Editor’s Note: This story initially appeared in the July 2009 issue of VeloNews Magazine. For more on our award-winning print publication, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, click here.
What’s next for America’s newest world champion?
IZEGEM, Belgium (VN) — There’s nothing pretentious about Taylor Phinney. So when he talks about repeating as the world pursuit champion as long as he wants, challenging one of Chris Boardman’s “untouchable” world records and one day winning Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix, you may believe him — even though he’s only 18 and has yet to win a road race of any significance.
Phinney knows he will have to shed 10 to 15 pounds from his current 185-pound, 6-foot-4 frame to succeed on the road. But his future is full of exciting possibilities — as was the case with two other Americans who astonished at a young age: Greg LeMond in the late-’70s and Lance Armstrong in the early ’90s. Both of course went on to take the world pro road title before winning the Tour de France multiple times.
Is Phinney capable of following in their footsteps? Perhaps. But this son of American cycling’s most famous couple, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, is still exploring his potential in his first season as a full-time athlete with the Trek-LiveStrong and U.S. national under-23 teams.
So far, Phinney’s prodigious talent has taken him to world junior titles in the road time trial (August 2007) and individual pursuit (July 2008), and helped him become, in late-March this year, the youngest cyclist ever to wear the rainbow jersey in an elite discipline (again in the pursuit).
Along the way, he has shattered U.S. national track records with world-class times — 4:15.160 for the 4,000-meter pursuit and 1:01.611 for the 1km time trial.
Phinney broke the national kilo record in only his third attempt at the distance while picking up the silver medal at this year’s track worlds in Pruszków, Poland.
“People have been trying to beat that record all their lives, and I blasted it out pretty easily,” Phinney said matter-of-factly.
What’s even more surprising is that Phinney scored his gold and silver medals only two weeks after returning home sick and exhausted from the longest race of his life, the Vuelta Mexico. Five of the eight stages exceeded the longest distances Phinney had ever ridden.
“I was pretty destroyed afterwards,” he said. “I think that’s the closest to death I’ve ever been. There was one stage that was uphill all day for 200km, a seven-hour day. I think I’m a little young right now to be doing races like that, but it’s also good to see that I can actually do it, and that I’m not going to die. It brought my fitness level high but definitely took a lot out of me. I had a week on the couch, got back up, did some training through Poland and won worlds.”
Soccer in Italy
Much has been made of the fact that Phinney has incredible genes. His mother, the first women’s Olympic road race champion, won everything from a world 3,000-meter pursuit title to the two-week-long Coors Classic; her husband also won the Coors Classic, which was one of his more than 300 career road victories, including the USPRO Championship and two stage wins at the Tour de France.
Carpenter and Phinney must have suspected their son would have the ability to ride a bicycle as fast as they could, because when he was born in June 1990, they named him after the legendary Major Taylor, the first black man to win a world cycling championship, the one-mile sprint, in 1899.
But cycling was not on young Taylor Phinney’s agenda despite having grown up in the bike-racing hotbed of Boulder, Colorado. His plans were on the soccer field.
“I was one of those under-10 kids who was the best player on the team and scored all the goals,” Phinney said.
He was expected to develop those early soccer talents when the family moved to northern Italy, where his parents developed their training camp and bike-tour business. For more than three years, they lived on the edge of the Dolomites, between Vicenza and Venice, in the town of Marostica, where Taylor and his younger sister, Kelsey, worked on their language skills.
“It’s kind of a cool place,” he said about Marostica, which is famed for its annual game of chess played out by knights on real horses and human pawns on a giant chessboard in the town square next to a medieval castle. “It’s a place I might go back to at some point when I have kids of my own.”
While there, the preteen Taylor Phinney learned Italian in school, made tons of friends and played a lot of soccer. “I soon realized how every single Italian was good at soccer,” he said. “I started as a forward, drifted back to midfield and ended up a defender. I was good but I started to lose motivation.”
