Turning point: Taylor Phinney on purpose, changing teams, and the unbearable heaviness of invisible weight
Taylor Phinney sits alone, stooping to take up a spot atop the drinks cooler outside the BMC Racing team bus. His teammates are all inside, taking the time between the Tour of Britain’s split stages in Bristol to rest, relax, and recover, away from the fans milling around outside.
Phinney wouldn’t be alone for long. Pro cyclists never really are, riding side by side during a race, sharing a bus, meals, and hotel rooms, before and after. Even during a time trial — that most lonely of disciplines, and Phinney’s speciality — there are fans by the roadside, team directors in their earpieces, and camera motos buzzing around.
As he picks at a small bowl of spaghetti, a steady stream of fans make their way towards him, leaning over the rope barriers to offer up photographs, race programs — even a painting — for him to sign. He always obliges, and the same goes for photo requests, grinning for cameras pointed at him every time he steps off the team bus.
It was this subject, his responsibility as one of the most well-known cyclists in the world to his fans, the public, that is high on Phinney’s mind during that warm Saturday afternoon in Bristol.
But first there’s a flashback to the Olympic Games. Musing about other athletes, competing in other sports, Phinney came to something of a revelation.
“I wasn’t so much considering retiring as I was considering taking a step away,” he says, thoughts that may come as a surprise to many, especially from an athlete who recently spent over a year clawing his way back from what could have been a career-ending injury.
“I was looking at other sports, other Olympic sports like swimming, track and field,” he says. “A lot of those athletes go full-gas for the Olympics, and then they have a bit of a break. They kind of refresh their minds a little bit.”
‘STRUGGLING WITH PURPOSE AND INTENTION’
The long, arduous, and intense recovery from his injury — a horrific left leg break sustained after a collision with a guardrail at the 2014 U.S. national road championship — obviously had a huge effect on Phinney, and still does; a right-left leg imbalance still causes problems.
During his time on the sidelines he was asked by one doctor whether he had thought about going to college, so severe was his injury that his career could’ve been over at just 24 years of age. But persevere he did, for 15 months.
He made his comeback at the 2015 Tour of Utah and was soon back to winning ways at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, holding off the peloton with a late attack to win the opening stage in Steamboat Springs. The comeback kid was wearing the leader’s jersey in his home state of Colorado. It couldn’t have been scripted better.
“I came back after the injury and had a good return to the peloton,” he says. “But in my head I was really struggling — struggling with purpose and the underlying intention of it all, you know? I spent so much time doing rehab and trying to get my leg back to first general mobility, then back to being able to race, and now thirdly it’s being back to…some sort of a baseline.”
“There was so much purpose and intention behind that [recovery], that once I got back I felt almost like I didn’t really belong in my environment anymore,” he continues, his voice rising as if he was still questioning his thoughts. “I didn’t feel that sense of purpose, that sense of intention.
“Earlier this season I was just having a hard time wrapping my head around why I was doing all this, why I was just going right back into the sport which shattered my leg, and potentially could’ve done a lot worse.”
The more he talks, the more it becomes apparent how close cycling came to losing him, again, if not permanently, then at least for an extended period of time. But the Olympics provoked another inspiration, this time radically different from the urge to take a break.
“Having the time to train for the Olympics really re-established that idea, that sense of intention and purpose,” he says. “And it allowed me to connect with the idea that what I’m doing is not really about me, but that there’s a larger scale and there’s more to what I do than just ride my bike.”
“There’s a big butterfly effect to being a personal, transparent athlete, and public figure,” he says as a group of fans wait nearby just to watch this man sit, eat and talk.
“And there’s the influence you can have and the inspiration that you can give to any group of people. I think that’s what most people search for in their lives, to be able to give back, inspire, and help people evolve and grow and change, while they themselves are also growing and changing.”
It’s a subject Phinney would know about more than most. At the moment he is certainly the most recognizable rider in American cycling. Not just in terms of appearance, though his 6-foot-5 frame, newly cultivated mustache, and fashionable eyeglasses certainly make sure he stands out.
“They’re Sama,” he says of his shades. “I think they’re Japanese.”
CHANGES AHEAD: NEW HOME, NEW TEAM IN 2017
Like his physiology, Phinney’s personality also stands out. He’s laid back, quirky, and always willing to talk, whether it’s about cycling or more wide-ranging, interesting subjects than riders usually broach. The chat pauses briefly for him to stand up, pull a face for a fan’s camera, sign some paraphernalia, and ease back onto the cooler.
