What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Talk: Tom Gibbons

PEZ caught up with young American Tom Gibbons recently, a man who had the guts and drive to pack his bike into a cardboard box, jump on the plane and hope that his legs could do enough talking for him at the other end in the heartland of Belgium. Here’s Tom’s story from gutter to victor to hopefully more.

Our resident cycling philosopher and prophet, Viktor is totally disheartened with the direction our sport has taken – Lance, Mondialisation, WSC, CCN . . . He was brought up on Rik Van Looy, Freddy Maertens, Roger De Vlaeminck and the other hard men; so guys moaning about their chain coming off and races around the desert have him shaking his head – and as for Oprah’s couch . . .

But he still loves the sport and he sits on those Belgian websites studying the results with his aficionado’s eye. Now and again I get the phone call; ‘Listen! You should be talking to this boy!’ And that’s how I came to be interviewing Tom Gibbons, a man who stopped talking about it and packed his bags for the Flatlands . . .

PEZ: You’re a New Jersey boy but raced in Florida – how come, Tom?

I attended the University of Miami, and that’s how I ended up there. My older brother and sister both went to UM, so I was really brought up on that school. When it came time to choose where I would go, it just felt like the natural choice. Cycling didn’t play a role in the decision. In fact, I didn’t start racing until the end of my Junior year (April 2011). It was just a bit of luck that it turned out that area has a strong cycling community.

PEZ: How’s the Florida race scene?

I hate to say it, because it’s helped make me the racer I am today, but it’s kind of a joke. Of course, I say that in comparison to Belgium, arguably the hardest place on earth (for cycling at least), and that’s a pretty unfair standard to measure any racing community against. One of the things I do like about it, though, is that the season runs from the first week of January through the end of October, so you do have the opportunity to get a good number of races in. Like everywhere else in the US, though, the races aren’t hard enough: too short; not technical enough.

PEZ: What were your US palmares like?

Pretty unimpressive, really. I only started racing in 2011, so I haven’t had the chance yet to race a whole lot in the upper categories. In my first 12 months, I accrued over 20 wins, but most of them came in cats 5, 4, or 3 events. I haven’t even gotten a chance to race in America as a category 1 yet, because I didn’t get that upgrade until the day before I left for Belgium, and I came back after the American season was over. The category 1 races are the same as the category 2 races, though, so it’s not as if there’s a big question mark there.

PEZ: What was your inspiration to go to Belgium and where are you based?

I’ve been very fortunate to come across some incredibly helpful and caring people. One of them is Noel Aguilera, a businessman and cyclist living in Miami. He thought I had great potential (and still does), and happened to be very good friends with a Pro Tour director. So he twisted his arm a little bit on my behalf to let me come to the team camp in January 2012. That man also recognized some potential in me and told me, in no cryptic way; “If you want to be serious about cycling, with your style, you need to go to Belgium. There is nothing in America for you, for what you want to do.”

PEZ: How did you organise a team and accommodation?

I didn’t. I had no team and I had no accommodation. I bought a plane ticket out of Philadelphia, into Brussels National. When I got there, I dragged my cardboard bike box onto a train, got off in Leuven, and settled into a hotel for nine days across the street from the Stella Artois brewery, and proceeded to look for a place to live. I had no team, no contacts, and very little idea of what to expect from the racing scene.

Over the next four weeks, I bounced around from Leuven to Oudenaarde to Luxembourg (Luxembourg is also the name of a province in Belgium, ed) to Zingem and eventually back to Oudenaarde (Leupegem). All I had was a bike, a duffel bag and the nagging thought that, “you better work your ass off so this doesn’t turn out to be one gigantic waste of time and money.”

PEZ: Does the USCF help at all?

They have done nothing to help me, and to be honest, I have never expected them to. Like I said, I didn’t start racing until April 2011 when I was 21 (racing age 22, my last year as an Espoir), so I missed out on all the junior and U23 programs. At this point, I’m not sure there’s much they could do for me, except for say, “good luck.”

PEZ: Why not the Dombrowski/Boswell route – ride well in the US and on Fed trips?

Again, I got into the game way too late. Dombrowski, and the Browns and whoever else started young enough to get recognized and fed into the US development program. I missed that boat, and have no desire to race professionally on the US circuit. Racing a bunch of 90 minute criteriums doesn’t have a lot to offer me. To me, at my age now (23, racing age 24), racing the US scene represents a chance to get stuck racing on one kilometre circuits for the next 10 years. I don’t see anything wrong with that, and I don’t want to sound like I’m trying to devalue the American professional; that is just not a desire I have.

PEZ: Ruiselede-Kruiskerke; tell us about that win please; did it get you any interest from bigger teams as a result?

I’m still not 100 percent convinced that day actually happened! I showed up late to the race because I got lost riding there, and was the last person to register, number 93 of 93. Mentally, I was unprepared because I felt so rushed, and I spent the first hour or so in the bottom third of the bunch. Then I just told myself, “Ok, the first chance you get to hit the front, you have to hit it hard.” That chance came with six laps to go (32 kilometres from the finish). I followed a guy sprinting for the prime, and when he let up, I drilled it like it was the finishing kilometre of the race. I didn’t pick my head up for about three kilometres, and when I looked back, the only person on my wheel was Jack Cousins, a very talented and genuinely nice guy from the UK.