“I liked playing midfield because I can run for a long time and feel in control. I liked to do all the free kicks, the ‘Bend It Like Beckham’ stuff, and we had a little soccer field behind the house to practice. I love soccer, but I got a little burnt out on it and realized I wasn’t going anywhere.”
The family came back to Colorado in 2005 and Taylor enrolled at Boulder High School, his dad’s alma mater. He ran cross-country during his sophomore year. Years of recreational riding combined with soccer fitness led Phinney to believe he could succeed in racing. Though his parents never pushed him into cycling, Taylor said once he announced he was interested in pursuing racing, a “light switch” was flipped with his father, who took his son to that year’s Tour de France, Armstrong’s seventh and final win before retiring.
“We followed the 2005 Tour for two weeks, and I met Lance, Axel [Merckx] and Jonathan Vaughters one night. My dad went up and said, ‘This kid is the next Peter Stetina,’ and JV was like, ‘We’ll see.’ So I’m pretty grateful to JV for putting me on his team and helping me get into the sport.”
He began bike racing in March 2006, by showing up for a local Boulder criterium wearing a 7-Eleven jersey. Still 15, he entered the 15/16 and 17/18 categories, and won them both by powering up a small climb to the finish. His father took him to local races as often as possible, helping out with tactics, but by summer he’d begun working with a coach — Neal Henderson, from the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine.
“That was a turning point,” Phinney remembered. “I didn’t do great at nationals, second in the time trial, and I never won a national junior title. But I came back to Boulder and won 11 Category 3 races. Going to a race every weekend and winning was kind of cool.”
Phinney tried his hand at cyclocross that winter and finished third at junior nationals. As he experimented with his sports, he was still growing and learning. He didn’t spend a lot of time training in the two years while still attending high school, sometimes just an hour in the afternoon.
“I’m not one who trains 25 hours a week. A lot of young Americans train too much, maybe because of insecurity. I have a pretty good head on my shoulders,” he said.
A First Rainbow Jersey
Even though he’d been a cyclist for only a year, Phinney went to race in Europe at age 16 — the same age that LeMond won 29 of the 60 junior races he started, many of them in Europe.
Riding for the national junior team, Phinney finished fifth in a Swiss time trial. His first attempt at the junior Paris-Roubaix was marred by multiple crashes, and ultimately ended when his team car drove past while he was stuck in a ditch following a pileup with 30km remaining. Phinney finished the race in the broom wagon, but having learned a valuable lesson. Prior to the last crash, he had bridged from the back of the field to the front following a puncture: “I realized I was pretty good on the cobbles.”
Upon returning to the States, Phinney went to the junior national championships, where he was disappointed with third place in the time trial. Next up was the Tour de l’Abitibi, a major junior stage race in Canada.
“Everyone was staring at us when we showed up with time trial bikes for the prologue, which was only 400 meters long; every other team had road bikes,” he said. “I ended up winning the prologue by a second. Then I came second in the time trial stage, and I picked up some time bonuses in the bunch sprints to win the overall.”
A week later he won his first elite-level race, a criterium held in pouring rain in Salida, Colorado, with streams of water flowing down the gutters.
“I went off alone, caught the break, passed the break and ended up solo,” he said. “That was a good little confidence booster before I went to the junior worlds in Mexico.”
Just as LeMond won the world junior road race title in Mexico City, in 1979, so Taylor Phinney took his first rainbow jersey on a high-elevation course South of the Border. The 2007 junior worlds took place in the central Mexican city of Aguascalientes at over 6,000 feet.
The morning of the time trial, Phinney envisioned himself finishing on the podium.
“It was a perfect power course for me and at altitude,” he remembered. “There’s something about being in a time-trial position where I can push a lot of power and go really fast. Everything clicked that day. I had my dad, my coach and good friend Ben King in the follow car, and on the last turn they were shouting ‘you’re in first place,’ so I pretty much knew I was winning. That was the best-feeling victory I’ve ever had: ‘Holy crap, I’m world champion.’ That was pretty amazing.”