For now, he’s not leaving cycling, but there will be a change — the biggest upheaval, injuries aside, of his professional career so far. He wouldn’t be drawn in on specifics, but on Tuesday, his rumored move to Cannondale-Drapac was confirmed.
“I should sign that [contract] pretty soon,” he said in Bristol. “But I would prefer to wait on any sort of announcement. I would really like to race the worlds TTT with BMC — with my guys — and I don’t really want to jeopardize that with any kind of politics, because that’s something that happens in this sport.”
And it’s understandable — Phinney was on the long list of 10 riders for BMC’s Vuelta squad, but soon after rumors began to swirl that he was leaving the team, he was not selected. Of course that may also have had to do with his subpar performance at the Olympic time trial, where he finished in 22nd place, 5:10 down on gold medalist Fabian Cancellara. BMC’s Vuelta squad was announced the following day, and he was not on it. A month later, at the Eneco Tour, he was on BMC’s winning TTT squad; he also finished seventh in the Eneco Tour’s individual time trial.
A week after that, the announcement is confirmed. The move will mark a homecoming for Phinney, who got his start as a cyclist with Slipstream Sports CEO Jonathan Vaughters at his development team, then known as Team 5280 Magazine.
“I have some close friends that race for the team,” Phinney said in a team press release. “And it just generally seems like the team itself has a good vibe. I also met with [Vaughters] earlier this year and really connected. One of the major reasons is to work with Cannondale, as an American bike sponsor. My first bike I got was a blue Cannondale that I got from my parents. My family, we used to have closer ties to Cannondale — when I was a kid, those were the bikes that we rode as a family. So it’s cool to return to that.”
Phinney’s addition to the team bolsters the Cannondale-Drapac classics squad; he’ll join new signing Sep Vanmarcke and up-and-comer Dylan van Baarle, who was sixth at the 2016 Tour of Flanders. He’s also likely to make his Tour de France debut in July.
From almost taking a break from racing altogether to leaving the team he has spent one-fifth of his life riding for, it’s been a tumultuous 2016 for Phinney. The two decisions are connected, he says.
“Eventually I decided that, instead of just throwing away being on the WorldTour that I should just change teams,” he says. “I’ve been on the same team for five years. I’d get perspective racing for someone else. I came into this sport as a kid. I was 21 years old, and really did not know what I was doing. Even now I feel like I’m starting to figure out the sport a little bit.
“There’s so many variables that it’s really difficult to understand the whole thing,” he adds, referring to pro cycling’s many traditions, rules, organisations, and quarrels. “I don’t think anybody really does [understand it], but I’m getting closer to that point and I’m understanding that it’s okay to make a change and do something else.”
An Etixx-QuickStep car pulls up, fresh from Dan Martin’s TT ride. Leaning out of the window is the bespectacled, bearded Dane Brian Holm, a director for the Belgian team, keen to find out what happened during Phinney’s race.
“I heard you crashed?” he says.
“Are you hurt?”
“Nah,” Phinney answers. “I’m fine. You just gotta give it sometimes.”
In Phinney’s words he “tanked it” on the wet roads, losing 30 seconds and ending up eleventh, 40 seconds behind stage winner Tony Martin.
One might assume that, having crashed like Phinney did on that descent in Chattanooga, Tennessee, he would be terrified at the prospect of going down again.
“It was good,” he says. “It’s never pleasant to fall, but it felt like I was able to take some risks. Sometimes those risks pay off and sometimes they don’t. In cycling that usually means you hit the deck, and I haven’t really done that in a while, since I broke my leg. So it actually felt good to get that out of the way, take some risks again, scare the guys in the car.”
“I still finished with a decent time. I think I would’ve been up there fighting for the real top spots if I didn’t crash. For me it’s a real motivating result.”
One race runs onto another: base miles, form building, peak, rest. Then the cycle begins again for the next major goal. It can seem like a slog, and for some it is.
Phinney’s friend, Aussie Lachlan Morton, had spent two years at Garmin-Sharp before becoming disillusioned with racing at the WorldTour level — the endless training, the travel, weather, crashing, the grind.
