Twice a winner of the race as an under 23, Taylor Phinney was marked out as a future Roubaix champion. That was before an injury which almost ended his career. After finishing 49th earlier this month, he and BMC Racing Team doctor Max Testa spoke about his prospects in this race and others. What does the future hold for the American?
Taylor Phinney slumped onto the grass in the centrefield of the Roubaix velodrome, relieved to be off his bike and back on terra firma after hours of effort.
His face was dusty, his team kit streaked with French earth and salted sweat. His hair was matted and he had a look of deep fatigue. Asked to comment on his race, he requested to be left alone for several minutes. He needed more time to catch his breath, to gather his thoughts and to recoup a little energy before delving again into what had come before.
When enough time had passed, he gave the signal to continue. He fielded the first question, then gave his response. “It was pretty hard. It was pretty much full gas all day,” he explained, commenting on the physical and mental battles he’d just been through.
“There wasn’t really any time to hang around and chat. I definitely have more of an appreciation for how hard it is just to finish this race.”
Phinney is, of course, no stranger to the cobbles of northern France. He won the under 23 version of this race in his first two years in that age category, 2009 and 2010. He then went on to finish a superb 15th in his pro debut in 2012. That was a staggering achievement for a rider who was just 21.
Given that history, it was inevitable that he was tipped as a future winner. However those prospects took a knock in 2014 when he crashed hard during the US national championship road race. He was left with a compound fracture to his left tibia as well as a severed patellar tendon. As a result, it was over a year before he was able to get back to the bunch.
Returning to Roubaix is another milestone along his path to recovery, but he’s still being held back by physical imbalances.
“I felt all right,” he said, when asked how his body held up. “I was feeling pretty good going into the sectors in the right place until after Arenberg. Then I just kind of felt like the lights went out a little bit.
“Maybe I wasn’t able to eat as much as I wanted to in the beginning. I definitely felt the left side start to shut down. It took a while for that to come back. By then I was already out the back and just in the groups behind. Just trying to make it to the finish, basically.”
Still, he took some satisfaction from making it to the velodrome as one of the finishers.
“It feels pretty good,” he said. “I am pretty happy to be done with the race. It is just such a brutal… I don’t know if I was more naïve when I was younger, before the crash, but I definitely felt like it was a lot heavier of an effort this year than years prior.
“I still have some work to do. I am happy that I was able to make it here and happy that I didn’t have any problems, I didn’t crash.
“Now I look forward to going back home. I get back into the gym. I look forward to racing in the US and racing in the Tour of California.”
“He definitely passed this first test”
Phinney’s crash in May 2014 had serious repercussions for him. It required a number of operations. He was forced to walk with crutches at first, then a cane. He still has to undergo physical therapy each day, stretching and strengthening exercises to rebalance the weaknesses in his body.
BMC Racing Team doctor Max Testa has been working as Phinney’s coach and knows him very well. He’s seen first hand what he has been through.
Because of that, he knows how far he has come.
Much as Phinney would like to have finished closer to the front in Roubaix, Testa knows these Classics were more a means to an end than a goal in themselves.
“In a nutshell, until this block of races, we were trying to keep a balance between training and recovery,” he explained to CyclingTips. “Favouring more recovery and physical therapy and not so much intensity of training. He did very good volume of training.
“We tried to limit the time he spent at the top end because we wanted to make sure that he was building.
“The main information we got from these races is that if you can handle the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, you can handle all kinds of training.”
Testa stresses that it is too soon to consider switching the emphasis completely away from what Phinney has been doing. The imbalances in his body and the need to keep working on the legacy of his crash means that physical therapy will continue.
However, given how solidly he rode in the Classics, Testa is confident it is time to step up Phinney’s training intensity.
“Honestly, coming back from an injury can take up to two years. You have really to go through certain steps. But he definitely passed this first test – coming back to races in Europe – with an A plus.
“Now he is going home to recharge the battery and do some good training for California. Hopefully he is going to be even better for California. Then we will go from there. We will assess and we will go forward.”
Bigger engine, longer recovery
The notion of avoiding intensity in training might seem peculiar to some. After all, Phinney is a professional competing in one of the toughest sports. Being able to go deep in races is crucial to success.
However his injury was a very severe one and Testa is clear that his recovery had to be gradual. Interestingly, he suggests that a smaller, less powerful rider may have been able to step things up more quickly.
“This is a guy who has huge power in his legs,” he explains. “When riders like this are coming back from injury, you have to slow them down more than someone that has a smaller engine. Because a knee is a knee. 600 watts is a lot for a knee.
