Rider Feature: Taylor Phinney, the one time ‘Boy Wonder’ of US cycling, has ridden his last race. Phinney was a class act and looked to have a wonderful career ahead of him; Classics, time trials, short stage races and track titles were within his grasp, but a horrific crash took that all away. Against all odds, Phinney returned, but was not the same rider and ended is pro career in Japan last Sunday, Ed Hood looks back at the rider and the man: Taylor Phinney.
World champs TT 2012 – Limburg
September 19th 2012, a bright near-autumn afternoon in Limburg, The Netherlands; I’m leaning over the barrier inside the last kilometre of the World Elite Time Trial Championship, having walked up the famous Cauberg climb – Taylor Phinney hurtles past me at a speed which I haven’t often witnessed in an individual time trial. I remember thinking that defending champion and ‘King of the Chronos,’ Germany’s Tony Martin had best be on his top game. He was and retained his title by less than six seconds from the big man from Boulder.
Worlds’13 podium – Taylor Phinney, Tony Martin and Vasili Kiryienka
I also remember thinking that Phinney was surely ‘World time trial champion in waiting.’ But then there were also his back-to-back wins in 2009/10 in the u23 Paris-Roubaix; with his raw TT power and love for the pave he had to be an Elite Paris-Roubaix winner some day?
Roubaix – What could have been
Fast forward to February 2019 and we’re in the EF Education First team HQ for their Classics campaign, the Bizniz Hotel, Lokeren. After the Belgian Media have finished grilling big, unflappable Sep Vanmarcke we’re let loose with Taylor – friendly, open, and a good line in understated humour, but you can tell that he’s perhaps not as connected to it all as he once was. He seems more enthusiastic talking about the ‘Dirty Kanza’ dirt race back in Kansas which will follow his Classics campaign.
Taylor talks to Ed in Belgium 2019
And sure enough, we didn’t imagine the disconnected vibe we picked up on, he’s recently announced that his career will end with the Japan Cup – at just 29 years of age. As a Classics man he has at least six or seven years ahead of him, if he wanted; Duclos won Paris-Roubaix at 38 years-of-age and more recently, Matt Hayman was 37 years-old and Phil Gil was 36 years-old when they won the ‘Queen of the Classics.’
Het Nieuwsblad 2019
But as the man himself said; “Talent is nothing without work ethic, and work ethic comes from a genuine passion for what you’re doing. And if you are constantly forcing your work ethic because your passion is elsewhere, then potential and talent mean nothing. And if there’s anything that I can take away from the sport of cycling it’s that, you can be as talented as you want, but if you don’t wake up every morning and you don’t want that thing, it doesn’t matter.”
Taylor and mom Connie
The sport psychologists joke that if you want to be a top athlete then first, you should pick your parents carefully; Mum, Connie won the Olympic Road race and Dad, Davis was a Tour de France Stage winner – he got that right.
Tour stage winner, dad Davis
The young Taylor first pops up on the palmarès websites in 2006 as silver medallist in the US Junior TT Championship – and bronze medallist in the US Junior Cyclo-cross Championship. Within a year, he’d won the Tour de l’Abitibi in Canada, AKA ‘The Junior Tour de France,’ the US Pursuit Championship and the World Junior TT Championship ahead of a German guy called John Degenkolb.
Track Worlds 2009
In 2008 he added the US Kilometre title, the World Junior Pursuit title and was third in the World Junior Time Trial Championship; the winner was a Polish lad called Kwiatkowski. In the colours of Axel Merckx’s Trek Livestrong team the World Elite Pursuit Championship was his in 2009, accompanied by a silver medal in the World Kilometre Championship – and to further underline the huge range of his talents he won the u23 Paris-Roubaix.
Pursuit champion 2010
Still with Trek he defended the World Elite Pursuit Championship in 2010, took bronze in the World Omnium Championship, won the u23 Paris-Roubaix again, took four stages and the GC in the super-fast Olympia Tour in The Netherlands, the US TT title, the prologue in the Tour de l’Avenir, bronze in the u23 World Road Race Championship and gold in the World u23 TT Championships. Stunning.
