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American Taylor Phinney, 29, will retire from professional road racing following the Japan Cup this weekend, his team announced Wednesday.
Phinney’s story is a complicated one, fed by an early and obvious talent and a world-class pedigree, forever altered by a gruesome crash, then defined in its waning years by a tug-of-war between Phinney the athlete and Phinney the individual.
“This decision has been something that I’ve been back and forth struggling with for a long time, and by a long time I mean a couple of years, and ultimately, I feel like my body sort of made this choice for me,” he said in a team statement. “I’ve now been injured longer than I’ve not been injured as a professional athlete.
“It’s time to take that energy and put it into something fresh, something new, something unknown. I’m stepping away so that I can be more true to myself, which means to make art, to make music, to create and cultivate. I’ve kind of had one foot in the sports pool and then one foot in the art pool, and art just won at some point.”
In 2007, at the age of 16, Phinney signed with Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream junior program. He was hardly training at the time, by his own admission, but already showed signs of world-class talent on the group rides and local criteriums in the pro-heavy peloton of Boulder, Colorado. This was no surprise to anyone familiar with his parents: Olympic gold medalist Connie Carpenter, and Olympic medalist Davis Phinney. He won the junior worlds time trial that year, and stepped into track racing. A year later, at 17, he was 7th in the individual pursuit at the Beijing Olympics. At 18 he was world individual pursuit champion.
In the years that followed he won the espoirs Paris-Roubaix twice, held the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia, and made the front group in major classics. All was going to plan, it seemed, until the US National Championship road race in 2014.
In an effort to avoid a parked motorcycle, Phinney slid out and slammed into a guard rail on the descent off Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. The resulting compound fracture of his tibia and a severed patellar tendon would come to haunt the remainder of his career.
In the year-long gap between his crash and his return to racing, he began to become the Taylor Phinney fans now know. Less ego, more introspection, and a healthy dose of nonconformity. He began creating art and music. And the push and pull between this new version of himself and the one defined by sport began. He struggled with the inspiration to train, and with accusations that the was wasting his talent.
“Talent is nothing without work ethic, and work ethic comes from genuine passion for what you’re doing,” he said. “And if you are constantly forcing your work ethic because your passion is elsewhere, then potential and talent mean nothing. And if there’s anything that I can take away from the sport of cycling it’s that, you can be as talented as you want, but if you don’t wake up every morning and you don’t want that thing, it doesn’t matter.”
That passion, it’s been clear for a few years, has waned. But passion for racing and training is different from a passion for cycling – Phinney said the latter is very much intact.
“I don’t want to race anymore, but I love riding my bike more now than I did when I started racing,” he said.
“You may or may not see me in an enduro race next year. If I’m going to race anything, it’s going to be that. I just want to shred, you know? I was born into a cycling family, but I really fell in love with sport through freestyle skiing… Like Jonny Moseley and Shane McConkey. Shane McConkey especially was my number-one hero. And I decided to be a cyclist instead of a skier because, somehow, I thought it was safer for my body, and I was also better at it. But now I’ve sort of had this return to freestyle extreme sports through my mountain bike, and it’s… I feel like a 15-year-old again.”