What will Taylor Phinney’s first season in green hold?
To define Taylor Phinney as an athlete would be a mistake. As with life’s more interesting characters, he is a mass of contradictions.
He is at once the poster boy for American cycling — the wunderkind offspring of Olympian parents — and defiantly off-message. He is a gifted athlete, but as enthused by self-discovery as he is cycling. He speaks of riding and the efficiency of the bicycle as tools to expand his mind.
“I have this crazy desire to make myself better all the time, whether it’s learning about something, or whether it’s with my body and training, I can channel it, and I can do whatever I want,” Phinney says. “I can make art, I can make music, I can ride my bike. The options are limitless and…” He pauses. “I can’t remember what the question was?”
Even after his long road back from a badly broken leg suffered in the 2014 US national road race, he is not weighed down by seriousness. Each revelation is delivered with a smile, and he has no time for negativity among his fellow professionals. He was too close to losing his own career not to place the highest value upon it.
“This lifestyle, while it might be kind of difficult sometimes, is the dream. We get to go all over the world and to ride our bikes all the time. People take care of us everywhere we go. And yet, any time you hear bike racers talk to each other, they’re always complaining,” he says, and wears a look of mock exasperation: “‘Dude, just take a step back for a second and look at what we’re doing.’”
“And that’s what I feel I’ve been able to do throughout my whole recovery, is to take a step back: ‘Whoa! This is sick!’ The only thing I want to do with my whole life is push my brain and push my body to its capacity — to open up my brain as wide as I can and to make my body as strong as I can.”
Having spent his entire professional career thus far with BMC Racing, his decision to change teams and join Cannondale-Drapac seems bold, but Phinney does not see it that way. He is surprised that more riders do not follow their instincts when selecting a team.
“It came from a lot of not being happy, wanting to make a change, as any change should,” he explains.
He had reached a good place in his training for the Olympic Games in Rio when he met up fellow Colorado native and team owner Jonathan Vaughters.
“I was having a really good time training for the [Rio] Olympics. I was really motivated and everything made sense, and that’s all you really want in your life - for everything to make sense.
“During that time I met with Jonathan [Vaughters, team owner] and we talked about art and we talked about sport and we talked about his team and it felt right and I decided just to follow that,” Phinney says.
If Phinney’s decision simply to trust his instinct seems far removed from the typical motivations of salary, opportunities to lead, to target certain races, etc., then there is a further twist. In seeking change by joining Cannondale-Drapac, Phinney has returned to what he knows: Vaughters had been the first to employ him as a professional rider 10 years earlier, when the team was called TIAA-CREF/5280 and Vaughters had acted upon the recommendation of certain people (“those people being my parents and Peter Stetina’s uncle,” Phinney recounts, with a smirk).
Phinney left the TIAA-CREF/5280 team to join Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong development squad, and later signed professionally with BMC Racing.
Phinney admits to “a pretty wild last 10 years”, though modestly deigns to list the highlights. He played a key role in BMC Racing’s world title winning team time-trial squad in 2015, won three US time-trial titles, an overall victory at the 2014 Dubai Tour, and took a victory in the opening stage time-trial at the 2012 Giro d’Italia, earning the pink jersey.
Despite the success, and the lifelong friendships formed at BMC Racing, Phinney says he realized last year that he hadn’t enjoyed his racing since his days as an espoir.
“I wasn’t loving what I was doing, and if there’s one thing I learned from the accident [at the 2014 US road championships], it’s that I don’t have any time to be doing something that I don’t love. I have no time for that, especially doing something as dangerous as this is. Instead of taking my leg, it could have taken my head, it could have taken my back, and then what do you do?”
The combination of speed and the size of the peloton creates its own hazards. Add the race convoy, road furniture, inclement weather and there is much beyond the rider’s control. Part of Phinney’s recovery has been to rationalize the situation. He does not believe in random occurrences. A rider can do much to stay safe by remaining completely aware. The fine judgment of positioning, the reading of movements of others within the peloton, is an art form in itself, he says.
“Since I’ve come back to racing, I’ve had this realization that anything that happens to me in a race, I have to happen to it, before it happens to me. I’m the first step towards whatever the happening is. I’m in control. I do believe that while there are times when people crash in front of you and things do happen, if you’re completely mindful and totally aware and know where you are at all times, I want to say that those things can’t happen to me. You have everything that you’ve ever learned in your brain going towards one moment, and viewing a picture in widescreen.”
In the immediate aftermath of his high-speed accident on the descent of Lookout Mountain — an incident that sent him beneath the guard rail and later to the Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee — the picture was bleak. The tibia in Phinney’s left leg had to be reattached to the upper fibula with screws and a nail. Surgeons cut a 1cm section out of his patellar tendon.
What he thought would take four months took 16. He won the opening stage of the 2015 USA Pro Challenge in Colorado in only his second race back but admits this was a triumph of will, rather than condition. Even now, some two-and-a-half years after the accident, he suffers minor mobility issues, but defiance is a quality he has in ready supply. He was on the road just two months after the break.
Phinney talks about his emotions in the immediate aftermath of the accident; he talks of deciding at an early stage not to blame himself, others or circumstances. He describes his admiration for his father, Davis, twice a stage winner at the Tour de France, in his battle with Parkinson’s Disease and for the only time in our conversation is entirely serious.
The older man has refused to be victimized by his condition, his son says. And Phinney believes that his mother, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, gold medalist in the women’s road race at the 1984 Olympic Games, has grown even stronger in her unwavering support for her husband.
“My dad gets a lot of help from my mom, but he’s not some poor old man that needs help. He’s allowed his disease to turn himself into this sage, wise, incredibly mindful man, who I view as being much further forward, much further evolved, at least spiritually and emotionally, if not physically, than most of the people whom he’d spent his life racing with or being around,” Phinney said.
Intention and excitement
The smile soon returns. Phinney says he is genuinely excited to race. He has intention at the top of his agenda — to approach each race as a goal in itself, rather than as a building block, even if the Tour de France, and specifically its opening stage time-trial in Dusseldorf, represents an obvious focal point. Meditation, he says, has freed him from “infinite loops” and provided a reset button.
It will be fascinating to watch Phinney this season. Reunited with Vaughters at Cannondale-Drapac, and with his sheer enjoyment from bike racing restored, who would bet against him scaling still greater heights?
Phinney is a complex character, a thinker, but he is also too extroverted, upbeat, and disciplined to allow misfortune to bring him down. Then there is his natural talent, a resource never in doubt, even during the longest days of his recovery.
He talks of growth and a gathering momentum, of riding for its own sake. 2017 will be different sort of year for Phinney, regardless of results. “I’m excited to race, he says. “Really, genuinely.”