The rookie rode to an impressive fifth in the 47km time trial during the Vuelta a España in his grand-tour debut earlier this month, stopping the clock just six seconds slower than three-time world TT champion Fabian Cancelllara.
BMC sport director Max Sciandri believes that Phinney could surprise some people on the Copenhagen course ideal for power riders like Phinney.
“Yes, I think he’s a podium-guy for sure,” Sciandri told VeloNews. “Anywhere on that podium is a big achievement right now, especially when looking to the future. The plan that I put down him for two months ago was to target the Salamanca time trial. The idea was to race hard for 10 days and see how you react after that. He did a fantastic time trial for a young guy like he is.”
Phinney has had a roller-coaster ride in his high-profile rookie season in the pro ranks. Nagging injuries in the winter and spring kept him out of the spring classics, but he regrouped and nearly won the prologue at the Tour de Romandie in May.
In August, he snagged his first pro win at the Eneco Tour prologue and defended yellow for a few days before finishing fourth overall.
Sciandri said Phinney needed some time to adjust to the reality and demands of the professional peloton.
“He underestimated what pro cycling is all about. Before, he relied on his natural talent, his big engine. At the amateur ranks, a big, natural engine is all you need sometimes to get big results,” Sciandri said. “The pro peloton is a different world. People train, people prepare, people sacrifice, they live for the sport. It took him a few months to get around it, to understand it.”
Sciandri has been working closely with Phinney and BMC’s other younger pros throughout the season.
Sciandri, who raced under BMC general manager Jim Ochowicz on the Motorola team in the 1990s, lives in Tuscany, just down the road from Phinney’s European home-base in Lucca.
After watching Phinney struggle through the early season, he pulled together Phinney and some of the team’s other riders for a training camp in April.
“Right before Romandie, I pulled a training camp together in Italy. We brought together 6-7 riders and trained hard, then he went to Romandie and nearly won the prologue,” he said. “He understands that here in you have to give, to get it. Now he understands that. He’s a professional bike rider now.”
Sciandri said Phinney’s top goals for the 2012 season will be starting in the major spring classics as well targeting a spot on the U.S. Olympic team for the time trial. That won’t be easy, considering such riders as Levi Leipheimer, a TT bronze medalist in Beijing, and Dave Zabriskie, will also be bucking for the two starting spots.
“The big picture is London. The bigger picture is his future,” Sciandri said. “He’s got 10, 12, 15 years ahead of him. He has some great cycling ahead of him. I think now he’s on the right direction, he’s on the right track. He’s understood it’s a tougher world than what he expected, but he’s on it now.”
The arrival to BMC of such powerhouses of Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd should only be a help to Phinney’s development as a potential classics-style rider, Sciandri said.
“This will be one of the best classics teams in the world. He can learn a lot from the guys we will have next year, from George (Hincapie), to Gilbert, Hushovd, Cadel. This will be the university of cycling for a young rider like him,” he said. “With the rough start he had, he had to skip the classics. He needed time to reassemble his ideas and the work he had to do. Next year, we’ll have him down for the classics.”
Sciandri said Phinney’s potential is unlimited and said that no one wants to pigeonhole him into the role as a time trial specialist or a classics rider.
He said young riders like Phinney need time to develop to see what kind of rider they can become without too much pressure from the media or from team management.
“He will change over time. We don’t to put any limits on him now. If he sheds a bit of weight and improves the ability to climb, who knows. He’ll never be a great climber, but if you can suffer up those climbs and not lose too much time and then have a great time trial,” he said. “Even a rider like Cadel (Evans) is not a pure climber, he won the Tour de France. I don’t want to put a limit. He’s growing and I think he’s going to surprise a lot of people.”
Sciandri said that first surprise could come this week in Copenhagen.