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There are three different muscles cramping in Taylor Phinney’s left leg. He points at them, one by one. You can see them quivering, shaking in time with his own grimace. It’s been a minute or so since he lapped the Roubaix velodrome, sprinted for eighth place, rode onto the infield, and sat down with his back to a metal fence. His legs splay out in front of him, covered in sweat and mud. The white scar down his left knee is just visible beneath the grime. He stares off into space. His breathing slows. As it does, he seems to return to the world around him.
The first four things he says are:
How’d Sep do?
Ahh, fuck me.
What a spectacle.”
In true Phinney fashion: Wonder, care, self-reflection, and truth, in that order.
There was a time, years ago, when Phinney seemed almost destined to win this race. His coaches and directors were sure of it. American bike racing fans were sure of it. He won the U23 version, twice, in 2009 and 2010. At 21 years old, in his first elite edition, he finished 15th — the top American. Then the crash, bone sticking out through skin, left leg of the prodigy smashed to bits. A recovery that stretched into years and felt, for a long time, like it might never end. Or like he didn’t want it to end. Maybe he’d rather just paint.
Phinney hates the term “comeback,” but this is his story now. The pull of what could have been against the realities of what is. It’s been a roller coaster. Moments when that raw talent seems about to shine, then long stretches where it goes back into hiding. Every couple months one side or the other seems to gain a slight edge.
“I make a comeback every year at this point,” he says. This one is just the latest.
Phinney waited to set a goal for Roubaix until last Thursday, right after Scheldeprijs, which is a very Phinney thing to do. He wanted a top 10, his first ever.
“People want to set goals too far out, and you kinda gotta live a little bit closer moment to moment,” he says. The mid-week Scheldeprijs used to be the easiest classic; now its start has been moved to the Dutch coast and it was blown up by crosswinds. Phinney made the front group.
“That race is 200km, and I felt like I got to the end of it and I wasn’t too tired, I was sort of peppy,” he says. “Whereas in Gent-Wevelgem, 200k into that race I was like, I felt destroyed.” It told him he was ready.
At Roubaix, Phinney was charged with jumping in the day’s big breakaway. He’d go up the road and be a valuable help to Sep Vanmarcke in the finale. But the group wasn’t big enough. On team orders, he stayed put.
“I just tried to help Sep out with positioning,” he says. There was a crash in one of the early sectors, splitting the pack. He pulled Vanmarcke back. He felt good. Really good. “I felt worse on the asphalt than I did on the cobbles. I felt really comfortable,” he says.
He made all the splits, and found himself off the front into Mons-en-Pevele. It’s a crucial sector. Arenberg, Mons-En-Pevele, Carrefour de l’Arbre. Those are the big three. When the group caught up he hung on.
“It’s just been kind of a gnarly season, I feel like I’ve been getting my ass kicked by everybody,” he says. “To be up there with the big boys, you know, riding with Greg [Van Avermaet] and [Niki] Terpstra and Sep, it’s cool.”
Sagan was off the front. Only EF and Quick-Step had any numbers. So Phinney put his head down. “I was trying to help out but I could barely pull through all the way to Camphin-en-Pevele,” he says. He hit that sector on the front. “I feel like I slowed everybody down, but I was just toasted,” he says.
He was on the front when Terpstra went, and it shot him to the second chase group.
“I was trying not to give up. I was trying not to give up since those guys caught me on Mons-en-Pévèle,” he says.
What goes through the mind in those moments? “Not a lot to be honest,” he says. “Just like, ‘Oh, fuck, I’m so uncomfortable in my body right now. But I guess everyone else is too, and this is what we do, so I guess you just push through it.’ I mean you don’t have any choice. You just push through it.”
He rode the sprint like a world champion on the track, even if his stripes came from individual pursuits. From the back, up the banking, down again, past most of his group in a rush of momentum. Into eighth place.
Matti Breschel leans against his top tube on the edge of the velodrome’s back straight. He’s happy, he says, with the work they did and with where Vanmarcke ended up. Happy, too, that Phinney seems to have found the front of Roubaix again. “He was extra zen in the last few days,” Breschel says, with a smile as good as a wink. “Maybe he did some extra yoga or something.”
Extra zen. That’s what he needs, apparently. Phinney’s laid-back attitude is sometimes interpreted as a lack of gumption, his prodigal potential compared unfavorably to his recent results. And rightly so, perhaps.
In an interview after his time trial at the Rio Olympics, where he finished a disappointing 22nd, he wondered aloud if maybe the others had trained harder than him. Perhaps it was just the big hill on course, which sent most of the big men to mid-pack. Perhaps they did just train harder than him. Perhaps he needed a bit more zen that week.
The lines at the Brussels airport on Monday morning stretch past annoyance and into despair. Phinney has a Vueling flight back to Barcelona, along with his teammate Tom Scully. Scully is a vision in gray New Balance tracksuit. A blister the size of a quarter sits on the inside of his left hand.
Phinney wears a sweater that either cost $500 from some designer or $4 from a thrift shop; he has a known taste for both types, and it’s hard to tell the difference. He has a black yoga pad sticking out of his backpack and a pile of vinyl records from a store in Ghent in his luggage. He’s reading Murakami. We talk briefly about Kafka on the Shore, the one with the guy that talks to cats. “That’s the one that got me started on him,” he says.
I tell him I’m writing a story about him. “Is it going to be about my Comeback 3.0?” he asks. Sort of, yeah. Eighth at Roubaix, at this race, at the race he’s made for, feels like another step in a trajectory that’s seen two steps forward and one step back for five years. It feels like there aren’t many more steps left, once you’re in the top 10 at Roubaix. But it also feels like we’ve said this before.
“Oh yeah I do that,” he says. “I just bring people’s hopes for me down to an all-time low so that I can bring them back up again.”
“Here’s how you can end your story,” he says, as we’re waiting for bags in Barcelona. “I went to watch the circus before the season started. They do this thing where they like kinda mess up so the crowds go ‘aww,’ and then they get a bit closer to doing it and the crowd is like ‘aaawwwwww’, and then they finally get it and the crowd is like ‘AHHHHH’. In order for us to appreciate the complexity of what they’re doing they have to mess up.”
“Yeah, that’s me.”
He’s trolling me. But there’s some truth to it, too.