By 2015 Morton had signed with American Continental team Jelly Belly, and started Thereabouts, a series of documented road trips that have helped him rediscover the basic joy of cycling, and in turn his passion for the sport.
Phinney joined Morton and his brother Gus on their last trip, in May 2015, from Boulder, Colorado, to Moab, Utah, one that he says was about freedom and escape — from the tightly managed and planned world of pro cycling, but also from a kind of psychological pressure generated by his place as one of the star players in that world.
“I think spending time with Lachlan and Gus has… all three of us have really changed each other’s lives in a sense,” Phinney says. “Lachy and I really connect on that idea of… invisible weight. It’s about growing up, having this concept or idea in your own mind that people expect things from you.
“We were both able to come to this conclusion that it’s a weight we put on ourselves, and it’s not necessarily true just because somebody might know who you are or think you can do something. It doesn’t mean that they really care.
“Everybody has their own issues in their own life, and that comes first for them,” he continues. “That comes first for them, and then any sort of expectation, any sort of desire for someone else to do well in a bike race is really superficial. It’s not something that needs to weigh anybody down.”
The time spent with the Morton brothers seems to have left a deep mark on Phinney, their friendship part of a process of growing and learning, as he puts it.
“I feel like we had a little coming-of-age the last couple of years, and I think it was cool that we found each other during that time. I think we had a really, really big impact on each other’s lives and Gus… Gus is like the captain of the ship,” he laughs.
“Gus just knows everything already and I feel like he’s been trying to tell Lachy and I exactly what we’re finding out for ourselves the whole time, but you gotta figure everything out on your own, you know?”
Like Phinney, Morton is also making a significant team change in 2017, returning to the European peloton with Dimension Data.
The trip from Boulder to Moab is now a year in the past though, and if another is in the works, possibly for November of this year, Phinney is firmly focused on the future. Redeeming his Olympic performance at the world championships in Qatar is his next big goal.
“I really felt like that the Olympics being like 75 minutes was just… I really lacked the ability to go that deep for that kind of distance,” he says of his performance in Rio. “I’ve attempted to train for it but there’s only so much you can do as far as really long time trials like that.”
“Qatar will be shorter, only 40km, and it’s a tailwind on the highway, so it’ll be really fast and flat. I feel good about the worlds but I like to feel I kinda have some secret form, you know? I’m trying to be quiet about it.”
After that he’ll head to the Japan Cup, meaning a late end to the season. When he gets home, well, it’ll be a different home. Having grown up in Boulder, Colorado, for the first time he’ll be moving away from his parents, Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney and 1984 Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter, to Los Angeles.
“I’ve been talking with my friend about moving,” he says. “I’ll always have my place in Boulder, but I wanted a bit of a change. I spent a fair bit of the offseason in LA last year, and I just like to live a little bit closer to some sort of art and fashion. That makes me happy and keeps me generally inspired, and I have a lot of friends out there.”
Keeping inspired is not something that has been a problem for Phinney thus far. His love of painting, discovered during his recovery from injury, has been well documented. He also draws, and dabbles in music, too. He names Berlin DJs, Tame Impala, and experimental house musician Nicolas Jaar as inspiration.
“Yeah, I’ve made some beats and weird stuff on the computer. I used to play some piano when I was younger too,” he says. “I keep telling myself that I’m going to go back and take lessons, but something else always comes up.”
By this point, the time trial is over. All the riders, at least of the 117 that remained at the race, are in their buses. Taylor is still sitting outside, stretching his long legs and talking, about how he’s looking forward to trying to ski again this winter — “I’m hoping that my left leg will be healthy enough” — and then about places he’d like to visit.
“I don’t go to Britain as much as I’d like to. [Before the Tour of Britain] I was in Edinburgh for a day, but I was pretty jet-lagged. I’d love to hang out in Scotland a little more, do some mountain-biking or just do some hiking. Hiking-slash-drinking,” he laughs. “It seems like a good place for that, see some lakes, some lochs…”
Meanwhile the fans are still there, a small group still watching him sit and talk. One asks for a Fanta from the cooler he sits on, and Phinney obliges. Or at least tries to; the closest he can find to the orange soft drink is a Spanish equivalent, Mirinda.
Then a few more signatures — more an abstract shape than a legible name — and he gets back on the bus. Alone finally, at least for the short walk up the steps, free, it seems, of the burden of invisible weight.