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Exactly two years ago, American Taylor Phinney was riding a high.
The BMC Racing rider had just won a stage at the Amgen Tour of California, soloing away from the field on a descent into Santa Barbara, crossing the finish line with a bow to the audience. He wasn’t just an athlete — he was a performer.
A week later, he followed it up with national time trial championship, the second in his young career. He would head into the road race as one of the favorites, with an eye on pulling off the weekend double.
On the morning of May 26, 2014, Phinney was a two-time Olympian, a handsome, charismatic 23-year-old man being paid well for racing his bicycle. He’d been a world champion. He’d worn the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia. He was six weeks away from his Tour de France debut, set to ride alongside his longtime friend and teammate, Tejay van Garderen.
And then, in the blink of an eye, on a fast descent early in the national road championship, everything changed. Phinney was on the ground, the result of a crash, at speed, into a guard rail. His leg was in pieces, a compound fracture too gruesome to face. Surgeries would follow. He would spend the next year rehabilitating from his injuries. He would watch the Tour de France on TV, from his home in Boulder, Colorado. He would never have the opportunity to wear his national champion’s skinsuit.
Phinney came back to the sport in August 2015, first at the Tour of Utah. He won a stage at the USA Pro Challenge. He played an important role in BMC Racing’s world championship TTT squad in Richmond, Virginia. He returned to the spring classics, where he finished the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
This weekend, Phinney will return to the U.S. national championships for the first time since his accident. It’s at a different venue — Winston-Salem, North Carolina, rather than Chattanooga, Tennessee — but it’s the same event, on the same holiday weekend.
He returns to nationals a favorite for a third national TT title, but more importantly, he returns a changed man.
He does not have the same body he had two years ago — the mechanics of his left leg will never be quite the same — but he’s not the same person, either. If his leg is weaker, his mind is stronger. His leg bears the scars, but his spirit, he says, is more powerful from the experience.
“I didn’t really think about it until today, when I saw the date, May 24,” Phinney said from Winston-Salem, where he flew immediately following the Amgen Tour of California. “Two days from now, it will have been two years. That’s pretty wild.
“Last year at this time we were doing the Thereabouts ride, so this is kind of a cool time of the year for me. Well, two years ago it wasn’t so cool, but that sent me on a journey, and it’s been a journey that’s changed my life. It’s changed my outlook, on how I view myself, on how I view this sport, on how I view sport in general, and how I view the whole world. The end of May, Memorial Day weekend, it’s a meaningful time for me, in my life.”
Objective: a third national TT title
At the Amgen Tour of California, Phinney finished third in the 20km Folsom time trial, 20 seconds behind stage winner Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) and three seconds behind Andrew Talansky (Cannondale). Talansky will not be competing at nationals — he’s taking a vacation after a tough spring — making Phinney the big favorite.
“I’m pretty confident for the time trial,” he said. “I’m in a good headspace, I’m feeling really good. I went out and rode four hours [Tuesday] because I was just having a good time riding my bike. The Tour of California was super hard. I remember two years ago, coming to nationals after California, I was wiped out for four days after, and I was super nervous, because I felt like crap, and I just kind of pulled it all together.
“Here [in Winston Salem] I went out for a ride [Tuesday] morning, just cruising out on the roads, I wanted to visit this state park — Hanging Rock State Park, north of town. It had a cool name, and that sort of drew me to it. And I felt really good, it was almost like starting the second week of grand tour after a day off. I’m in a great headspace. I’m feeling a lot better than I thought I was going to feel. In California, in the middle of the race, my legs were physically sore because the race was so difficult. You just push through it, you tell your body it’s all good, and your body responds. You’re just riding the wave, rolling out the red carpet.”
Phinney said he would not be returning to the road race, however — not related to his accident in the 2014 nationals road race, but because instead he’s going to fly to Middlebury, Vermont, to see his sister’s college graduation.
“I signed up for the road race, but I’m kind of on the fence,” Phinney said. “There’s a chance I might do the time trial, and then blow out and go to Vermont. I do have a flight on Saturday night that I could make, and I’m honestly more focused on my sister’s graduation than I am on the road race.”
As for the event itself — a 48km rolling out-and-back time trial — Phinney said he thinks he’ll benefit from the length.
“It’s a longer course than most Americans are used to,” he said. “There are not a lot of guys that can do an hour-long time trial. It’s not exactly what I was born to do, but it’s something I’ve worked on a lot.”
