He’s one of USA Cycling’s top athletes, he’s a medal contender for Rio, but he’s also more than that. Taylor Phinney is one of the most interesting riders in cycling and impressed many with his reflections on the sport and life in the recent Thereabouts video.
This week Phinney spoke to CyclingTips from the BMC Racing Team training camp in Denia, Spain, reflecting on his comeback, his goals and how he realised what things are like from a fan’s perspective.
In the aftermath of what was a catastrophic crash in last year’s US road race nationals, Taylor Phinney was plagued by uncertainties about what his injuries would mean for his career.
Getting over the fractures and rebuilding his body and his form were the major priorities, but as time passed it became clear that the situation was more complicated than anticipated. Any return to the peloton would take longer and things remained unsure for quite some time.
Phinney was finally able to breathe a sigh of relief in August. He finished third on the opening leg of the Tour of Utah, showing solid form on the day he returned to racing. Exactly two weeks after that he put in a mammoth sprint to take stage one of the USA Pro Challenge, topping the podium for the first time in 15 months.
He then went on to ride strongly in the world championships in Richmond, netting a solid 12th in the time trial, animating the road race with an aggressive performance and, best of all, helping his BMC Racing Team to win the team time trial.
He was back, he was relieved, but he had also changed. He’s able to size things up now and say, even if he lost over a year of his career and still has more work to do to rebuild his body, that the overall balance was a positive one.
“I have a completely different outlook on what I do for a living and why I do what I do,” he said this week, stating clearly that his accident had, in many ways, changed his life for the better.
“My connections with people and places [has grown]. Then when you add the artwork on top of that. I think that has helped a lot with that sort of introspection.
“Beyond that, there are so many different things that I have been able to go through and process, thanks to having the accident, that I feel pretty fortunate about.”
Phinney was forced to take time off the bike and filled that void with painting and flying lessons. It’s made him a more rounded person, giving him a side that many more performance-obsessed athletes lack.
Because of that, he’s able to size things up and feel fortunate at how things eventually worked out.
“It kind of goes both ways,” he said, referring to what setbacks can do. “Some people have an accident like that and it can bring them down. It can take them down a path that they are not so happy about.
“Then other people, I guess like myself, you use it as a strength and you take it as the biggest learning experience of your life thus far. And then you build off of it.”
You are back, you’ve been racing and took a win. You are heading towards a new season. How do you feel you are now?
Well, I still experience discomfort if I walk upstairs. Also when riding my bike, when it starts to get pretty intense. But it is a level of discomfort that is manageable.
And I was able to race really well last season, even through some of that discomfort.
The most important thing now is to continue my rehab, continue with my therapy. To not get complacent. It might be easy for me to think that, based on how last season went, that I am back to 100% and don’t need any more help. But I still have a long way to go, unfortunately.
I just had my team meeting and the team is really patient with me, which I am super thankful for. I am under the good care of a close family friend and a team doctor, Max Testa, who also does my training. He trains a couple of the other riders on the team too.
I am in a happy place, I am looking forward to this season and what it can bring. I don’t have many expectations, but then again I didn’t have any expectations going into the last season except for just trying to race my bike and have a good time.
I ended up doing that and then some, so that is sort of my approach. Continuing that approach moving forward.
The 2016 season is only a few weeks away. What is your schedule like in the next few months, and what will the key targets be?
I am not sure how much of my schedule I am allowed to disclose. For me, the early part of the season definitely is still focussed around the Classics. The Classics are going to be a little bit of an unknown.
Okay, I had the world championship road race last year … it was kind of the closest thing I could have [to those sort of events]. It definitely is a one-day Classic, but it is not quite as intense as the races in Belgium and France, like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders.
I will come into those at a higher level with some more strengthening and some more training and a little more confidence behind me. I will look forward to those races like I always do, but my racing schedule will be a little bit lighter.
There is more of a focus on training and continuing my rehab, which is what I wanted and what the team doctors wanted. The team was willing to allow me to do that.
We have so many races. It is hard to fit all 28, 29 guys into the roster and figure out where everybody sits. But they are definitely respecting the continuation of my recovery and that makes me very happy, very stress-free, which is nice.
So what is next for you?
I am at team camp now but I will go back to the US and keep plugging away. I will keep doing the stuff I have been doing. I didn’t really get too have much of an off-season, but I didn’t really feel like I needed one. I was in a good place when I finished the season. A little overwhelmed with getting back into racing, but in a good place.
I will have some more time in the US, and then come back over and see what I can do in the early-season races.
