He's got the genes and the track record (literally). Can Taylor Phinney become America's next cycling superstar?
IT'S TWO AGAINST ONE at the Home Depot Center Velodrome, near Los Angeles. A couple of elite amateurs are racing tag-team style, one coasting and resting while the other sprints, to see if they can beat cycling prodigy Taylor Phinney over 50 laps. Coming out of the final corner, the 20-year-old Phinney draws even against his fresh counterpart. Then he rises out of his saddle and kicks with the kind of power that has won him two world track titles and a national time-trial championship in five years of competition. Phinney crosses the line first.
"That was harder than I expected," Phinney says after he parks his track bike and clomps to the infield, where I'm standing with his father, former pro cyclist Davis Phinney, who's now battling Parkinson's. Taylor is sometimes called Mini Phinney, but at six foot four he isn't mini at all. Slouching onto a folding chair, he says, "I'm tired."
He'll have to get used to the feeling. This is one of Phinney's last workouts before he kicks off his inaugural professional season, and the challenges ahead won't be limited to his lactate threshold. Arguably the brightest of U.S. cycling's talented next generation, which includes standouts like HTC's Tejay Van Garderen, 21, and Garmin's Andrew Talansky, 22, Phinney is joining a peloton dogged by doping scandals and public distrust. During the past decade, nearly every top rider—Jan Ullrich, Floyd Landis, Tyler Hamilton, Marco Pantani, and Alberto Contador, to name a few—has been scandalized. And if Lance Armstrong can't fend off his pending grand-jury investigation, cycling may have to grapple with what Sports Illustrated recently called "the saddest deception in sports history."
With the now retired Armstrong out one way or another, the question looms: Will Americans get behind a guy like Phinney, especially if a stage race like the Tour de France isn't quite his forte?
It's a question that may take some time to answer. Phinney, while young, is big and powerful, a long-limbed workhorse more physically suited to the flats than the mountains. He's often compared to the Swiss star Fabian Cancellara, and while he's already proven that he can crush clocks and opponents on long courses, he's neither a pure sprinter nor a true climber. He suffers on big ascents—a fact that gives observers pause when considering his prospects of winning the Tour de France and other grand tours.
"You look at guys like Contador, [Andy] Schleck, and [Cadel] Evans, and they're incredibly explosive uphill," says Jim Miller, USA Cycling's director of athletics, who's worked with Phinney since he was a junior. "Taylor doesn't have that. He'll excel in prologues, time trials, maybe even sprints, but it's not clear whether he'll be a great GC [overall title] guy."
What Phinney has going for him—and what gives prognosticating velorati chills of excitement—is a genetic royal flush combined with a meteoric early career. His father was the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France, in 1986, and his mother, Connie Carpenter, was an Olympic speed skater and the road-racing gold medalist at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Phinney's parents didn't push him into cycling. For many years, soccer was his passion. During three years abroad, starting in 2003, Davis took Taylor to several stages of the Tour as it passed through the mountains of southern France. Watching a hilltop finish in 2005, Taylor realized he should be racing bikes. "It was inspiring," he says. "That was the first time I wanted to be part of it."
The family moved back to Boulder, Colorado, a year later, and Taylor entered his first race, a local criterium, and won. He won another 13 races that year, and near the end of 2006 he made his first visit to the velodrome in L.A. Almost from the start, his talents were obvious.
"If I give ten guys the same workout, Taylor gets 'more better,'" says his coach, Neal Henderson. "I think that's part of his genetic gift—how quickly he adapts to training."
In the summer of 2007, after less than a year of preparation, Phinney won the Junior World Time Trial Championship, followed by a national title in the individual pursuit, a four-kilometer event in which two riders start on opposite sides of the track and attempt to catch each other. By 2008, he'd qualified for the Beijing Olympics in the IP, where he finished a respectable, if disappointing, seventh.
When Lance Armstrong launched his Trek-Livestrong U23 development team in early 2009, he picked Phinney as the team's leader. In June 2009, Phinney won the Paris–Roubaix under-23 race in France, a first for an American. In 2010, he won it again. "We proved it wasn't a fluke," says Phinney. Last year, he upset a pro field by winning the National Time Trial Championship, nipping Levi Leipheimer, one of the sport's best, by 0.14 second.
To the casual observer, it appeared as though Phinney was being groomed by Armstrong as the Texan's handpicked successor. So it seemed surprising when, in September, Phinney suddenly left Team RadioShack and signed a three-year deal with BMC. Rumors circulated that he wanted to distance himself from the Armstrong investigation, but Phinney insists the move happened because BMC could offer him a three-year contract.
Despite the anticipation, Phinney won't appear in the Tour de France this year. During the early portion of the season, he has been plagued by injuries, and he needs to bank a couple of years in smaller races. After that, who knows? Certainly no one's betting against him. After all, Miguel "Big Mig" Indurain, the six-foot-two Spanish rider, won five consecutive yellow jerseys in the early nineties. In 2009, the six-foot-three onetime track star Bradley Wiggins, 31, finished the Tour in fourth overall.
In the meantime, Phinney intends to focus on more realistic, if still ambitious, goals: the 2012 Paris-Roubaix, the Tour of California—riding in support of BMC team leaders Cadel Evans and George Hincapie—and defending his national time-trial title in August.
By missing the Tour, he won't be missing much. The last time the race lost Lance, in 2006, viewership on the Versus network dropped by nearly 50 percent. Americans apparently didn't watch the race; they watched Armstrong. In that regard, Phinney isn't competing to win the Tour de France so much as he's competing with the entire Armstrong mythology. That may be his toughest climb of all.