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Renaissance man: Taylor Phinney profile

Jeremy Whittle
29 Nov 2018

Musician, painter, adventurer… Taylor Phinney refuses to fit the standard mould of the pro cyclist

This feature originally appeared in Issue 76 of Cyclist magazine

There’s a striking moment in the second of the Thereabouts cycling movies that offers a refreshing antidote to the pro cycling scene’s complex web of intrigue and politics.

The documentary follows a group of friends in 2015 as they ride their bikes from Boulder to Moab in the United States.

They drift across the vast landscape, riding mainly dirt roads for a film that is both meandering and evocative.

As twilight settles on the deserts of the American southwest, Taylor Phinney hunches over his machine, his long legs effortlessly speeding him along a seemingly endless road stretching towards the horizon.

He’s wearing BMC team issue shorts, a hoodie and denim jacket.

‘The pointlessness is the beauty of it,’ says the voiceover. ‘We’re not training, we’re not racing, we’re not fuckin’ making a million dollars. We’re just riding our bikes.’

There was a time when it seemed that Taylor Phinney would never fully settle into pro cycling, even though as the son of Colorado cycling royalty – his father is Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney and his mother Olympic gold medallist Connie Carpenter – he undoubtedly had cycling in his genes.

But alongside his prodigious talent, he also had something else: a creative and questioning state of mind that seemed at loggerheads with the corporate values that can sometimes smother professional sport.

He was never going to be a sheep blindly following orders, and perhaps because of that his career path hasn’t been straightforward.

Ten years ago Phinney was being touted as US cycling’s next big name, leading to a tug of love of sorts for his services between eternal rivals and ex-teammates Lance Armstrong and Jonathan Vaughters.

Initially, Armstrong’s star power reeled him in and Phinney signed for the Trek-Livestrong team in 2008.

He was 18, impressionable, and at the time called it a ‘match made in heaven’. Now though, he’s not keen to comment publicly on the current state of his relationship with Armstrong, but it’s probably fair to say he would make a different choice if given the chance to do it all again.

Instead, Phinney appears to have come full circle, and is now a mainstay in Vaughters’ new Education First team.

Such was his natural talent that, at first, success came relatively quickly.

There was a stage win and an exuberant spell in the maglia rosa at the 2012 Giro d’Italia, an overall victory in the Dubai Tour, a stage win in the Tour of California and in the 2014 US National Time-Trial Championships.

But then, on the descent of Lookout Mountain during the same season’s US National Road Race, disaster struck when he suffered a catastrophic crash that changed his life.

Rebuilding, reassessing

The gruesome injuries that Phinney suffered during the high-speed impact with a guardrail, as he swerved to avoid a race motorbike, almost ended his career.

He had a compound fracture to his tibia that required nails and screws to repair. He also severed his patella tendon.

It was equally traumatic for Lucas Euser, his breakaway companion that day, who was riding for the United Healthcare team.

Cycling fans have grown accustomed to riders glancing over their shoulders at fallen rivals, only to power ahead as their peers lie on the road.

Not Euser, who stayed with Phinney until the race doctors arrived.

‘He was there by my side while I was in pain,’ Phinney said later. ‘He gave up his race to be there, and he probably experienced more post-traumatic stress because he actually looked at my leg, and I didn’t want to see it.’

Ironically, the trauma of that experience accelerated Euser’s disillusionment and retirement from racing, while Phinney’s career continued.

‘Survivor’s guilt,’ Euser has called it. ‘The crash with Taylor changed things.’

Euser won a fair play award from the US Olympic Committee for his actions that day.

Now he’s a leading player in ANAPRC, the North American collective of riders campaigning for improved safety and working conditions for active professionals.

In the aftermath of his crash, Phinney took time out for rehabilitation, and he also took stock. His part in Thereabouts nourished his recovery.

He had returned to riding a bike, elegantly but also pointlessly, hanging out with his buddies, far from the pro scene.

Slowly but surely, during two stuttering years still riding for BMC, his form returned until he rode his first Tour de France last summer – for Vaughters and his Cannondale-Drapac team – and even came close to bagging a stage victory.

Like team leader Rigoberto Uran, Phinney was one of the riders who sat tight with Vaughters last autumn as he battled to find sufficient sponsorship to keep the team going.

‘I wanted to give Jonathan and the team a chance to save things,’ he says in his dry, laidback delivery.

‘I wasn’t about to go anywhere else, so I just waited it out. I mean, I’m never really that anxious anymore, after recognising that there’s so much more outside of this sport.

‘This is my eighth year as a professional and I still feel like I’m pretty young,’ Phinney adds. ‘I went to the Olympics for the first time when I was a senior in high school, and that was 10 years ago.

‘At the time I wasn’t into university at all, because I had my dreams and ambitions to become an athlete, to win all these different things, but as I have gotten older I’ve realised: education first.

‘So for me, riding for this team, it’s perfect.

‘As this crazy world continues to evolve and get more and more wild and out of control, education – and bringing different cultures together – is paramount to our survival as a race.’

Phinney is deadly serious. If it all sounds like some kind of slacker green tea vibe, straight out of Boulder, well maybe that’s true.

But there’s also a calm conviction to his voice that, allied to the trauma he endured on Lookout Mountain, suggests he really believes in what he’s saying.

‘A lot of teams are sponsored by billionaires or sponsors with money that you don’t know where it’s coming from,’ he adds. ‘But I love that we’re promoting education.’

Right now, Phinney seems to have perspective on his career. ‘As pros we spend a lot of time doing what we do, and it can start to feel selfish.

Being aligned with the right team is paramount for me, because then I can feel that what I’m doing is having an impact that goes beyond my own personal ambitions as an athlete.

That’s become really important to me. It wasn’t when I started racing. After I broke my leg, it became much more important.

‘I’ve always been pretty open, tried to share the quirky side of myself by trying to say, “Hey, we may be professional athletes but we’re normal people…”

‘If anything, now I feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin. Cyclists get trapped in this cycle of complaining and suffering, complaining and suffering, because that’s what we do every day – push on through pain.’

He pauses. ‘But there’s much more to be learned through that experience. I feel like I’ve finally cracked the shell of the pistachio,’ he says with a wry smile.

Now he says he tries to combine the denim jacket-wearing Thereabouts drifter with the corporate-sponsored pro. ‘I try to meld those two people as much as I can.

‘But I love riding my bike to explore. There’s a balance you can find. You’re not going to talk to any Belgian pro cyclists about going on adventure rides – it’s just not the way they think.

‘I can go out and do the work that I need to do to evolve physically as an athlete, but to feel like I’m satisfied I always have to find a new route or hit some gravel roads, even if it’s just on my road bike.

Professionals go out and do six-hour training rides – that’s part of our job – so you can either think, “Fuck, I have to go out and do six hours and I’m tired,” or you can be, “Every day of my life is an adventure – I get to wake up and go ride for six hours, from when the sun is up, to when the sun goes down.”

‘I’ve been able to cross that hurdle, just being stoked that I get the freedom. Yes, I have to go do some intervals but even then there’s so much to be learned about pushing through barriers. That’s all that being an athlete is.’

Meditations on the Tour

Taylor Phinney took to his first Tour de France like a duck to water. Meditation, Murakami (more on that later) and massage steered him through, along with an almost playful enjoyment – which almost led to a stage win in Liège – at being part of the world’s biggest race.

His Tour debut last year had been a long time coming. ‘Honestly, it felt like the most natural and most comfortable race of my career, like, finally I’d made it to this one race that I’d always wanted to do.

‘I love the Classics because physically I’m made for them, but I grew up watching

the Tour de France. You go to some races and you’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s nobody around, so you can start thinking, “What are we doing here?”

‘At the Tour you have none of those thoughts. Everything makes sense. This is the Tour de France, live on TV. Boom!’

There were, he admits, a couple of days when he was ‘pushing through some darkness’ just to hang on.

‘The Galibier stage was pretty bad, but then once you’d got over the Galibier you’d pretty much made it to Paris. The Galibier is a long climb and it was brutal just to make it up that thing, even in the gruppetto.

‘But I didn’t suffer in the way I suffered at the Giro. I was so alert, turned on and focussed during the Tour I read four books in three weeks.’