He added that he views his teammate, Brent Bookwalter, and Tom Zirbel (Rally Cycling) as his likely competition for the title. Bookwalter finished fifth in Folsom, 23 seconds behind Phinney. Zirbel, the 2013 national TT champ, did not race in California, instead focusing on preparation for the national championship. Bookwalter has never won a TT title, but has finished on the podium twice, in 2012 and 2013.
“I haven’t heard from Zirbel much recently, but yeah, I think of Brent [Bookwalter] as the main competition for this race,” Phinney said. “If Talansky isn’t going to be there, then it’s Brent and Zirbel. When it comes to long time trials, there are not a lot of guys who are ready for that. I am feeling pretty ready for that. Regardless, it will be a solid effort. Time trials are never very much fun, but they are a very interesting form of meditation, that’s for sure.”
Phinney also joked about the race’s unconventional start time — 8 a.m. Friday morning.
“I don’t expect there to be many people out there,” he said. “There may be some kids on the way to school being held up by the time trial. That will be an early morning, which is different, but I keep telling myself that I could have a national championship before breakfast, so that would make for a cool rest of my Friday.”
Objective: a third Olympic selection
Phinney noted that a strong performance in an hour-long time trial would be helpful in his bid to return to a third Olympic Games, in August in Rio de Janeiro. The United States men have just two spots for the Olympic road events — the riders sent for the road race must also compete in the time trial. No riders have automatically qualified, meaning it will come down to discretionary selection from a USA Cycling committee.
“[Olympic selection] is something I’m thinking about this weekend, for sure,” Phinney said. “Other than it being a national championship, of course, the Olympics are the biggest motivation. That’s the main reason to show myself.
“Nobody will automatically qualify for the Olympics, it’s going to be a discretionary selection, so you have to put forth a proposal of sorts — ‘Here’s why you should take me to the Olympics.’ And in this case, hour-long time trials are the thing. I feel pretty confident. I feel good about my chances to go to Rio. It’s something I’m focused on, it’s something that got me through the early part of the season.”
At the 2012 Olympics, Phinney was the top performer on the road, finishing fourth in both the road race and time trial. In April, he told CyclingTips that he didn’t expect to race the Tour de France this year, instead focusing entirely on the Olympics.
“I’ve spoken with USA Cycling, we’ve been in contact, and they know that when it comes to preparing for event like the Olympics, there’s nobody who can devote the time and energy, studying the course, and training for the course, that I can do, like I did four years ago,” he said. “Even with the accident, I feel like I’m at a place where I’m stronger mentally for these kinds of events. I’m feeling good about it.”
Phinney’s first Olympics came in 2008, when he finished seventh in the individual pursuit in Beijing at the age of 18; he followed that up with a world pursuit championship in Pruszków, Poland, six months later. After his performance in London, it seemed certain that Phinney would represent the United States in Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Tokyo in 2020, and beyond.
Phinney acknowledged that, on a personal level, the Olympics will probably always be the event that inspires him most.
“I’ve had a certain level of stubbornness, or maybe naïveté, where I’ve always been able to… I’ve always believed in my own natural ability, and my natural talent,” he said. “My mentality is that I know how to do almost anything in the sport — I can understand and wrap my head around how to do anything, whether that’s losing weight to become a climber, or training for time trials, or to become a classics rider, the ‘how’ makes sense to me. I get hung up sometimes on the ‘why,’ as in why am I doing this? Why am I devoting myself?
“That’s what this journey has been about, for me — figuring out that ‘why.’ When it comes to the Olympics, I have a clear vision as to ‘why’ that matters to me. More than anything I do in this sport, when it comes to the Olympics, I’m able to put the time in and really be focused and motivated. And that comes from within, you can’t just impose that upon yourself.
“With the Olympics, I love piecing together a plan, to tackle the ‘how,’ to arise to that event, the training for that course. I have a clearer vision of why it matters to me. That hasn’t quite transcended into all the other races on the calendar, but I just have to follow that passion and that internal motivation and focus.”
Friday’s time trial performance will be a critical step in Phinney’s path back to the Olympics. It will also be another important step in his journey — as an athlete, and as a person.
To paraphrase the man himself, win or lose, this Memorial Day weekend will be a meaningful time for him, in his life.