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Wall Street Journal / Life - Entertain

A Feud—Then the Summer’s Craziest Bike Race

After a disputed book passage about “motor doping,” American cyclist Phil Gaimon agrees to a showdown with retired legend Fabian Cancellara.

Fabian Cancellara, left, and Phil Gaimon are set for a showdown on July 1.

Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland—a.k.a. “Spartacus”—is considered one of the greatest professional cyclists ever, a multiple world champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist who captured eight Tour de France stages and took brilliant victories in one-day races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.

Phil Gaimon, meanwhile, is an ex-American pro who spent two seasons at the elite World Tour level, and whose biggest victory may have been at the opening stage of the Tour de San Luis in Argentina in 2014.

In fact, Gaimon—a cookie obsessive who has spent much of this week running around in a bright blue Cookie Monster hat, handing out cookies to passing pros in the Tour of California—is probably better known for his impish social media humor and books about cycling’s itinerant life, including one called “Pro Cycling on $10 a Day.”

But on July 1, in Aigle, Switzerland—just days before the opening of the Tour de France—Cancellara and Gaimon, two retired cyclists of vastly different trajectories, will square off in a duel that is one of the more unexpected and amusing cycling contests in recent memory.

I’ll ask the question for you: Why?

It goes back to the publication of Gaimon’s 2017 book, “Draft Animals: Living the Pro Cycling Dream (Once in a While)” which covered his time riding with teams like Garmin -Sharp, the U.S.-based World Tour outfit. Sort of a “Ball Four” for cycling, “Draft Animals” was full of observations about cycling’s less glamorous side—and it included a brief, sharp-elbowed reference to a old rumor, vigorously denied by Cancellara, that the Swiss champ had used a hidden motor in his bicycle at races.

Phil Gaimon is an ex-American pro who spent two seasons at the elite World Tour level.

Gaimon’s dig riled Cancellara, who has long maintained his innocence against any claims of “motor doping.” There were reports of potential legal action and suggestions that “Draft Animals” could be pulled from shelves—though neither event took place.

“It wasn’t nice,” Cancellara said in an interview the other day.

Gaimon, meanwhile, found himself barraged by angry emails from cycling fans, and even a couple of death threats, he said.

“Honestly, it was one of the worst weeks of my life,” Gaimon said.

Now the two men, who have never formally met, are turning the tense back-and-forth over Gaimon’s book into a good-natured competition. Both sides confirmed that Gaimon will join Cancellara at one of the latter’s “Chasing Cancellara” rides in his home country, and, at some point—it looks like it will be a 7-kilometer, 5.2-percent climb to the Col du Pillon—the two will go mano-a-mano.

It was Cancellara who initiated the challenge, using Twitter last fall to invite Gaimon to come to a “Chasing Cancellara” event, which are open to the public.

“Start training!” Cancellara wrote, adding the hashtag: #nomotorneeded.

Gaimon, who is based in Los Angeles, wasn’t sure at first what to make of Cancellara’s challenge.

“Every day, I was getting messages: ‘Phil, are you going to race Cancellara?’’’ he said. “At which point, I was like, ‘OK, I’ll do it.’’’

The showdown is another odd post-career twist for Gaimon, a 32-year-old who has been an unabashed critic of cycling’s infamous doping culture and its enablers. During his racing career, Gaimon went so far as to get an arm tattoo of a bar of soap inscribed with the word “CLEAN.”

Since leaving the sport in 2016—the same year Cancellara captured a gold medal in the men’s time trial at the Summer Olympics in Rio—Gaimon embarked on a video series called “Worst Retirement Ever,” in which he travels and takes on cycling challenges. Gaimon’s skill is climbing, and for a while, he was preoccupied with breaking climbing time records set by alleged dopers.

Fabian Cancellara rides his bike during a special event called "Ciao Fabian" to say goodbye to the Swiss cycling champion in 2016.

Gaimon’s post-racing career has been a surprising success. With his travels and exploits supported by sponsors, he said he makes more money now than he ever did racing full-time.

The July 1 battle with Cancellara is likely to be a social media moment for cycling fans in the U.S. and Europe. Gaimon chose the anti-hunger charity No Kid Hungry as the beneficiary of his efforts; Cancellara will be riding for the Laureus Sport for Good foundation. Details are still being fleshed out—the two riders have not communicated directly—but Gaimon told me “it’s happening…I bought the plane ticket.”

“I don’t even know if [Cancellara] knows I’m a climber, because I was so irrelevant in the races he was doing,” Gaimon said. Still, he admitted: “I think I’m the underdog.”

Cancellara, for his part, sounded ready to make the best of what began as an adversarial situation.

“We can create a nice story for the cycling world,” Cancellara said. “We’re gonna sweat, we’re gonna laugh.”

“This is what I want, and in the end, Phil wants,” the Man They Call Spartacus said. “We’re going to have some fun.”

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