LONDON (VN) — A fourth-place finish at the Olympic road race is nothing to be ashamed of for any rider, particularly for a 22-year-old.
Yet in the moments after producing that result in London on Saturday, American Taylor Phinney was disappointed, first evidenced when he banged his fist on his handlebar after finishing second in the bunch sprint to Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, eight seconds behind winner Alexander Vinokourov and silver medalist Rigoberto Uran.
Phinney, who will also ride the time trial on Wednesday, could not muster much of a smile at the finish line.
“Now I have three days to lay in bed and hopefully not watch replays of this race and cry, curled up in a ball,” he said, half-smiling.
Asked about his feelings of disappointment, rather than being pleased with an unexpected result, Phinney shrugged. “This is the Olympics!” he said. “This only happens every four years. I don’t remember who got fourth place four years ago!”
Phinney came into the road race with a utilitarian role on Team USA. Teammate Timmy Duggan was instructed to jump into the day’s main breakaway, which he did. And had the race looked poised to be a field sprint, which Great Britain so desperately tried to deliver, Phinney was pegged to leadout Tyler Farrar.
However, when Phinney saw race protagonists Philippe Gilbert (Belgium) and Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) escaping on the fourth of nine circuits over Box Hill, the young American jumped into the chase group.
“The plan was for Timmy to go into the breakaway, it’s always nice when that works out,” Phinney said. “I saw some big guys moving on fourth lap, Phil, (Sylvain) Chavanel and Nibali, and I just found the legs to follow. We got caught on that lap, then did the same thing on the fifth lap and ended up reaching the front group.
“For me, I felt great, I made sure when it came back after first time we were caught I asked Tyler (Farrar) if it was okay that I did that, and he said ‘Yeah, that was perfect, you’ve got to follow those moves.’ I made sure Tejay (van Garderen) knew that he could do that as well.”
Phinney’s early chase groups may have been brought back by Team GB, but a similar move slipped away on the final climb over Box Hill, and he was there. And this time, Great Britain could not close the gap.
“There were so many times when I was just like, give up and go back to the pack, they are going to catch us anyways, but then didn’t,” Phinney said. “I got dropped on the eight lap, then got dropped on the ninth lap, but I just made it back every time with the little groups that would bridge up.”
With Great Britain on its heels inside the final 40km, Phinney, along with teammate van Garderen, had made the winning group alongside riders like Kristoff, Uran, Vinokourov, Alejandro Valverde, Fabian Cancellara, Luis Leon Sanchez, Lars Boom, and Chavanel.
At that point, Phinney said, he was hurting — barely holding on to wheels as the gap to the peloton sat pegged at 55 seconds — when he noticed that van Garderen was on the front, drilling it to keep the peloton at bay.
“I was sitting back there at 35th, maybe 40th wheel, in a world of hurt, then I see Tejay up there, drilling it, and I’m thinking, ‘What are you doing? No! Now people are going to expect me to do something,’” Phinney said.
“But the more he rode the front, the more confidence it instilled in me. He came back and he gave me a gel, he gave me a bottle. It’s pretty incredible to have the white jersey of the Tour de France willing to sacrifice his ride for you.”
From that point Phinney said he did his best to mark Kristoff, the fastest finisher in the bunch.
“It was kind of a hectic run-in, nobody really had teammates left, everyone was pretty tired, you’d get guys that would accelerate, then see the whole field was on their wheel, and then stop,” Phinney said. “It was definitely a tactical game. I knew Kristoff was probably the man to beat. I knew that from 40km to go. I tried to stay on his wheel.”
When Cancellara crashed out of the front group with 15km to go, it had the potential to kill the rhythm, if not the motivation, of the lead group. But Phinney said that moment actually helped his positioning.
“You get to a point in the last hour where all you’re doing is following the wheel in front of you, trying not to crash, telling yourself that you’re okay and that you will be good at the finish,” he said.
“It seemed like kind of a silly crash, he was just going into a corner too fast. I wasn’t sure if (Switzerland) were riding for Fabian or (Michael) Albasini. I was seriously sitting last wheel, with 35km to go, and I was not in a happy place, it took me a while to get back to the front. When Fabian crashed I actually went right to the front, because I took the inside line in the turn.”
Once Vinokourov and Uran had jumped, it became clear that the group behind was no longer racing for the win, but rather looking to claim the final Olympic medal on offer. Coming into the finishing straight, Kristoff timed his sprint perfectly, and Phinney was unable to come around, beaten by a wheel.
“I had to bump my way through a little gap there with 300m to go,” Phinney said. “He went, and I tried to follow. I just don’t quite have that top end. … All in all it was a good race.”
His fourth-place finish was the highest Olympic road performance for an American since Frankie Andreu took fourth at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
Teammate Chris Horner said Phinney had nothing to be ashamed of.
“It was fabulous. It was absolutely epic,” Horner said. “He’s sitting on the curb, and he’s a little bummed, and you got to remember, that’s the first position without a medal, and that kid has medaled a lot of times, so he was bummed, but I looked at him and said, ‘Phinney, that’s an epic ride. That is nothing to be bummed about. That was epic.’ Team USA was represented all day long, and he just did a fabulous ride.”
Phinney acknowledged that, given how he’d felt with 40km to go, he was surprised to have been fighting for a medal at the end.
“Never give up. Never surrender,” Phinney joked. “You never know, you might get fourth place at the Olympics.”