For the first time on the international stage, the under-23 team of Trek-Livestrong is racing against the likes of ProTour squads Quick Step, Team Sky and Saxo Bank at the Tour of Qatar. After a few days of swimming in the deep end, the young riders from the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand say it’s going pretty well. Taylor Phinney has finished within the top 10 in field sprints the past two days.
On stage 3, Phinney finished seventh behind stage winner Tom Boonen.
“As I finished I counted the number of riders in front of me and was super excited just to have been able to see Boonen win, let alone be a couple of meters behind him,” Phinney said.
Phinney was the best-placed rider in the Young Rider classification on the day, as well as the first American across the line. Phinney explained to VeloNews how he set up for the stage 3 finish.
“I knew I had to be right at the front with 2.5km to go, as there was a right turn followed by about five roundabouts to the finish, so I made my way up there just in time and fought for position the next 2km,” Phinney said. “Then, sooner than I realized, I was in the top ten and I saw there were only 300m left in the race so, while still in awe of even being up close to the likes of Boonen and Haussler, I just gave it everything in the sprint, avoided a crash right in front of me and passed a couple guys for seventh.”
The results have encouraged the team.
“It is a big learning experience for us here,” said Cody Campbell. “So to get a result is great, especially considering who is here, and the strength of the peloton. A lot of the teams here are pretty stacked. For our first big race like this it was really good to have Taylor up there.”
On the Tour of Qatar’s first road stage following the team time trial, Trek-Livestrong riders received a stinging taste of ProTour battle in the strong desert crosswinds. The peloton shattered into four main groups on stage 2. Seven Trek-Livestrong riders finished in the back that day; Phinney broke a spoke and chased back on to finish in the third group with the likes of Fabian Cancellara.
“It’s good to have a learning school like that,” said team director Axel Merckx. “They’re learning how to ride in a group, and how to fight for position. They don’t have a lot of experience with that. The racing in the U.S., there’s not a lot of fighting for position, unless it’s a crit, which is totally different. Hopefully they’ll learn.”
After four stages, Phinney is the best-placed rider at 58th. The rest of the riders are between 84th and last at 123rd.
“It’s a steep learning curve,” American Ben King said. (There is also an Australian Ben King on Trek-Livestrong.)
Before coming to the race, Merckx toldhis riders that they would suffer. “But I’m not sure they believed me,” he said.
When a few riders complained at the breakfast table about the roads in Qatar, Merckx pointed out that they were still twice as wide as the rough roads in Belgium. “If we can race there, you can certainly race here,” he told them.
On stage 3, Brit Alex Dowsett bridged up into a breakaway, gaining a minute on the field before being reeled in.
On stage 4, New Zealander Jesse Sergeant got into a breakaway from the gun that lasted nearly all day.
Although the team has encountered the occasional flat tire and minor crash, no one has suffered any debilitating injuries or missed the time cut.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme met Phinney at the Tour of Qatar. He said he had never met his father Davis Phinney, but of course knew the elder Phinney was a Tour de France stage winner. Prudhomme said he was eager to watch Taylor Phinney’s progression.
“Everyone is talking about him here,” Prudhomme said in Qatar’s capital Doha. “He is the best hope for cycling for the next years. It is very interesting for us to see him, and to see the team of Axel Merckx here.”
For Phinney, the two top-10 finishes added fuel to his fire.
“I’m super excited as it is a good sign for the days going forward that if I just stay up there, I can be solid in the sprint finishes,” Phinney said.