A very successful 2010 Worlds
Wins in the Olympia Tour with Axel Merckx’s Trek Livestrong team
He rode stagiaire with Radioshack at the end of that year but the name on the jersey for the WorldTour in 2011 was BMC for what was said to be the highest contract sum ever agreed for a neo pro – he would stay with the team for six seasons.
Stagieire with ‘The Shack’
Vuelta’11 stage 10 TT
He rode the Vuelta in 2011, but the wins slowed dramatically with just the prologue in the Eneco Tour – but that was to be expected, the gaping canyon between u23 and World Tour racing would have Evel Knievel thinking twice before attempting that leap.
NecoTour’11: Sprinting it out with André Greipel, Ben Swift and soon to be teammate Philippe Gilbert
In the pink: Giro d’Italia 2012 stage 2 and a bad ankle injury on stage 3
By 2012 though, he was finding his feet, part of the BMC team which won the TTT in Trentino, then a tenure in pink after he won the Giro prologue in Copenhagen before taking fourth in the London Olympics Road Race and Time Trial. There were medals at the Valkenburg Worlds however, silver in the individual and team time trial championships.
Two 4th places at the 2012 Olympics – TT and road race
Two silver medals at the Worlds’12 – TT and behind Quick-Step in the TTT
The 2013 season wasn’t so fruitful with just a TTT win in Qatar and a stage in the Tour of Poland.
The Dubai’14 podium
On Tom Boonen’s wheel in Het Nieuwsblad
The season 2014 looked to be heading towards his best so far as a professional, a stage and the GC in the Dubai Tour, a stage in the Tour of California, top ten in Het Nieuwsblad and the US TT title. But in the US road race championship on 26th May came the seeds of his early retirement; he was brought down by a motor cycle on the descent off Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was a ‘bad one,’ – he’d suffered an open compound fracture of the tibia and severed patellar tendon in his left leg, as well as losing a piece of his kneecap.
The Phinney legs
The scars weren’t just physical and with time on his hands he told one interviewer; “I started painting. I started to fly planes. I really got philosophical about a lot of things, started to think about what I would be doing if I wasn’t a professional cyclist, stuff like that.” If you’ve been around cycling for a long time then you’ll know that the latter thought in particular is a dangerous one for a cyclist on the comeback trail after a serious injury.
US Pro Challenge 2015 stage 1 Steamboat Springs
US Pro Challenge podium
But come back he did, after some 15 months out he announced his return with a stage win in the USA Pro Challenge and was member of the BMC team which usurped the mighty Etixx – Quick-Step team and took the 2015 World Team Time Trial Championship in Richmond, Virginia.
Driedaagse De Panne Koksijde 2016 stage 1 and the Muur van Geraardsbergen
The Worlds ITT in Doha
Season 2016 would be his last with BMC; he was in the squad which won the TTT in Tirreno and took silver in the Worlds TTT behind the inevitable Etixx – Quick-Step power house.
Checking the look at the Tour presentation
In the break at the Tour
KOM jersey on Tour’19 stage 2
For 2017 he joined Jonathan Vaughters’ Cannondale-Drapac formation with many feeling it would be a good move – an American team with a ‘family’ vibe to it but the year was ‘blank’ as far as palmarès go.
Giving it a go in Paris
The 2018 season, with Cannondale-Drapac, now EF Education First, too was a shadow of his former glories except for a solid top 10 finish in Paris-Roubaix.
2018 Paris-Roubaix – The highlight of 2018
And a spare jersey to give away to a young fan
This season started in excellent fashion with EF beating TTT Kings, Deceuninck – Quick-Step in the team time test around Medellin in Stage One of the Colombia 2.1. Sadly, 57th place in the Scheldeprijs was as good a finish as he could achieve in the Classics.
57th in the Scheldeprijs’19
His last race – The Japan Cup
His last race was the Japan Cup where those dreaded letters ‘DNF’ appeared alongside his name.
But like the man himself said: “At some point, you don’t want to just be lining up for races to finish them. It’s time to take that energy and put it into something fresh, something new, something unknown. I’m stepping away so that I can be more true to myself, which means to make art, to make music, to create and cultivate.”
PEZ wishes him well.
Whatever Taylor Phinney does in the future we’re sure he will be happy
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,700 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.