PEZ Talk: BMC’s Taylor Phinney
Rider Interview: Taylor Phinney is the ‘blue eyed’ boy of US cycling, you only need to look at the gene pool he came from to see it could be no other way. Phinney’s career nearly came to an abrupt end, but he is on his way back, we talk to him about… well, everything.
Taylor Phinney is not just the ‘film star’ good looks and a fast pair of legs, he has a lot to say and it’s difficult to stop him, as we found out. Motor bikes, training camps, social media, his knee injury and recuperation, the Classics, the Olympics, peoples expectations and his home of Colorado all get an airing in the Phinney style.
Do you still live in Colorado?
Taylor Phinney: I live in Boulder, thats right were the plains meet the mountains. It’s a sweet spot.
Do you stay there all winter?
No. The weather there is weird sometimes, like tomorrow it’s going to be 11 degrees, but it will have snowed that much. It can be 18 degrees and then snow and then it will be gone.
Is it possible for a professional cyclist to live and train there?
Yeah, I think so. It’s less about the altitude, it’s more about being at home and being with friends and being around your family, for me. The altitude is 1,500 meters, the best way to do altitude is to live at sea level and go to altitude for two to three weeks maximum at a time, at above 2,000 meters, but still be able to train low and train and do your power.
Basically you are reducing your recovery, but in an oxygen blood way, not in a sleeping way. You are restricting the oxygen uptake in your blood by sleeping at altitude, so technically you don’t recover so well, but your body has to work harder. So when you go back down, it’s like… wow, sweet. But I have this theory that I could just go out and party every night and train, but I don’t think that would work.
Did you try it?
Kind of, that’s what the month of November is.
It must have been good to be back in the team environment at the training camps.
Yeah, there is a lot of people involved in a bike team, a lot of staff, a lot of riders and a lot of different agendas. A lot of people are trying to get different things (from the training camp), it was strange for me just coming back because I spent a year and a half just doing what I needed to do all the time and then you come back to the team to a schedule and you have this and that and that was a little strange adjustment, but you see it as a challenge and see it as you are a part of this bigger collective.
I wish we did more team building exercises, I wish we went on a hike or something, instead of just riding the bike all the time or we went on a trip on our bikes, I think that would be really cool. But just being around the guys and getting the energy of everybody. Although everyone is watching each other even though we are on the same team. Now I sort of observe everyone else.
Is there some kind of pecking order in the team, a form of hierarchy at the training camps?
It’s not necessarily a hierarchy, but if you put thirty men in a room, no matter what you are doing, you are all looking at each other. There is a lot of testosterone.
How did Dr. Max Testa help you through your injury.
Well, I go back a long way with Max. We used to go to the island of Elba with Max’s family starting when I was 6 years old. So I’ve known Max, I played soccer with his kids and with him on the beach on the island of Elba in Tuscany every summer for a long time, so he is one of the people in my life that I have known the longest and I have a great deal of respect for him because he is so incredibly positive all the time. Everything is great for Max, for some riders that doesn’t work out so well, they want to hear negative feed-back once in a while, but I love positive feed-back.
My dad was always super positive with me no matter what. He was always trying to encourage me, even in negative situations. Like: “Hey you did this right”. I think he got that from his dad being super negative, dads dad – my grandpa, he was an engineer and was very regimented, so my dad flipped it completely and was just super positive, so I respond to that and Max is great at that.
Are you ready to race the Classics this year?
I think so. The only race I have from last year that was similar to a Classic, was the Worlds and that went pretty well, but the last hour I definitely felt I had this dead weight of the left leg, just lugging it around. I definitely didn’t just sit in the group the whole day. That was in September and I’ve been allowed a fair amount of time to continue my rehab and continue to strengthen my left side, but I think I’ll have to continue doing that over the course of this whole season.
I’ve made a mental switch that I somehow wasn’t able to make before, that even that feeling of lugging that leg around at the end of a six and a half hour race and I was still able to commit to the pain of it and commit to what I was trying to do more than I had been able to in the past. That has a lot to do with being really good at something from a young age. When it feels good it feels good, but when it feels bad I don’t want it to feel bad, but then you realize that has nothing to do with the sport that you choose.
Will you ride Flanders and Roubaix?
Roubaix for me has always been a really important race; something about the energy of the race and the history of the race. I always loved to watch it on TV, I feel it’s the most entertaining race that we have all year and I like the idea of being and athlete and an entertainer at the same time. I can’t really sit here and say that I’m going to go and do this at Roubaix, but I know that based on how the end of last season went that I have a different mentality towards racing and towards what I can do and what I’m capable of doing. I still want to go to those races.
