Within hours of winning his country’s national time-trial championships, Taylor Phinney was proudly showing off the design of his new skinsuit on Twitter. The tones of the ol’ red, white and blue were never going to work with the warmer red of the standard BMC team jersey. What to do?
The newly-crowned champion did the eminently sensible thing and, in the tradition of cookery shows the world over, whipped out something he’d prepared earlier: overwhelmingly blue, stars circling the neck, the merest hint of “Old Glory Red” front and back, with BMC’s red giving way altogether. It looked, it must be said, very cool.
The then 23-year-old sat in front of the assembled press immediately following his comfortable victory in Chattanooga and confessed to having the clothing item all ready to go back at his hotel room, as he would be heading straight to France three days later for the Critérium du Dauphiné, followed by the Tour.
“You guys might hate me when I say this,” he told us journalists, before talking about his pre-designed garment. As if. Phinney is a journo’s dream gig: intelligent, funny, engaged, photogenic.
The skinsuit and its owner never did get to fly to France. Phinney’s own dream of riding his first Tour, very much in support of BMC’s Tejay van Garderen but with a beady eye on the penultimate day’s time-trial, went horribly wrong on Lookout Mountain. This imposing climb at the junction of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee – the scene of historic battles resulting in defeat for first the Cherokees and then Confederate forces almost a century later – took out the young contender during Monday’s Memorial Day road race in the cruellest fashion. Slamming into an Armco barrier the first time down the mountain snapped the American’s left tibia and severed the patella tendon.
“I had to surrender about a centimetre of my patella that I am not planning on getting back any time soon, but then doctors have always joked that I have overly large patellas anyway, so at least my left one is normal size now,” Phinney remarked, delivered dry as the best fino sherry.
See what I mean about funny? Given the possibly career-threatening nature of his injuries, and the tedious lengthy rehabilitation process required to get back to full fitness, you have to hand it to the man from Colorado.
The fact that he almost reached the age of 24 without any broken bones is rare amongst professional cyclists. Injuries are part and parcel of the sport. Readers may think we dwell unduly on the pain and suffering side of racing: we could focus more on the positive, celebrate the winners, the thinking goes.
Honestly, that was the angle when we arrived in Chattanooga. Phinney mopped up in the time-trial and was fired up for the road race. He was going to the Dauphiné. He was going to the Tour. Then bike racing, as it has a habit of doing, jumped up and bit him in the ass. Or took a chunk out of his patella, at least.
Continental directeur sportifs, when relating hard-luck stories to the press, will invariably finish on “That’s bike racing, eh?” with an accompanying shrug. It appears to say nothing, yet says everything. The lot of the average professional cyclist is very occasional highs scattered amongst, if not lows, then flats as wide as Spain’s central plateau. And then lows, when they hit, deep as the Mariana Trench.
Phinney has run the gamut in the months following his crash. But what makes bike racers special – and this is something to celebrate – is their powers of recovery; refusal to accept defeat; determination to finish.
As more than one Twitter wag pointed out during the World Cup, while yet another player writhed around on the pitch, seemingly in agony, footballers pretend to be injured, while cyclists pretend they are not…
Phinney’s not pretending. But he’ll be back soon enough: stronger, if not bigger. “I grew an inch and a half in my first two years as a professional,” he says. “I started out about 6’3”.”
Having to be re-measured and supplied with new Trek frames mid-season sounds like a bonus to us amateurs, but must have been a royal pain. He has stopped growing now, surely? “You know, I really hope so,” he says with feeling. “I didn’t grow any in the last 12 months, so that’s a good thing.”
Rarely do I meet a cyclist who towers above me. Phinney is an imposing figure, even if he does consider the excess height a disadvantage.
He does have a distinct advantage, however, of having sporting genes. Being the offspring of a famous cyclist can be a heavy burden to bear. Phinney has double-trouble in that department, both parents being Olympic medallists.