Given his performances in London 2012, it’s of zero surprise that the American has one goal above all as the next Olympics looms on the horizon.
Three and a half years ago he went agonisingly close to the podium on two occasions; in the men’s road race he crossed the line four seconds behind the winner Alexander Vinokourov (Kazakhstan) and runner-up Rigoberto Urán (Colombia), finishing to the fore in a 23-man sprint.
He was, unfortunately, edged out by Alexander Kristoff (Norway), and had to be satisfied with fourth.
Never mind, his fans thought, there’s always the time trial. Phinney lined out in that event four days later but once again was just off the bottom step of the podium. Bradley Wiggins (Britain), Tony Martin (Germany) and Wiggins’ compatriot Chris Froome were ahead of him, picking up the medals.
While his performances were stunning for a 22-year-old second-year pro, he could only think about having missed out by such a small margin.
Because of that, he’s got his sights firmly set on Rio and trying once again.
“For me, when I think about the year, it is an Olympic year,” he said. “The Olympic time trial is the most important thing on my horizon, trying to be the best I can be there.
“I think it [the two fourth places] makes for a good story and definitely makes for a good motivation. But even if I never win an Olympic medal, to say that I got fourth at the Olympics twice is still pretty sweet. There are a lot of other things in life beside sport, but I am happy that I am back, and before an Olympic year.
“I feel fortunate being able to continue to build, looking into Rio.”
There are other races, of course. There is the chance of possibly riding the Tour de France, making your debut there. Is that something you think about?
Yes, I definitely think about that. It is hard for me … when I came back last year, when I went into the Tour of Utah, it was like, ‘okay, take it one day at a time.’
Then it sort of snowballed all the way into the world championships and it was a lot to handle for my leg.
Coming into this season, I can’t get too carried away thinking about the Tour or going to the Giro, the big Tours. I have got to get back into the racing team with a bit of a lighter programme. I’ve to focus more on the big races that I want to perform well in.
It is a lot of mental energy to focus on the recovery, on the therapy, on the rehab, but it is just a necessary evil of what I am going through.
I would obviously love to do the Tour de France, but I have just got to see.
For Phinney, there was one moment that really brought things home to him about how his racing is perceived by others. The realisation happened when he was thrust into the position of a spectator, with a close family relationship enabling him to see how it is for his fans.
“In January, February last year, I was at home watching my sister racing the NCAAs, which is the national championships for collegiate skiing. She is a Nordic skier.
“I was watching those from my house in Boulder on a live-stream. She was doing really well, and the whole time I couldn’t stop crying. I was laughing because I was crying, but I was super emotional too.
“It showed me a side of the spectating part of sports that I had never really experienced before.
“I spoke to my mom and asked her if this is how she feels every time she watches me and sees me doing well. She said that, yeah, it can be really emotional for both her and my dad.
“Then you think about a broader spectrum. You think about not only your parents, but also about people really close to you. Your community, fans, that sort of energy, that sort of energy, that sort of emotion that you can provide other people just by racing your bike.
“In the moment you are very consumed by what you are doing, you are not necessarily thinking about the people watching. But I think subconsciously in this sort of fourth-dimension kind of a way, that for me is a real driving factor.
“Being able to inspire and create that kind of emotion, that sort of connection with the people that you love while you are just riding your bike … that’s motivating.”
We mentioned art at the start of this interview. If we return to that, I understand that you have been doing a lot with the colour red, studying it and working with it. What is that about?
Yes, I kind of end up with a lot of red and black in my paintings. I can’t really figure out of it is a Basquiat [Jean-Michel Basquiat] thing, as he uses a lot of red and black. He is an artist from the 80s in the US.
Or if it is to do with the team I race on [BMC] and our team colours.
I felt like it would be cool to just use red. I think a lot of artists go through phases where they stick towards one colour and are trying to figure it out in some way.
At the end of the day, when I am painting it is kind of like I am playing around with colours like a little kid. Red tends to be pretty present in a lot of my paintings.
I just kind of wanted to only use white and red and mess around with that. That is the kind of weird, simple things that you can do with art that you can’t really do in any other world.
You are 25 now. If you look 20 years down the line and if everything has gone to plan for you, do you like to think of yourself as being a successful artist then?
Well, I don’t really look at things like that … I care about the future in a sense, but I don’t really think about it so much.
Even when I am thinking about planning my career as a cyclist, I think that goals and plans are … at least for me personally, nothing that I respond well to.
I respond better to inspiration and spontaneity. When I can continue on that vein, then I find myself the most happy and most successful.
So it’s about living in the moment?
Yeah. It’s totally that cliché.