How hungry are you for the Classics, Taylor? The man in question shakes with tenor, raking laughter and keeps chuckling to himself. He brings himself out of mirth to answer: “I just had lunch, so I’m not so hungry. You got a little serious too quickly,” he says.
That’s Taylor Phinney: a laidback antidote to his taciturn peers, likely to spend minutes in amicable conversation scattered with sarcasm and self-deprecation.
He doesn’t take himself too seriously, but his rivals certainly do. The BMC rider is leading the next wave of American talent in the peloton and he looks set to confirm his glittering potential this season. This spring if he has it his way.
Because, no matter how much he had for lunch in this Kortrijk establishment, Phinney is still impatiently banging his cutlery on cycling’s top table. Aside from three days in the Giro’s maglia rosa after winning the prologue, 2012 was a catalogue of big near misses: fourth in the Olympic road race and time trial preceded second in the World Championship time trial by a mere five seconds.
It gave him drive for the winter: Phinney trained more and gained less weight than ever before. “I ended the season where it felt like I was on the verge of getting somewhere great. I was a lot more regimented,” he reflects.
Phinney is “itching” for his first road race win. “I’ve won a few races; they’ve all been time trials [the Eneco Tour prologue, Giro prologue and US Pro Cycling Challenge stage]. You don’t get the same satisfaction,” he says.
“I’m getting to the point where I’m starting to be at the forefront of the races and that’s exciting. I want to be animating the races.”
The big red circle on Phinney’s calendar is April 7: Paris-Roubaix, the race he adores.
Why? “No matter who is racing or the year, the entertainment value is quite high. And I like to think of myself as something of an entertainer. It’s a big show, there’s a lot of drama. And you’ve got to be a real man to win Paris-Roubaix,” he says.
After winning the U23 version in 2009 and 2010, Phinney finished 15th in his senior debut last year, despite doing the lion’s share of the work protecting BMC leader Alessandro Ballan into the final 100 kilometres.
“I find it really comfortable on the cobblestones – well, more comfortable than other people seem to. I can pass people and navigate through, I can tell the lines,” he says. He talks of it with the ease of a grizzled Roubaix survivor; his tactic is simply to be in the top 10 in every single cobbled section. Easier said than done, but Phinney has a velvet tread over the vicious cobbles.
Time to deliver
Recovered from a virus-ruined year, Thor Hushovd is the designated leader for Roubaix. “I’m more of a wild card, the guy with a bit more freedom,” Phinney says.
The American learnt a hell of a lot from his first year in the Classics: “They’re crazy. Maybe in a Grand Tour, you chat with friends, let somebody through here or there. In the Classics, you love your team-mates and pretty much hate everyone else. Maybe because to survive, you have to.”
Coming into the Spring Classics, BMC look polished this year after a disappointing start to 2012 in which Hushovd and Philippe Gilbert underperformed. They stormed the 2013 Tour of Qatar, winning the TTT, and Phinney was third overall among five team-mates in the top 10.
“It was interesting to see this team this winter versus last winter,” Phinney reflects. “We’d won the Tour de France with Cadel [Evans], we’d signed Thor and Phil, these giant riders. Everybody was a little more relaxed, a little bit softer. This year, there’s a different atmosphere in the team.”
Outwardly, big budget BMC have a paint-by-numbers approach to professional cycling transactions, but their star-studded frontmen Gilbert, Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet and Ballan are yet to win a Monument for the team.
“On paper, we have such a strong team but if we can’t figure out how to work together, we’re nothing,” Phinney says.
They will come up against Team Sky in the throes of a different training method, with their crack Classics squad eschewing Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico for a training block in Tenerife. Phinney especially understands Team Sky’s approach, having missed two months of summer racing to train for the Olympics in Boulder.
“It’s a tough decision to make for a rider,” he reflects. “When I made it, it was me, nobody was telling me to do a training camp here or there.
“They could run into trouble with guys who want to race rather than train. But they’ve got good support, good morale and directors. Me, I feel like racing at the moment.”
