HERNING, Denmark (VN) – Taylor Phinney’s (BMC Racing) dream come true of wearing the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia turned into a nightmare with just over 8km to go in Sunday’s second stage.
Phinney’s grip on the maglia rosa almost unraveled when he was knocked off his bike and then dropped his chain just as the peloton was roaring into Herning for the final bunch sprint.
The 21-year-old tried to keep a lid on the growing tension, but he knew he could have lost everything he gained in Saturday’s dramatic victory if he could not regain contact with the bunch.
“I was in a full panic. I tried to remain as relaxed as much as I could, but it wasn’t easy because I knew I could have lost the jersey,” Phinney said. “I do not know what happened. I was in good position, in the front 10 riders, then there was a heavy brake right in front of us. I lost my balance and fell. I got back up right away, but I lost the chain.”
A BMC mechanic helped Phinney to replace the chain, but he was quickly in a hole. With 7km to go, he was 38 seconds down and the pink jersey was in danger of disappearing with the speeding peloton.
Left isolated, he picked his way through the team cars, and took one tow off the Team BMC car as a mechanic leaned out the window attending to Phinney’s bike. The UCI jury looked the other way and Phinney sling-shotted through the team cars.
Riding alone in what was almost like a second time trial effort that won him the pink jersey in Saturday’s time trial stage, Phinney poured everything into the pedals, reducing the gap by 20 seconds in less than two kilometers.
By the time three BMC teammates dropped back to help him, a very relieved Phinney slotted back into the pack with just under 5km to go. His pink jersey was safe for another day.
“That’s cycling. Things can happen in an instant,” he said. “That last effort was quite taxing. I was really happy to see that finish line.”
Phinney admitted he was a bundle of nervous energy in Sunday’s windy, nervous stage. It’s one thing to win the pink jersey, but it’s something else entirely to wear it during the race and defend it.
“Today was the first day in pink. I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “A lot of people said to enjoy the pink jersey, but it was quite a nervous and stressful day. I wanted to stay at the front, to stay upright. The whole day was pretty nervous. I was more nervous than I normally would be.”
The opening stage of any grand tour is always a tense affair. Riders are jostling for position, sprint teams are keen to set the pace and GC candidates want to avoid a disastrous crash.
For Phinney, the day started off well enough. BMC Racing already had a custom-painted bike decked out in pink for the occasion, reflecting their confidence in their young star.
Sunday’s route didn’t help, especially when heavy crosswinds kicked up as the race slipped along the wide-open coast at the North Sea. Narrow roads littered with traffic circles and other traffic furniture provoked a half dozen pileups throughout the day.
“I think I enjoyed about the first 20km of today’s stage. The rest of the day, I was quite on edge and I am still recovering a bit from it all right now,” he said. “I think tomorrow I can be a little more relaxed. I got my crash out of the way and I am still in the pink jersey. I am taking it day-by-day; that is our plan at the moment.”
How many more days can Phinney carry the jersey? BMC Racing is hoping to carry the maglia rosa back to Italy.
Monday’s sprint stage should unfold in a similar blueprint as Sunday, with the sprinters’ teams collaborating to reel in any breakaways and set up the mass gallop.
All Phinney needs to do is avoid trouble and the team can start Wednesday’s team time trial with a pink skinsuit amidst its lineup.
“We would like to bring the pink jersey to Italy, because that means we could start the team time trial last,” BMC assistant sport director Max Sciandri told VeloNews. “We have a strong team here for the team time trial, so we think we could even defend the jersey longer if we manage a strong ride.”
Sunday’s stage winner Mark Cavendish could pull within shot of the jersey with time bonuses on Monday.
The Team Sky sprinter chopped 20 seconds off his time with the win Sunday to climb to 12th, at 27 seconds back. Another win Monday would pull him within seven seconds, setting up a TTT duel for pink between the two powerhouse teams on Wednesday.
Sciandri said the team is committed to protecting Phinney as long as possible.
“We can only take the race one stage at a time. We cannot look too far ahead, but it is possible to keep the jersey for some more stages,” he said. “We want to keep the jersey. We will fight for that. Having the pink jersey always makes everyone ride harder.”
As Phinney learned Sunday, the pink jersey can be a slippery creature.