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As the days tick down to the Tour du Haut Var-Matin on Saturday and the start of Taylor Phinney’s 2016 racing season, two of those who have guided his career give insights into his recovery and what the future might hold.
A year ago Taylor Phinney was stuck on the sidelines of the sport, facing uncertainty and rumoured by some to be struggling with his recovery.
There were even whispers that he might not be able to return to competitive cycling, but was instead simply ticking the box of doing rehabilitation prior to a possible insurance payout.
Fortunately that was not the case and Phinney bounced back in August, netting third on stage one of the Tour of Utah and winning the opening leg of the USA Pro Challenge.
He then went to grab second on the final stage and end the race a solid 26th overall.
Helping his BMC Racing Team to victory in the world time trial championship and putting in a late attack in the worlds road race underlined the point: he was back, and he was once again riding strongly.
Phinney’s injury was one that would have ended many careers. He crashed heavily in the US national road race championships in Chattanooga on May 26th, slamming into a guardrail at high speed.
Lying in a crumpled heap on the ground, he was tended to by race medics and later had his injuries assessed. The most severe of those was a compound fracture to his left tibia as well as a severed patellar tendon.
What followed was an extended period of time away from the sport, and then, after many months of hard work, a successful return.
But, as those close to him emphasise, the legacy of that fall is one that is still felt.
“Winning a world title was above expectations”
Dr Max Testa is the BMC Racing Team’s doctor and also a longtime friend of the family. Taylor’s father Davis Phinney was a professional with the 7-Eleven team and is one of the most successful US riders in history. His mother, Connie Carpenter Phinney, is a world championship and Olympic gold medallist.
Testa has known their son since a young age and, after his crash, he took over his coaching from Neal Henderson.
“I have to give credit to Neal, as he did a great job,” Testa tells CyclingTips. “In fact, the reason why I started to coach him is because he was injured. Being a physician, I can adjust the training load based on how he is doing.”
Asked as to how he considers Phinney to be faring, he answers that his progress is very encouraging. However he makes clear that much of his getting back to where he is is due to the path he chose to follow as a teenager.
“In many other sports, this injury would have been really catastrophic,” Testa explains. “The degree of the injury, the complexity of the injury – cycling is probably the best sport for him to be in.”
But it’s not just down to the weight-bearing nature of the sport. “We also have to give him credit too,” he underlines. “I was surprised by how tough and how committed Taylor was, coming back. He never lost the motivation to come back as good, if not better than before.
“Having a goal is very important when you have a severe injury.”
Being fully committed has been crucial, but so too knowing when to back off. One without the other wouldn’t have worked. Testa says that he considers Phinney has been very good at pacing things, not pushing too hard, and that this too has been vital.
However, even though Phinney has already returned to the top of the podium, Testa makes clear that there are lingering issues he is dealing with. He hasn’t fully turned the page on the injury, and this will likely remain the case in the short and medium term.
“It’s reasonable to say that this the effects are going to drag on for some time,” Testa explains. “The injury is one thing, but then you stay away from competition for ten months. Those are intensity efforts that really create adaptation in the body that takes a while to build again, and he has to do that.
“So I think this year we don’t want to set [too high targets]. Last year’s goal was to come back for the Tour of Utah and Colorado, to be healthy and to be able to manage the injury as a first return to competition.
“Coming back right away and winning a world title was above expectations. Now we want to see how he does in the first few races and, based on that, we are going to set goals for the Classics.”
“The things that have happened have increased his capacities”
Although Henderson is no longer working with Phinney as closely as before, he keeps in contact with him and gives feedback if and when it is required. He also brings him motorpacing when the 25 year old is in Boulder.
His past experience of coaching him means he understands him like few others, and he believes Phinney is close to where he would have been had he not crashed.
“He’s had good preparation this and, in terms of the physical aspect of things, he is continuing to get stronger.
“You don’t want to have an injury that requires you to form that kind of resolve and change your perspective, but those things that have happened are I believe part of the things that are strengthening him at this point and increasing his capacities.”
In a previous interview, Phinney said that his forced time off the bike and the soul-searching he experienced changed him as a person. It made him a more rounded individual and while it unearthed and cultivated other passions such as flying and painting, it also gave him a bigger sense of purpose in his sport.
Henderson believes that as time goes by, it should become increasingly clear that Phinney is a stronger competitor than he might otherwise have been.
The crash was very tough in the short-term, but in the bigger picture it could increase rather than limit his success.
“Again, I would never wish this kind of thing upon anyone, to come from such a negative place, but he has taken everything from the situation and the experience and been able to make something positive out of it,” he says. “That is both within his sport and within his psyche and entire personality.
“It gave him a change in perspective that sometimes never happens for an athlete or, even if it does, sometimes happens over a longer period of time.”
In some ways, he feels he is like a much older rider.
“If you talk to somebody like Fabian Cancellara or Bradley Wiggins, riders who have had some of the highest highs and have been on the road for a long time, they have a different philosophical discussion at this point regarding their careers.
“I think in some ways Taylor’s philosophical view of what he does and what the sport is has changed because of that accident. Because of that, he may speak like somebody who has been around for much longer than he has been, but it is due to the circumstances.
“It’s due to the things that he has gone through.”
Cobbled Classics equal challenge
Testa sees the same thing, and believes that Phinney will make up for lost time. “I think he can get back there,” he says. “Only time will tell us if it is going to happen, but right now he is in a good place. He had a solid January of training. I don’t have to hold him back much compared to other riders. He went back to Europe and will start racing in a few days. We will see soon.”
While he was able to compete in 2015 without any big complications, Testa feels the Classics will represent a stiffer test.
“For me, it is going to be interesting to see how his knee behaves when it is challenged in races like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders,” he says. “It is in those races where he has to combine a big, high intensity effort such as 600 watts for a minute or two, while at the same time dealing with the cobblestones and other factors that can be hard on the knee.”
He admits that it’s a case of playing things by ear and adjusting things if issues crop up.
“I am sure that unfortunately we are going to make some mistakes here and there, but the key is going to be to learn how to manage his injury so that he can have the best possible career with that injury he has.”
Even though he feels dealing with the legacy of his crash is an ongoing issue, he is confident that Phinney can and should go on to big things.
That’s partly due to his approach, and also due to his mentality.
“I would say it has been very rewarding to work with him. I really have to admire a guy of his age, the maturity in managing his injury,” he stated. “Not only from a physical standpoint but also from a psychological standpoint.
“I think he has got the talent. This year we are not going to set the expectations so high, but the goal is to bring him to the best health and fitness level and see how he can perform. Then we will use that performance to gauge the next few years.
“He still has so many years ahead of him, so I think we can play a little bit on the conservative side.”
Despite a slightly softly-softly approach, though, Testa believes big, big things are possible.
“This is a guy in two or three years I would like to see on the podium of – if not winning – Paris-Roubaix,” he says.
Given what Phinney has done thus far, who could bet against that?