Sucker for soccer
Given his Olympic gold medal-winning mother Connie Carpenter and two-time Tour stage winning father Davis, Phinney’s pathway into the sport seems tailor-made. But Phinney’s adolescent passion was football, occasionally attending his parent’s bike training camps business as the family moved between Italy and America.
He got hooked on cycling after riding up mountains in a white jersey on a rest day at the 2005 Tour and meeting Lance Armstrong in Pau. “You could see the wheels spinning in his eyes,” Davis told CW in 2010.
Given the success of his parents, expectations have run high but Phinney wasted no time living up to them. He was a prodigy on the road and track. Davis reckoned that Taylor’s first competitive individual pursuit was at the US National Track Championships – he won it.
Double World Championship individual pursuit titles fell to him in 2009 and 2010. The only plateau in Phinney’s flying progress came in his first year as a professional in 2011 when he was learning the ropes while plagued by injury problems.
When Phinney tells us, “I’ve grown a lot as a rider and changed a lot as a human in the last three years,” he means it more literally than most. He added one inch between December 2010 and 2011, leading to knee and hamstring problems. “I think I’m done growing now,” he adds, now topping the yardstick at 6ft 3in.
He raced for Trek-Livestrong for two years as a youngster but opted to turn professional with BMC rather than RadioShack in 2011, virtually breaking ties with Lance Armstrong. It was a mature and wise move, given what has happened to the American. The only thing Phinney and Armstrong share are past and present statuses as the next big thing in American cycling.
Taylor is confident but far from brash; he’s eloquent and outspoken about doping. And this 85kg brute made for the crooked cobbles of the Spring Classics would be the first to admit you won’t see him animating the Tour’s mountains.
Phinney cuts his season in half. After the Classics, training turns to “torturous” workouts on the time trial bike.
Phinney dreams of another pink jersey in this year’s Giro, given the early team time trial. Then there’s that unfinished business: reversing his narrow defeat to Tony Martin and taking a first senior road rainbow jersey in Florence, minutes away from his Quarrata home. “I can’t let the Panzerwagen [Tony Martin's nickname] come to my home in Italy and show me up in front of all my people,” he says.
Recently, Phinney has gained a belligerent nickname from the Belgian media: ‘the Thug’. “Real nice,” he adds with a smile before getting up to catch his flight. It belies his personality. But when he gets to the Spring Classics and rattles over the cobbles with visceral power, his rivals will see how nasty – and hungry – the precocious American is.
Blame the parents
Cycling is a familial sport: sons and daughters tend to follow mums and dads. You do get the odd dynasty too.
Take Garmin rider Daniel Martin’s roots: dad Neil was a Milk Race stage winner and his uncle is a certain Stephen Roche.
But then there’s the Van der Poels. Classics and World Cyclo-Cross Championship winning Eighties star Adri married Corinne Poulidor, the daughter of Raymond, revered multiple Tour de France runner-up. Their son Mathieu demolished fields in junior cyclo-cross competition, going through this season unbeaten.
It turns out that Taylor Phinney might not even be the most genetically blessed in the contemporary bunch. It’s virtually genetic doping; the rest don’t stand a chance against this lot.
Coach Neal Henderson on Taylor Phinney
“I’ve been working with him since he was 16. He had all that pressure and expectation because of his parents and he wears that mantle well.
“It’s been a really good winter. He came out of last year hungry: second place at the Worlds and two Olympic fourth places got him pretty fired up. That was a confirmation of the level he’s now at as they are brutally difficult positions to finish in.
“He’s got his head in the right place and Qatar and Oman were really steady starts.
“The potential is there for Taylor to win Roubaix and Flanders this year. I’d be hoping for [at least] a semi-Classic win this year.
“Taylor is hungry. He’s a thoroughbred. The best comes out on race day – that’s one of the big hallmarks of a world-class athlete.
This article originally appeared in the March 14 2013 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine