There’s no other way to say it. Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) ripped the legs off the front of the peloton when he dangled in front of them there, a hare just out of reach of chasing, white-mouthed dogs.
When he crossed the line, he posted the first road-racing victory of his professional career, a huge man atop a bike with his legs and arms out, a sort of hug to the spectacle unfolding around him.
Victory, at long last.
He was nearly there. Just close enough to taste it and to believe it. Tejay van Garderen (BMC) had the queen stage of the 2013 Tour de France in his hands before Christophe Riblon (Ag2r-La Mondiale) took it from him, reeling him in and riding away with only two kilometers to go up the Alpe d’Huez — for the second time in a single stage.
Van Garderen didn’t talk immediately after the race, and he was clearly disappointed. On that mountain, that cruel piece of switchback and rock and grass, he was close, but not close enough.
This is racing. The rise and the fall, the attempts in both vain and in victory. Superteam BMC, though, hasn’t enjoyed the success it expected this season until the Tour of Poland, at which it was exquisite. Does the onslaught of stage wins mark a turning point?
Up and Down
The spring classics weren’t particularly kind to BMC. Star Philippe Gilbert, in his fresh white world road champion kit, never could find the form that made him a legend in 2011 when he swept the Ardennes week. Belgian Greg Van Avermaet was consistent, finishing third at Ghent-Wevelgem, fourth at Paris-Roubaix, fifth at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, sixth at Brabantse Pijl, and seventh at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). Thor Hushovd wasn’t his old self either, going without any remarkable results in his favorite spring races.
The American van Garderen delivered a huge result for owner Andy Rihs when he won the Amgen Tour of California. It confirmed his all-around talent but also upped the expectations on him, at least from the press.
Come July, the expectations upon BMC weren’t at the level of Sky, but this is a team that came into the Tour de France with a former champion in Cadel Evans and a young gun in van Garderen; both finished inside the top 10 in 2012. That Tour suited both riders better than the 2013 parcours, which saw more climbing, but when a team as loaded as BMC shows up with a good squad, the expectation isn’t to walk.
BMC ultimately placed no rider in the top 10, nor did it win a stage. Evans, the team’s flagship rider, said toward the end of the Tour that it was his goal simply to make it to Paris and finish. He was sapped from a Giro d’Italia campaign in which he took third, but paid for it dearly in the July heat and under the pressure of Chris Froome (Sky).
Immediately following the Tour, sport director John Lelangue left the team, where he’d served for six years and during which he oversaw Evans’ 2011 Tour victory. The team said it was for personal reasons, but it’s also apparent something needed to change.
And then, it all happened for BMC — in three days. Over three stages at the Tour of Poland, the team knocked off three straight victories: two for Hushovd and one for Phinney. In stage three, BMC worked to nail back a group that at one point held an 11-minute gap over the peloton. Hushovd finished the job in the final 100 meters, beating Steele Von Hoff (Garmin-Sharp) and Mark Renshaw (Belkin).
“Taylor Phinney did a good job and the whole team did really well. I’m really happy to get this win. I was quite confident today and the team had a lot of confidence in me — so that really helped,” Hushovd said.
In the week prior, Van Avermaet won two stages and the overall at the Tour de Wallonie, and Hushovd’s win brought BMC’s total to four victories in nine days.
And it wouldn’t stop there.
Phinney delivered a memorable performance when he attacked seven kilometers from the finish. He never had more than 15 seconds on the peloton, but was able to survive in a thrilling display of grit and power.
“It was like a prologue — and I was screaming that to him on the radio. I told him to go full gas and don’t look back. He was a machine,” said assistant director Fabio Baldato.
“I just put my head down and decided I wasn’t going to look back and slowly commit to it and give it everything I had,” Phinney said. “It was twisty and turning enough that I could maintain a lot of speed. I had a lot of power, but the last couple of kilometers were excruciatingly painful. I crossed my fingers that it wouldn’t be one of those finishes where the guy gets passed 20 meters before the line.”
Hushovd won again in a sprint the following day, bringing BMC its sixth win in 11 days.
“We are a really good group here,” Hushovd said. “We are enjoying racing together and when the ball first starts rolling, it doesn’t stop and everything goes well. We don’t have any pressure. We just do our jobs and the rest comes along.”
No, the Tour of Poland isn’t the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix. But BMC is a team that’s coming good toward the end of the season, and will bring momentum into races like the USA Pro Challenge and the Tour of Utah.
For the Utah race, the team has said it’s hunting stages rather than the overall, and brings capable assassins in Michael Schär, Van Avermaet, and Steve Cummings.
“We’re going to take a day-by-day approach, but for sure, we will race aggressively,” sport director Jackson Stewart said. “Being an American team, races in the United States are always important for us and I think the seven guys we have here all have the potential to do well.”
Van Garderen finished second in Colorado last year. And Gilbert and Hushovd, the current and former world champions, will be dreaming of more rainbow stripes ahead of the Florence worlds in late September.
After all, stranger things have happened.