To the Track
Connie Carpenter was so thrilled by her son’s success in Mexico that she put together a shrine to Taylor in the dining room of their two-story home, which sits quietly on one of Boulder’s leafy streets near the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.
“We had a little celebration at the house,” she said, “and I wanted to honor his accomplishment.”
Armstrong’s mother Linda did the same thing after her son won the 1993 world pro road title, framing his rainbow jersey and gold medal, and setting it up with photos of Lance.
Like Armstrong, Phinney was eager for a new challenge. “I was gonna race cyclocross again,” he said, “but I really don’t like cyclocross. My dad suggested I try track, as did Ben Sharp, the Cadence national coach. So we just threw a bike together and went to track nationals on a whim. I’d ridden [the 333-meter outdoor track] in Colorado Springs a little bit, but I’d never raced on the track.”
Roger Young, the velodrome director at the ADT Event Center in Los Angeles, remembers Phinney’s first ride on the indoor, steeply banked wooden oval. “He was a natural,” said the former six-day racer. “He was riding the steep turns right away.”
“I couldn’t believe I was going to elite nationals,” Phinney said. “It was so huge. And I ended up winning [the individual pursuit], which was crazy.”
Not since Christian Vande Velde in the late ’90s had an American shown as much aptitude for the pursuit as the then-17-year-old Phinney. From riding a 4:35 pursuit at nationals, Phinney then cut his personal best by 11 seconds at two track World Cups, first riding 4:29 (for ninth place) in Australia and then a 4:24 (for fourth) in China — where he raced against Britain’s three-time world pursuit champ and Olympic gold medalist Bradley Wiggins, who posted a 4:22. “China was a big turning point because I realized I could be good at it,” he said.
That realization was confirmed when he won the next World Cup in Los Angeles, and suddenly his sights were set on the Olympics. But then he was diagnosed with mononucleosis. He kept the illness quiet.
“We didn’t tell anyone in the media because they’d say, his season’s over,” he said. “Mono is really hard to get over, and it wasn’t cleared up when I went to the Manchester worlds in March last year and got eighth. That was a really stressful time from the high of winning in LA to the hell of mono. It wasn’t until May or June that it was finally gone.”
Despite the lingering illness, Phinney placed sixth in Switzerland’s Pays de Vaud, winning the time trial, and then set a world junior 3,000-meter record before winning the world junior pursuit title and placing third in the road time trial, in Cape Town, South Africa.
Riding the Olympic pursuit in Beijing just after his 18th birthday was a huge accomplishment for Phinney, but he wasn’t pleased with his seventh-place finish. He expects to do much better at the 2012 Olympics in London, and he’s even looking ahead to the 2016 Games. In the meantime, he’s reading “No Limits: The Will to Succeed,” by Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps.
“He’s pretty good at breaking records,” Phinney said. “There was one event [the 400-meter individual medley] where the world record was 4:11 and he did like a 4:03 in Beijing; so when I look at [Chris Boardman’s] 4K record of 4:11.114, and I think that if I can do a 4:15 right now, that it’s not so untouchable.”
It’s pointed out that Boardman did his 4:11 using the now-banned Superman position, but Phinney isn’t fazed. “Yeah, but we’re stronger now,” he said. “And hopefully if the Olympics are in Chicago in 2016 we’ll be going under 4:10.” When he talks about “we,” Phinney is referring to himself and his young pursuit rivals, Australian Jack Bobridge and New Zealander Jesse Sergent, all of whom could play major roles in the pro peloton.
One man who knows what it’s like to parlay youthful talent into later brilliance is Armstrong, who has taken Phinney under his wing with the Trek-LiveStrong team, and could likely be driving the Boulder rider’s future as part of his own ProTour squad through the upcoming decade.
“When you take [his track speed] to the road,” Armstrong said, “who knows how that transfers into a race like Flanders or Roubaix, or the Tour? So he could be with us for a long time. I wouldn’t rule anything out with Taylor.”