In seven kilometres we got the gap up to 50 seconds, and by 10 kilometres we pushed it up to a minute. From there, we agreed to split the primes, and we worked together flawlessly, but painfully. Neither of us played any games until the red kite. I kicked early, and when he came around, I managed to dig a little deeper. By the time I crossed the line, we had bled all but 10 seconds of our advantage. Neither of us could believe we had managed to stay away, especially since when we went off the front, the bunch was still almost perfectly intact. It didn’t get me any recognition from teams right away, but Mario Willems did congratulate me at the next race he saw me, and that was one of the coolest things ever. He’s such a good racer, and an incredibly nice guy.

To me, that’s really refreshing because a lot of the time the best athletes are arrogant jerks. Guys like Mario are the people I try to look up to and model myself after.

PEZ: What about other Belgian results?

When I first got there, I was pretty unprepared for the different style, and took a bit of a beating in my first few races. Once I figured out that, a) It’s going to be a longer day than you’re used to and b) there are about 20 times more guys than you’re used to back home capable of winning, I started having some success – a bunch of top 20s and a handful of top 10s.

Starting at the end of July and going through the end of August I had some close calls. I came away with five primes and a third at a race up around Gent, after being off the front for about 50 minutes, and getting caught in the last two laps. The three weeks leading up to my win in Kruiskerke, I had been consistently just missing the win or a podium, and I felt like I was on the verge of a break through. When I finally did win, I expected more good results to start flowing, but instead of a break through, it turned out to be my break down. I hadn’t been taking care of my body, or getting proper rest, and it caught up with me in September.

One week, I tallied my riding, and discovered I had ridden over 600 miles (almost 1000 kilometres), including 4 races, without even realizing it, or trying to. I would ride 40k to a race, race, then train 40k home, and then instead of taking it easy the next day, I would go train hard again. And all of this was on a routine diet of local pastries and a couple vegetables at night, and no stretching. I’ve learned a lot about what not to do during my stay in Belgium, and I’ve been working to correct them over the off-season.

Here’s a list of my top 20s during my 3 months in Belgium:

1st Ruiselede 1.12B – 2 September
3rd Evergem/Wippelgem 1.12B – 21 August
5th Waardamme 1.12B – 18 August
8th Ronde van Hengstdijk categorie A – 28 July
9th Gullegem 1.12B – 18 September
10th Lessine 1.12B – 16 August
10th Blankenberge 1.12B – 6 September
11th Izegem 1.12B – 21 July
12th Balegem 1.12B – 20 August
12th Gijzenzele 1.12B – 25 August
12th Oordegem 1.12B – 28 August
12th Baardegem 1.12B – 30 August
12th Stekene 1.12B – 26 September
13th Wanzele 1.12B – 9 September
13th Bellegem 1.12B – 31 August
14th Moorsele 1.12B – 27 July
17th Torhout 1.12B – 8 September
19th Roeselare 1.12B – 11 August
20th St. Jan Ieper 1.12B – 24 August

PEZ: What’s your favourite kind of race?

Definitely the time trial. There’s no hiding, and no strategy other than pacing. It’s when you find out how hard you’ve truly worked over the last year, not how hard you think you’ve worked.

PEZ: How does the Belgian weather agree with you?

I love it. At home in New Jersey, when it’s raining and windy, I hate getting on the bike. But for some reason, when it’s raining and windy in Belgium, I get excited. For a few weeks in August and September, the weather got really nice and I felt cheated. I feel like, if I’m going to fly 4000 miles from home to go race and follow a dream, I want it to be as hard as possible. I don’t want to be surrounded by pretenders. I want only the gnarliest, most competitive guys around me. The worst things in life come easy. To quote an old baseball manager, Jimmy Dugan, “It’s supposed to be hard. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.”

PEZ: How are the preparations for next season going – is it the same team and accommodation?

It’s hard to know for sure, because I haven’t been tested yet, but I feel great. I took a lot of much needed time off, blew off some steam surfing, and skiing, and I feel re-energized and ready to attack the next nine months. For the first three months, I’ll race as a guest on a team from Miami, EBP Cycling Lab. I raced for them in the US last year, and they treated me really well, so racing for them again while I’m here is a no-brainer. When I get back to Belgium, I will be racing for Wielerteam Decock-Sportivo. They were generous enough to give me a slot on their team, and I look forward to helping them out in any way I can.

PEZ: What’s your family and friend’s attitude to your vanishing to an obscure country for the summer?

No single friend or family member of mine has ever given me anything but complete and unwavering support. Not once has anyone told me to give up on my goal, even when my goal was still just a stupid pipe dream. They’re all a bunch of really incredible people that consistently tell me to “go do it,” and some of the time they even have more confidence in me than I have in myself. They’re definitely the driving force behind me, and I want to make them proud.

PEZ: What’s cool about Belgium?

You mean besides everything? These are a couple of my favourite things, in no particular order; the cobblestones, the language, the bakeries with fresh bread every day, the old men and women who sit in cafes and get drunk during my races, the architecture and old churches, the bike shops, the town squares, the sprawling country side with little cow and tractor paths, La Chouffe and Hoegaarden, the rain and the mud, the old windmills, and of course, the words “proficiat” (congratulations)and “prof renner” (professional rider)”

PEZ: And what gets you down about the Flatlands?

Only that my friends and family aren’t with me. I really wish they could watch me race. Shout out to Tommy Salvesen, Kurt Bethiaume, JMac, JC, and Zach Yaroschuk!

PEZ: What’s the goal for 2013?

To have someone say, “I like the way you race.” Hopefully that will come from a Pro director with a contract attached, but if it comes in broken English from an old toothless Belgian in a cafe after a race, that’s cool too.

Just remember where you read Tom’s name first!

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