Speed skater Connie Carpenter first represented USA in Sapporo, 1972, at the tender age of 14. Converting to cycling four years later following an ankle injury, she quickly became queen of the American racing scene, culminating in Olympic road race gold at the Los Angeles Games in ‘84. Carpenter also took the World pursuit title the year before. Like mother, like son…
The other half of Taylor’s chromosome inheritance comes from Davis Phinney, one of the four big USA powerhouses comprising the team time-trial squad that landed a bronze at the same Games. Two stages of the Tour with 7-Eleven in the ‘80s go towards his remarkable career tally of 328 wins, a US record that it’s hard to see being beaten. The Davis Phinney Foundation – helping fellow Parkinson’s sufferers cope with the crippling symptoms he himself has fought since being diagnosed in 2000 – is doing fine work in the field, raising millions of dollars with its eponymous figurehead at the fore.
They are cycling royalty in the States, deservedly so, and have been invaluable guides in their son’s career trajectory. Coach Neal Henderson and both parents identified Connie’s own World Championship-winning discipline of the pursuit as somewhere the boy Phinney might be competitive. He’d already bagged the time-trial rainbow jersey.
The five-month plan was to go do a few World Cup rounds to qualify, then hit the 2008 championships in South Africa “to get experience,” as Henderson tells it, “and then the following year we’d be ready for it. But in Taylor’s mind, he was going there for the win. And that’s what he did.”
And so it continued: winning the under-23 Paris-Roubaix as an 18-year-old, and again as a 19-year-old; taking the senior World pursuit titles in the same years; donning the maglia rosa following a comprehensive beating of the opposition in the prologue of the 2012 Giro d’Italia; winning his first professional stage race, the Tour of Dubai, in 2014.
This perfectly curved career trajectory continued this season with a solid if unspectacular ride at Paris-Roubaix, this time with the big boys – work in progress for Phinney, but an ambition nonetheless. “You learn more each time, but it takes a lot of physical stamina, just to be able to weather all those sectors and make it to a point five hours in where you are capable of making an attack, or following an attack. It takes a while to get there.”
Once there, he still has to work out how to outsmart the likes of Boonen, Cancellara and this year’s winner Niki Terpstra. “I don’t really know about that yet. For me, it’s about surviving until the point where the race actually happens. This was the first year when I was kind of involved in the finale, but I was kind of dangling. And then I got a flat.”
Amstel Gold is another race that catches Phinney’s eye, as does Milan-Sanremo, of course – not as fanciful as it may first appear. Even the Ronde is not entirely unrealistic, as “I could go into Flanders a bit lighter and do better. I have really dense bones, though, so even at my lightest, I am 82-83kgs.”
Weight: that perennial bugbear of the professional cyclist. His winter body fat scan put him 7.5 per cent and 89kgs, so he is climbing against men 20kgs lighter. It’s a big disadvantage to haul up a hill.
Trying to ease the big guy’s burden, I tell him how my freakishly insufficient, but entirely natural, one per cent body fat is actually a curse: being freezing cold all winter long.
“Yeah…” he drawls in reply. “I don’t pity you, though, at this point in my life. Maybe when I retire.” That’s done it. Now he hates me. And the magazine. For the next decade or so, at least. And it was going so well…
“The nicest thing you could tell a professional cyclist is that they look skinny. We are the most image-conscious group of freaks.
“You have to be anorexic to a point where you are not losing any power. So you have an eating disorder, but it’s not bad enough that it costs you any performance. By any standard, the top 50 guys at the Tour de France would all be severely underweight.”
It seems like an unhealthy way to live that could have a lasting impact on their bodies in the future, but Phinney disagrees. “I think what has a lasting impact is the guys in the past who were abusing a lot of pharmaceuticals and cortisone and diuretics to get that skinny. You get skinny naturally. Back in the Palaeolithic days, we were running around after bison the whole day, and those dudes were pretty lean.”