What has changed is my build up to those races, realizing that a lot of those races before hand, mentally didn’t help me. Spending a lot of time doing semi-Classics, getting rained on and snowed on and crashing. There is so much that can go wrong before the big races, that usually would go wrong before the big races in previous years, because of my injury and because of the fact that I can’t overload my leg with too many difficult race days I can have a bit more of a calmer approach into those big days and I’m fine with that. I’ll do Strade Bianche and Tirreno, after that, with this injury, it’s sort of we’ll see how it goes and see where I am. The management will decide if I’ll go to Milan-Sanremo, I’ll try to do Harelbeke and Wevelgem or I will try to go to Catalunya. It’s sort of a fork after Tirreno and we wont decide that until after Tirreno.
I’m excited to go back and continue working because I love that process of building into the season. Last year I started ‘training’ in February after my last surgery and I didn’t race until August, but that build up was really great for me, I was able to take the rest and the therapy I needed and when I came into the Tour of Utah, the US Pro Challenge at a really high level even if I was still dealing with a pretty significant imbalance and some pain. So, I’m being allowed that time now again the build into this season.
It’s strange, the early season is a strange time to be a professional cyclist, because the season is so long, you take this break after the season and then a lot of guys go; “oh Shit” the season starts in a month, “god, I got to get races in and I got to do this” and there is this mentality, which works for a lot of people, of racing to get the fitness, but I personally have always responded better to training and staying at home, being in the US, being around people that I love who motivate me by just hanging out with me and then by going over to Europe and jumping into races.
Are other peoples expectations too high?
Anyone can have any expectation in me they want. You can view expectations two ways, you can take expectation and think of them as this weight you have to carry of other people expecting me to do this. Or you can see an expectation as the idea that other people are hoping that you are able to achieve something and they want you to achieve that because they are rooting for you because they will be excited themselves to see you do well.
So I see it more that way that if I come into this season and I am successful like I was last season. The results I had last season inspired a lot of people and that makes me really happy when I can understand that that energy of a race result of mine can bring a group of other people, who I don’t even know, some happiness. That’s what we all like sport for, we like to feel inspired by other human achievements. So I look at the season and the rest of my career as an opportunity to continue to try to build on that and not become weighed down by it, because the weight would be on my shoulders by choice. I can either chose to have it as a weight or I can chose to have it as an opportunity. So that’s kind of where my head is at.
The US has one place for the Olympic time trial because you earned it, but will you get that place?
The way I see it is that we wouldn’t have that spot unless I qualified a spot, so I think I’ll be able to get the spot. They take the rankings from the year before; so Tejay had a couple of unfortunate events last season and Talansky the same and I wasn’t around, so as a country we didn’t really get much done, it’s weird that they don’t take a cumulative points over the last four years, just the year before. I barely qualified that spot at the Worlds, but I felt better about it because I could hardly walk an hour and a half after the time trial in Richmond. It was the weirdest thing.
Were you surprised by the amount of support you got on social media?
Yeah, it’s strange because I’ve always been very present in social media and I’ve grown a fan base from when I was younger, but never really understood the relationship between myself and my fan base until I came back. Really until I watched my little sister in a nordic ski race, she was racing in NCAAs and I was watching this live stream, as many in the cycling World do, and I’m watching my sister and she’s in the front group of the NCAAs, which is the National championships collegiate and I was bawling, crying and laughing and I was crying and laughing and I was so emotional from just watching my sister do well. I was texting my mum; “is this the way you feel every time I do well in a bike race?” and she is like; “yeah”.
That gave me this whole different perspective of what I do as an athlete and obviously it’s not that intense for a fan base, but thats why you get into sports, thats why you watch sports because of that emotional attachment to this person who you might not even know, but even neurologically it’s the things that go on in your brain when you watch someone doing something really well, its powerful for that person. So I was like; “man, sweet!” This is what I do and you get that kind of perspective and you can look at it that way and it changed, for me, how I view what we do.
Apart from your crash, there have been quite a few crashes with motorbikes in races, what are your thoughts on that?
The thing to remember with the motorbikes, which is weird because you always call it a motorbike, but it’s a human. There is a person on the motorbike that makes a mistake and I think the issue with the whole motorbike conversation is that we don’t address the fact that it’s a human, you dehumanize the whole process when you talk about a motorbike got in the way, because its like a robot got in your way and you have this system you cant understand. I think what we need to do is to have people more accountable for their own actions. I still don’t even know who the guy was that was involved in my crash in Chattanooga, I have no idea who that person is. No idea. So, I think we need to bring a more human aspect into the whole conversation. It is definitely a thankful job in that everything they do right and all the risks they take personally, you know when they are stood on an island whistling and we are coming that close to them, nobody goes to them and says “thanks for risking your life today for this bike race.” I don’t think, personally, we can do much about it, maybe on the UCI stand point, but I don’t know what you can do about it. You could start by humanizing the experience and maybe start by being able to see someones face, you know if you could see the guys face…
Taylor Phinney is at the moment riding Tirreno-Adriatico and helped BMC win the team time trial stage 1 on Wednesday.