American on course for spring classics despite rough Paris-Nice campaign

Taylor Phinney is due to be reunited with a first love from Sunday at Milan-San Remo. The Monument marks the start of the spring classics that Phinney holds in the same high esteem as the Olympics and UCI Road World Championships.

Paris-Roubaix is closest to the 23 year old’s competitive heart but second is La Classica di Primavera, which features a retro route more suitable to sprinters this season.

Phinney braved freezing conditions at the Italian race last year where he made a solo move off the Poggio to tack onto the front group in the closing kilometers and finish seventh. It was the best result for an American at a one-day race since 2002.

The fourth-year professional is one of the most entertaining riders in the WorldTour but in contrast not yet self-assured enough to wholly consider, or put himself forward, as a BMC classics leader, or co-leader.

“I mean, with me a lot of it is mental. If I’m feeling really confident – that is I’ve been racing really well and riding really well – then I’m not afraid of that,” Phinney told Cycling Weekly. “We’ll have to see.”

The Colorado native has adopted a pragmatic approach to his spring campaign, preparation for which began in late October. He moved from Italy to Nice, where there is a more “international” community, in the off-season and made a big but worthwhile investment in hiring a personal soigneur. Phinney also officially began working with Sky coach turned BMC consultant Bobby Julich.

“There hasn’t been any crazy days where I’m trying to simulate any classics over the winter,” he said. “Basically, I set down a proper build-up with Bobby that started on October 31st and, you know, we pretty much laid out the training and my race schedule all the way leading up to Roubaix. I’ve been able to knock out every single day of that except for when I was kind of struggling a bit after the Kuurne crash.”

Phinney won his first stage race title, as a professional, at February’s inaugural Dubai Tour in which he never relinquished the Versace leader’s jersey after winning the opening 9.9km time trial.

“There was a lot of attention on it being the first year,” he said. “It was a short race but a big step up for me to jump into that role, lean on the team and also perform for them.”

Confidence was high and Phinney had a free role at the March 1 Het Nieuwsblad where he finished seventh with teammate Greg Van Avermaet, who is a frontrunner to lead BMC at the Tour of Flanders, second. However, he hit a hurdle the following day crashing out of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and injuring his knee that required double stitches, the last of which came out at this month’s fraught Paris-Nice.

Phinney surprisingly opted to race Paris-Nice instead of Tirreno-Adriatico, which featured a team and individual time trial, his specialty, in the run to San Remo. The Race to the Sun was meant to be a “dress rehearsal” for the Tour de France but turned into a training run when compatriot Tejay van Garderen abandoned due to illness on the first day.

Phinney lost some more skin there in a stage two crash where “struggle bus” became part of his vernacular. However, there is no indication the 6’5″ personality won’t be firing on all cylinders come the weekend and throughout April.

“Paris-Nice is really good preparation for the classics. It’s better preparation than Tirreno because it’s eight road stages as opposed to five road stages,” he said.

Phinney joins a growing chorus of riders unhappy with the varying Milan-San Remo course but the exclusion of Pompeiana, which would have seen the event favour climbers, and Le Manie won’t hurt his chances.

“I’m not a huge fan of them continually trying to change things because it starts to suit one type of rider. All these races they’re kind of starting to shoot the guy who can sprint from a small group,” he said. “I’ve been doing a lot of sprints in training, not necessarily for San Remo, just because it’s something I have the physical capability to be good at. A nice sprint is always a good thing to have at the end of a race so I’m excited for San Remo and we’ll see how the game plan goes.

“It’s going to be a bit different this year obviously. I think the weather in Europe is much better so that changes things too.”

Paris-Roubaix however remains the one-dayer Phinney really wants to win over, even though it’s incredibly high maintenance.

“It’s a race that sorts itself out pretty well over time. At this point I have yet to make that front group when it goes but that’s my biggest goal,” he said.

“You’re basically trying to not ruin the race for yourself by crashing or spending too much energy by being too far up or back. Then, when the time comes, you have to have the legs to respond and make that front group. From there it’s a whole different story of trying to win the race.”