“If it was a rider who maximises [his power] at 450, it would be easier in some ways. But this is a guy with a big engine, so we need to be sure that we balance the wheels as much as possible.”
What’s exciting for Phinney’s fans is that he can yet do a lot to improve his form. Last year he won a stage of the USA Pro Challenge within weeks of his return to the peloton. He played an important role in helping the BMC Racing Team take a second consecutive gold medal in the world team time trial championships.
He also put in a stirring late attack in the worlds road race, showing he could shake things up hours into a long event.
Those performances were all done without being able to train as hard as he normally would have. Getting a green light now to step things up will help considerably with building his condition.
According to Testa, Phinney’s power levels are generally comparable to how they were before his crash, with one exception: efforts under five minutes in length. This again correlates with the lack of intensity that he has been doing in training.
Improving this facet of his condition will give him the higher edge he needs to make the split at crucial moments. It will help him to bridge across to breakaway groups, or to help them get established. It will also help him to put in the kind of surges that so often determine the outcome in the finale of a race.
“I think now he is probably a good 85 to 95 percent of his top form, depending on the days,” says Testa. “I would say about 90 percent. He still has the ten percent, his top end, to work on.
“In the coming months I think he will pick things up to 95 percent; maybe by the end of the year he will be at 100 percent. I think he could start next winter’s training at 100 percent, with no limitations.”
Until then, things will continue to be done carefully. Testa won’t make a call on whether or not Phinney will do the Tour de France, although the rider himself told CyclingTips prior to Roubaix that he considered it unlikely.
The doctor says that he prefers that Phinney and the team’s technical staff make the final call. Still, he is willing to explain why he personally believes it would be counterproductive.
“From a medical standpoint, my best recommendation would be not to start with the Tour de France right away. Because the three weeks is something that we didn’t explore yet. Especially a lot of big climbs – for a kid who is six foot five, that is a lot of stress.”
Instead, he prefers that he builds methodically towards the Olympic Games in Rio.
The 2016 Games has long been a goal, and would have been one of the big incentives for Phinney when he was battling to come back to the sport.
He was fourth in both the road race and time trial in 2012, barely missing out on the podium. Taking a medal this time around would be huge for him, and also huge for American cycling.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but he’ll give it his all. One complication is that the Rio courses are tough ones. Harder than London, the time trial – and the road race, of course – will impose additional demands on riders.
Testa is reluctant to make predictions, but he will say that he believes Phinney can be competitive in the time trial. He also says that he will be highly motivated, and that he believes that he is going to surprise many.
“Let’s keep the fingers crossed,” Testa says. “But I am pretty sure that he has that race in his mind for a long time.”
“Top ten, top five next year would be a great goal”
Back to the Roubaix velodrome. Phinney sprawls on the grass, unwinding after over six hours of effort. He guzzles down a recovery drink and reflects on what he’s been through.
Finishing almost 15 minutes behind the winner Mat Hayman in 49th place doesn’t compare to what he achieved as an under 23. However the circumstances are completely different.
He’d like to have done better, but is also clear on the pluses.
“Mentally, I was able to handle the positioning better in the first half of the race than I was able to a couple of years ago,” he says, referring to the period before his big crash.
“Also I was able to fight and take some risks, which was something I wasn’t sure if I would be able to do or not. I didn’t know if I would be scared or skittish.
“So it feels like a positive building day as I go forward.”
Testa is one step removed from the experience, being a coach rather than a rider. He’s in a position to be more objective about the result and what it means for the bigger picture.
“He has the potential to be up there in Paris-Roubaix,” he says. “Fifteen minutes looks a lot, but actually at this point when you are coming back from an injury, you can exhaust the weaker leg after four, five hours. Then you are out of the game. Then you are with the group that is riding at a different speed.
“I would be happy to see next year him in the top ten, top five. That would be a great goal.”
Phinney was once seen as a future winner of the race. Does he still think this is possible?
“I don’t know,” the rider replies, pausing. “I hope so.. But it is going to take a little while.”
As with the Olympics, Testa doesn’t want to make a prediction. However, he’s already said that Phinney’s form is continuously building. He’s also explained that the rider will now be able to push harder in training and to reap the benefits of that.
Providing things continue to go well, it’s reasonable to expect an upwards trend.
“What I will tell you that I don’t think we need to put any limitation,” Testa says, speaking about Roubaix and what might be possible. “It is sure that he can be very competitive at this race. It is the kind of race that fits him very well. He showed in the past by winning the race two times as an under 23.
“Okay, every year you have new competitors. But Taylor definitely belongs to a limited number of people who have the potential to be up there and to win the race one day.”