Rider Interview: Taylor Phinney has the DNA of a champion cyclist and had the World at his feet until his horrendous crash last year put his cycling career on hold. Alastair Hamilton was at the BMC training camp to find out how things were progressing.
2014 was looking pretty good for the man from Boulder, he won the Dubai Tour with a win in the time trial stage and the best young rider competition, 7th in Het Nieuwsblad, stage win in California and became US national time trial champion and then in the national road race he crashed and hit a roadside guardrail and his season was over. Whether his career is over is yet unknown. We caught up with Taylor for what started off as a light hearted chat that became quite a deep discussion on the life of Taylor Phinney.
PEZ: How is the leg coming on?
It’s going pretty well, I still have a couple of degrees of range of motion that I’m not really sure if I’ll ever get back because I chipped of a chunk of my patella and so my tendon is naturally shorter now than it was before, which I try not to be too OCD about. I don’t know, I think I’ll be able to get it back; I’ll force it there eventually. No, it’s going pretty well, it’s a long process man. I think at the beginning, it’s one of those processes that the doctors tell you it’s going to be shorter than it actually is, or maybe that’s the way I interpreted it. It’s been seven months now, so another couple of month of just general strengthening and making sure I’m pain free.
PEZ: You were calling your thin leg Froome and the normal leg Greipel, how does the girth of Froome compare to the girth of Greipel?
Well, I did’t think I’d be here talking about girth. There is still a four centimeter girth differential overall between Greipy and Froomy. It’s kind of crazy how strong your one leg gets, my right leg is so strong just from getting up from chairs, largely by itself and walking about by itself for the last seven months. I have a way of measuring on a leg press and I still have some overall strength to come, the size of the leg will probably always be a little bit smaller, maybe something that will be noticeable to me and that’s just normal with an injury like that. The strength can come back to 90-95% and that’s the main goal for me before I start to think about other things.
PEZ: You’ve spoken about girth, what about length?
The length is fine. They say it’s mostly about girth, so that’s what I read on the internet.
PEZ: I’ve always been told size doesn’t matter.
Yeah. No, the legs are both the same length. Yeah it’s interesting that there was a chance there could have been a difference in length, but the way they put the rod in, they did a really good job. There are three pretty serious injuries all in one, it was a long surgery and they have what is called a level 1 trauma center in Chattanooga, Tennessee where I had the accident and that apparently is the best kind of trauma center.
PEZ: Is racing just not in your thoughts at the moment?
It is kind of, I just can’t get too carried away thinking about it, I just have to focus on my day-to-day getting that strength back and not having any pain. I can do too much in the gym or too long a ride and the knee will get swollen and generally be achy, not excruciating pain, but something you don’t want to feel all the time, so I have to be careful. When I think about races; if you had talked to me three or four months ago, I would be talking about the beginning of the season and about getting back into going to Dubai and stuff like that, but it’s just been a long, long process. I think realistically I look towards the Tour of California in May, that’s my big goal to come back and try to be training fit by the end of March, but it’s hard to think that far on and to completely miss the Classics. But I did a number on myself, so it will be almost an entire year removed, which is a long time.
PEZ: What about the World’s in Richmond?
It being in September is for sure on the radar. I would love to make my Tour de France debut, but like I say, I can’t get too carried away with what I’m going to do and what I’m not going to do.
PEZ: Are the Olympics on your radar?
Yeah, the Olympics are always on the radar. From the day after the time trial in London; Rio has been on the radar. The Olympics are something that just mean a lot to me in general. As they do for most athletes and a lot of people. I guess if I had to choose between having this accident happen this year or next year. . . since we always get those choices in life!
I guess being raised in America, it’s the same in the UK; the Olympics have this huge presence, being an Olympic medalist is such a big honor.
PEZ: Would you ride both the time trial and the road race?
The most realistic opportunity for me at Rio is the time trial, we haven’t personally seen the road race course yet, but it looks quite hard, it looks generally demanding, hard with some cobbles with steep little sections. You’re constantly evolving as a bike rider and I cant say that I’m going to go for a medal at the Rio road race, but at the same time you can’t put a ceiling on yourself.
PEZ: Do you remember anything of the crash?
Yeah I remember everything, fortunately or unfortunately and afterwards, I kind of wish that I got knocked out. You know… pain man, it makes you better!
PEZ: What about psychologically, the first time you rode down a descent, did you hold back?
