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  • 03.08.15

    Taylor Phinney: Growing Pains

    "I had to surrender about a centimetre of my patella that I am not planning on getting back any time soon." Phinney is back racing over a year after his horrific crash in Chattanooga

    Words
    Ian Cleverly
    Photographs
    Daniel Sharp

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.”

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