimum weight rules on the pro tour—and wears a one-piece skin suit.
“Here’s what it looks like when you take Strava too seriously,” he says.
On his first attempt, on Palomar, he missed the 51:15 King of the Mountain record by eight seconds. He missed out on Mount Diablo in Northern California, too, because park rangers had closed the top of the mountain, and after riding all the way up he had to stop short. Since those first two defeats, though, he earned the top spot on both Lemmon and Mitchell.
However, Gaimon’s project isn’t working quite the way he had hoped. Not because of the couple of failed attempts at taking KOMs, but because of the project’s overall success. “Somehow,” he says, “I don’t look as stupid as I want to.”
A dozen companies have signed on to support his web series. “I have better sponsors than when I was racing,” he says. When he showed up to make a recent attempt on Lookout Mountain near Denver, his director suggested crowdsourcing the video. About 40 fans showed up and spent half a day helping shoot video on their phones. One guy showed up naked holding a giant cookie—Gaimon is a self-confessed cookie devotee.
And the frustrating addictive-ness of social media has even started to break Gaimon’s pro racer sensibilities.
“I know I don’t care that I have that crown,” he says. “I know I don’t care.” But really he does. “I couldn’t force myself to train just for like fitness, but I could go hard if there was a segment. Which is super dumb,” he says.
“There’s still deep down a petty part of me that wants that virtual image of a crown next to my name, although it means nothing,” he says. He already has his final Worst Retirement Ever ride planned: a return to Palomar. After coming so close on his first attempt there, he can’t just ride away.