No, I learnt from free skiing, as a child of around 11, that when you are doing a jump or doing a trick and you eat it or crash, that the first thing you have to do is get up and do the exact same thing again otherwise you’re going to lose it and it’s going to become something bigger in your mind. So for me it was important, I ended up going on one of the first rides I did outside, way too premature, but I went up and did this long valley by my house. There’s this smaller climb that goes up to this long descent back into town and it’s a descent I know and love, one of my favorites in Boulder, Lee Hill. So I got to the top of this hill and my whole goal was to just like; “I got to rip it like normal” or it’s going to turn into something in my mind. When I was driving back from Park City, where I did the initial couple of weeks of my rehab, I was driving and I found myself staring at guardrails, which is what I ran into after the crash and I though “that’s kind of weird”. I didn’t have any dreams where guardrails turned into monsters and came at me, but for sure it was building in my mind. So I went out on the bike and went up this climb at the back of Lee Hill and started this descent and there is one turn that’s a blind left hand corner, you can take it full gas, but it’s scary. You go into it at around 85K an hour and you can’t see the end of it, but you know from doing it so many times that you can do it. So I was coming into it and I was like; “you just got to do it man, you just got to do it”. So it was no brakes, just go for it and I ended up doing it and I went through and just got this massive rush. As I was exiting the corner I just took my hand of the bars and flipped off the guardrail. For me, mentally, that’s what I needed to do. I guess everyone is different, but you confront your demons in different ways.
But for sure psychologically I’ve had to go through a lot of different things which I think have made me a more well rounded and sound individual overall. I am honestly thankful to have had this experience in my life, you would never wish this on someone or on yourself, but it makes you think about a lot of things and put things in perspective.
PEZ: What about the hour record, would you be less interested in going for that after Bradley Wiggins makes his attempt?
No, I think if you want to go for the hour record, you want to go for the hour record and it shouldn’t matter what the time is already or whether you are just going to do it just to beat it, we are past that point now, Jens already did that. I feel there are people coming out every week saying that they want to do the hour record. The thing with the hour record; it’s been around for a really long time and I’m very happy that it’s something that’s “cool” again. I was initially thinking I would be a little bit further on by this point and it would be something I could do in the early part of this year, but it’s not really. So just to have it for a month or whatever before Wiggins does it, it’s kind of like… well you never really race for second place.
I think it’s something that I will consider a little bit further down the line and if I were going to do it or make an attempt at it, it would probably be later after Richmond or after the Tour de France or if I’m able to do the Vuelta or something this year. It’s not something I can just bang out right now.
PEZ: Did you let your diet go while you have been injured?
I like traditional American food that’s bad for you, it doesn’t necessarily have to be bad for you, but hamburger, ice cream sandwich, I really like to take French fries and dip them into a milk shake, that’s probably my guiltiest of pleasures and maybe the weirdest I think you’ll find. But that’s normal for us, man. People in the middle of the country eat like deep fried butter on a stick, so that’s where I come from. I’ve indulged in a lot of food related guilty pleasures over the last seven month of my pseudo retirement/injury. I lost six or seven kilos from just being sedentary for two and a half months. I think we have so much strength in our legs, a lot more than we realize and when you stop using them completely for a long time…
For the first month I could get on crutches and be on crutches for 20-30 seconds and since I lost so much blood from both the accident and the two surgeries, I just didn’t have enough blood and didn’t have a high enough hemoglobin or hemocrit to sustain just general standing up. That’s a long time where your body just isn’t using these [legs] anymore, so it just shuts them down. It takes a lot of energy to fuse two giant bits of bone together, which is something I and most people don’t understand. It’s a lot of energy and calories, so I was eating a fair amount, I was never just stuffing my face continually, but I’m only now back to the weight I was in California in May.
PEZ: Were you ever concerned that you might not get back to the way you were before the crash?
I think there was always that concern, it wouldn’t be for the lack of effort to put everything into coming back and doing it healthily and sustainably so I can have a life with an operating limb after my cycling career. I did have to have that conversation with the doctor where he said: “Hey, you know you can push and you can come back, but if you push too hard you can give yourself an arthritic knee for the rest of your life after the age of early 30’s.” I did have a time when someone was saying maybe I should go back to college. Having to face that at the age of 24, instead of when it’s normal (unless you are Jens Voigt) in your mid 30’s, thinking about what you’re going to do after your cycling career. I think it’s healthy that everyone should have a second plan, but at the same time it can take its tool and be a tough thing to sit down and think about. They say that I’m ahead of schedule and that I’m recovering in a really great way and in a way that I wouldn’t be able to recover if I was much older, talk about youth being a cool thing. I guess I’ll understand that in a couple of years, if I don’t understand it well enough already. No, I definitely did a lot of things to myself, but I’ve gained a lot out of the process as well.