He has been vociferous in the past on the subject of pill-popping in the peloton. Caffeine, Tylenol and the latest controversial painkiller du jour, Tramadol, have no place in a professional’s bidon, according to Phinney. The thinking is that riders off their faces on (legal) drugs are causing crashes. And that the slippery slope from legal to illegal is all too easy to slide down when a culture of unnecessary pill taking is commonplace. Both are totally valid points.
Phinney is just one of many younger professionals prepared to offer their thoughts on doping matters where many of their elders prefer to keep it zipped. He happens to enjoy a higher profile than most, so is more likely to be quoted. It bodes well for the future that this next generation are not only turning their backs on doping but are more than happy to talk about it. The tide has finally turned against those who would accuse Phinney and his ilk of “spitting in the soup”.
Talking of Phinney’s high profile, his appearance in a ‘Top 50 Most Marketable’ chart of athletes earlier this year, the only cyclist to make the cut, needs to be mentioned. “I thought it was pretty funny. I certainly wasn’t expecting it. I know Cav has been on that list before.”
Seeing as it’s compiled by a British company, and with some vested interests compiling the 50, we can take it with a pinch of salt for the moment, but they may be onto something a few years down the line. “If it was an American list, there is no way I would be on it. But cycling is big in the UK now. I’m not terribly money hungry, but if it’s there…”
Top of the chart was Lewis Hamilton. Does he sound familiar, Taylor? “No, I don’t know him.” Point taken.
We discussed this and that, frothy conversation to break up the race talk. It was good to see him wearing a proper cycling cap on the podium after the time-trial and not one of those dreadful baseball caps. “I’m not a big hat-wearer. It’s all about looking good, whatever that means,” he replies, summoning all of the irony at his disposal.
He has been reading Kerouac’s On the Road, but like most of us, consumes less books than he should, or would like to. He’s a decent writer, as his occasional blogs show. “It’s one of those things that comes naturally to me,” he says, without any trace of puffed-up, self-importance. It’s just a fact. “But it takes a lot of brain power, a lot of time.”
He’s been trying to keep up with Game of Thrones on TV, and during his enforced convalescence, may even be on top of it by now. My kids describe the synopsis as: sex, death, sex, death. Is that about right? “Yeah, there’s not as much sex as you might like, but a lot of death. It’s entertaining. I listen to a lot of music. I read 1 magazine religiously…”
There’s a glint in his eye, but not even the trace of a smile. He’s checking to see if I’ve fallen for it. I kind of have. Sucker.
“I am pretty strict on the regime these days, so I don’t do a lot of socialising. Cyclists have a lot of down time. I drink beer when I can. I drink wine when I can.”
Public perception is interesting on this subject. The idea that professional athletes have no need for the downtime and pressure releases that the rest of us enjoy is preposterous. Not only are most partial to a brew on their days off, their ability to recover from a bevy or two is far greater than the rest of us. “It depends on the time of year, of course, but as long as you don’t go full gas,” says Phinney.
“When I finished Roubaix, I was pretty motivated to turn the page and go for the Tour de France and go for the team in support of Tejay. I had a couple of days off, then committed to the regime.”
Had a misplaced commissaire’s motorbike not scuppered his descent of Lookout Mountain in May, that’s exactly where he would have been in July, instead of parked on the couch, left leg elevated, catching up on Kerouac and Game of Thrones – a regime of sorts, but not the one he was anticipating.
Phinney will return stronger than ever, undoubtedly. And with a new perspective, born out of adversity. “I see a lot more clearly. I realise that this career that I have is not a given and it is something that can be taken away at any point in time.
“I was on a good track after Roubaix – I was maybe even more focused than I have ever been before. So I know that when I come back, I’m going to take that same focus, and maybe even more, to the next races that I do, whether it is this season or the next.”
Maybe he hadn’t finished growing after all.
This article first appeared in issue 49.