Cyclist Taylor Phinney reaches elite level using more than good genes
The pain cave, wet towels and a 5-foot Italian maid named Renata all played roles in Taylor Phinney's first year as a pro cyclist.
Some say Phinney, 21, is the next Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong. Others more educated say he's not the next anybody, either because his strengths differ from the mountain-conquering Tour de France champions or because his competitive ceiling is not yet known.
Phinney has lived and cycled in the shadow of his parents -- his father Davis won 328 races in his cycling career and now lives with Parkinson's, and his mother Connie won 12 national cycling championships and an Olympic gold medal. However, it's now clear that Phinney is on the early path to establishing his own name.
Phinney aims to make his second U.S. Olympic team in 2012 under far different circumstances than in 2008 when he placed seventh in track cycling's individual pursuit -- an event no longer part of the Olympic program.
He didn't start racing until 2006, but those genes and a 6-foot-5 (and still growing) build has catapulted Phinney to early success. So far, Phinney became a world champion in track cycling at 18, was taken under Armstrong's wing as an under-23 rider and, beginning this past season, has a professional contract with the star-laden BMC Racing Team.
Phinney left his Boulder, Colo., home to spend nine months living in a Tuscany apartment this year. He was on his own for the first time, though he spoke fluent Italian from the three years the family previously lived in the country. The parents made several visits, beginning with Connie's trip in March.
"He had yet to invest in vacuum cleaner," was one of mom's first observations.
The life of a pro cyclist is simple, the family says. Wake up, get on the bike, rest, recover and repeat. Phinney's first year was complicated, even with a maid helping out once a week. The dryer didn't work. Soggy laundry piled up. He needed a flashlight handy, as often as the power went out. On the bike, overzealous training triggered right knee tendonitis that, along with a mild concussion from a crash, hampered him through March.
His father once said Phinney has "LeBron James-like talent," but nobody dominates cycling that young and that quickly. And the injury got Phinney off to a late start to boot.
"I was confused as to what I needed to do to be at the professional level," Phinney said. "It's such a big jump (from under-23 racing to the pros). But I feel like I have a good grasp of what I need to do now to be successful."
A highlight came in the sweltering Spanish summer at the Vuelta a España, his first appearance in one of the three Grand Tours (Italy, France, Spain). He labored through heat exhaustion on the second day, 109 miles through 116 degrees.
But Phinney targeted the Stage 10 time trial and finished fifth, which was remarkable considering the strong field and the length of the time trial distance (it was the longest time-trial distance he'd ever raced). Phinney finally abandoned the tour on the 13th of 21 stages, the breaking point after two weeks and more than 1,000 miles of suffering.
"I was blessed to make it as far as I did," he said.
Phinney's extensive blog posts about "entering the pain cave" and other brutally honest thoughts from the tour garnered more than 50,000 total page views on his website, Taylorphinney.com. By the end of the season, Phinney had earned his place among the professionals he grew up idolizing.
"When the Europeans see Taylor, believe me, it makes them drool because he's so talented," said Bob Roll, a retired American cyclist and NBC Sports Network cycling analyst.
His temperament went a long way, too. Phinney is a cycling fanboy, a bread-and-water kid spooked by pills who was unsure of what to expect as a professional in a sport shredded by doping history. He hasn't seen anything suspicious so far.
He's also learned the dos and don'ts from cycling's biggest names. Teammate and Tour de France winner Cadel Evans went out of his way to share pieces of what Phinney calls "Cadel wisdom," training tips and so forth.
Phinney also recalled a text message he received after a photo surfaced on a website of himself making a harmless hand gesture. Cyber commenters misconstrued it as a gang sign. It was Armstrong who found out and texted Phinney, reminding him about public perception and urging him not do anything with his hands in front of cameras anymore.
The 2012 season will bring more learning experiences. Phinney aims for the one-day spring classic races he missed last year followed by a second Grand Tour, May's Giro d'Italia, leading up to the London Games. Most recently, he was forced to drop out of Paris-Nice 2012 due to a stomach bug that afflicted several riders.
His Olympic future looked bright after placing seventh in the individual pursuit in Beijing as the youngest rider out of 18. But that event was taken off the Olympic program during a track cycling overhaul in 2009. That accelerated his shift from the track, where races last four minutes, to the road, where they can last four hours -- or longer.
"Life throws a curveball at you, and you've still got to take your best swing," his father said. "He adjusted and adapted."
Phinney is now focused on both road cycling events in London: the mass-start roadrace and the individual time trial.
USA Cycling director Jim Miller said Phinney is suited for either event. He just might not be America's best medal hope ... yet. If there's one bike race the U.S. expects to medal in, it's the time trial, where an American got on the podium at the last three Olympics. But the U.S. gets just one entrant in the 27-mile dash against the clock, likely to be chosen by a USA Cycling committee in June.
The selection dilemma may come down to age. There's the experienced Levi Leipheimer, 38, the 2008 bronze medalist, Christian Vande Velde, 35, and David Zabriskie, 32, a six-time national time trial champion. Or, there's Phinney, the 2010 world under-23 champion who placed 15th at September's world championships without Leipheimer, Vande Velde or Zabriskie in the field.
"[Phinney] is a little bit behind them at this point," Miller said. "But at 21, he's probably considerably much further than they were at that age."
Conversely, the U.S. team in the 150-mile road race is five deep. Expect an in-form Phinney to make that roster, where he could be counted on to boost a teammate to a medal.
Phinney was a lead-out man for Tyler Farrar at September's world championships, pacing him until the race-ending sprint and moving aside to let Farrar, one of a handful of the world's best sprinters, go for a medal in the hectic finish.
Farrar was a disappointing 10th. Phinney was 24th, not bad for the youngest rider in a field of 210, another rookie-season result he can build off of for the coming year.
"I'm looking forward to see how he progresses," said George Hincapie, a BMC teammate and five-time U.S. Olympian. "He's a got a lot of people watching and waiting to see how far he goes."