By Austin Murphy
July 31, 2012

LONDON -- Cool, poignant scene from the finish line of men's road race last Saturday: young American Taylor Phinney trying to blunt his disappointment -- he'd gutted himself for 250 kilometers only to finish fourth -- by thanking his teammates.

Unique among Olympic sports, I think, cyclists in the road race are expected to sacrifice their personal ambitions for the rider from their squad with the best chance to win. Timmy Duggan and Tejay van Garderen had done so for Phinney, who was singing their praises when Duggan coasted up, his face coated with grit, and draped an arm around his teammate as if to say: Dude, it's okay.

With gold and silver decided, Phinney had found himself at the front of a boiling field sprint for third, and was edged by Norway's Alexander Kristoff. "Kristoff's more of a pure sprinter than I am," he said. "I like to sprint. But it's not what I'm best at."

On Wednesday, Phinney gets to do what he's best at. He's got a huge upside as a stage racer, and in such famous (in Europe) one-day classics as the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But Phinney is at his most dangerous in a race against the clock -- like the men's Olympic time trial, which starts and ends at Hampton Court Palace in southwest London. The prohibitive favorite is Team Great Britain's sideburned Spitfire, Bradley Wiggins, who is coming off his historic victory in the Tour de France, where he crushed all comers in the time trials. Other medal threats: Wiggins' teammate, Chris Froome, and Germany's Tony Martin. The defending Olympic champion is Fabian Cancellera, last seen flying head-first into the barricades near the end of the road race. Normally, the man known as Spartacus would be a lock for a medal, but he'll be playing hurt on Wednesday.

Put Phinney in that medal mix. A former track rider who was twice world champion in the Individual Pursuit, he's also been U.S. national and world Under-23 champion in the time trial. Last May he won the prologue at the Giro d'Italia and spent three days in the race leader's maglia rosa. In the TT there is no drafting behind teammates, it is rider versus clock, which is why it's known as the Race of Truth.

The truth is that Phinney is more of a threat over shorter courses. The individual pursuit is a four-kilometer effort; the prologue in Italy was 8.7 kilometers. Wednesday's circuit is 44 kilometers. Yet it's unlikely that any rider in the field will be as prepared as the 22-year-old from Boulder, Colorado.

Phinney's BMC bosses were not pleased with his decision to spend the six weeks or so before the Games doing Olympic-specific training around Boulder. Conventional wisdom in the sport dictates that a cyclist race himself into shape. Instead, working with the sports physiologist Allen Lim, Phinney has spent the run-up to these Games "replicating the wattage he'll need to hold for those 44 kilometers," says his father, Davis Phinney.

By the end of his pre-Olympic training block, Taylor was able to sustain 470 watts -- an absurdly high number -- for much of the time it will take him to get over the Olympic course. His BMC masters were mollified by his fourth place in the road race, a surprisingly strong result, considering that pure sprinter Tyler Farrar had been considered Team USA's best hope for a medal. Phinney has devoted far more time to preparation for the Race of Truth. "He's spent more time on his time trial bike in the last month than in the rest of his career, combined," reports his father.

I spoke to Davis Phinney on Monday afternoon. He was in a car with his wife, Connie Carpenter, a pair of ex-Olympians following their Olympian son as he did reconnaissance on the course. Davis described the roads as "heavily travelled" and the tarmac itself as "gritty" and "heavy -- meaning it takes more power to maintain the same speed."

Taylor was a bit low for a day or so after that fourth-place finish. His old man could relate. Connie famously took gold in the women's road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, throwing her bike forward at the line and winning by an inch or so. Davis had been favored to win the men's version. He felt great during the race -- too strong, in retrospect. He spent too much time on the front, didn't eat enough during the race, and faded to fifth in the end.

"At the Olympics, medals are everything," says Davis. "To come so close -- I can appreciate Taylor's pain."

A few days after his disappointment in Los Angeles, Davis won a bronze medal in the (since discontinued) men's team time trial. On Wednesday, a few days after his disappointment in London, Taylor will roll down the ramp at Hampton Court Palace.

Back on the Mall, with Duggan consoling him in the moments after the road race, Phinney was both disappointed and droll. ""Now I have three days to lay in bed and hopefully not watch replays of this race," he deadpanned.

Asked why he seemed so inconsolable, despite exceeding expectations, he looked briefly incredulous, then said, "It's the OLYMPICS! S___ only happens every four years."

He added, when the laughter subsided, "I don't remember who came in fourth four years ago."

That's the cold reality of the Olympics. Phinney speaks the Truth.

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