His author of choice was acclaimed Japanese writer Haruki Murakami.

‘It was race, massage, eat, Murakami,’ he recalls. ‘I read 1,500 pages of Murakami, meditated, did some diaries for NBC and raced the Tour de France. That was a productive July.

‘And I’ve found that since then, since that journey in July, my ability to focus for an entire day is at a higher level.

‘I meditate twice a day now and that feeds my creative desires pretty well.

‘It stabilises me, inspires me, reminds me to step back and to listen – and that maybe sometimes I don’t need to talk so much.

‘Since I started meditating, I find that with everything that I do, I’m there, doing it and that my head is not somewhere else.

‘That even applies to riding the bike. So often when you’re doing it, when you’re training hard and doing a lot of hours on the bike, most of that time your mind is somewhere else.

‘Meditating helps me with all that cliched shit you hear about, around “being in the moment” and “mindfulness”.

‘They’re hot words right now but they’re hot words for a reason. I find that through meditation you can tap into that.

‘These Grand Tours, they take you physically and mentally – and even emotionally – to a different level.

I noticed this winter when pain comes, I think, “Oh yeah, I’ve dealt with that.”’

All of which suggests that, allied to greater maturity and the right environment, Phinney’s best could yet be to come.

‘I think that’s why cyclists peak in their late twenties to early thirties and why when you’re racing against guys who’ve done 10, 20 Grand Tours their experience tells.’

Right, wrong and grey areas

There’s something else that separates Taylor Phinney from many of his peers: his willingness to talk about his own ethics and those of others.

He’s been vocal in the past on the infamous grey areas of what constitutes medical care and what crosses the line and becomes doping.

It’s natural to ask him about the ongoing furore surrounding Chris Froome, which, as the season rolls on, remains unresolved and divisive.

But the mere mention of the four-time Tour winner’s name induces a long pause as a palpable sense of weariness comes over him.

Eventually he responds. ‘I had this idea that I wanted to go out and film myself taking 32 puffs of salbutamol and see what happened,’ he says sardonically.

‘Like, “Let’s see what a double overdose of salbutamol would feel like!” but that’s not really my style.

‘Obviously everyone was disappointed,’ he adds, before mimicking the response of many sports fans. ‘Same old shit – that’s cycling right…?

‘I’ve known Chris for a long time. I don’t view him – and I’ve spoken to other riders about this – as somebody who is, quote-unquote, a “doper”.

‘I understand that there has been a lot of abuse of the grey area that exists within the rules that are laid down by WADA.

‘It’s not my place to make a big judgement on this person. What I will say is that it’s disappointing that it all remains so grey in general.’

It’s telling that Phinney’s reaction to the soap opera surrounding Froome is one more of boredom than outrage.

‘No one knows what to think and what kills the sport is the wondering and people being up in the air. It’s the same old shit. It doesn’t apply to me and it doesn’t apply to our team.

‘When I think about bikes, I think about getting excited about riding across Siberia with my friend Gus after the Tour de France,’ he adds.

‘When I think about how we resolve the bullshit in cycling, it’s about getting the best riders in the world out and connecting with people.

The problem with cycling is that it is such a small, tight bubble. Everybody is in their team bus, everything is blacked out, you don’t know what’s going on in there, so rumours start. 

‘The rumour mill runs the news in this sport.

‘I want to share my personal love for the bike, as opposed to being stuck in this endless cycle of “Tour de France rider tests positive”.

‘I just want to use what I have to race well in the races I want to race well in, but then to go and do something else.’

Phinney pauses for a moment. ‘I want to create content, to inspire people who have no idea who Chris Froome is, and to bring the bike more to the world.’

Phinney on...

...Lucas Euser: ‘We don’t hang out all the time, but we’re very much brothers. He was holding my hand when I was in the most pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. So we’re going to be connected for the rest of our lives.’

…Stress: ‘Stress is the biggest thing that kills my morale. I needed to chill out but it was very difficult for a long time. I used the Headspace app for a year, but then this last winter a meditation centre opened up two blocks from me.’

…Perspective: ‘The Tour is just a bike race – it’s just a bunch of guys who are too skinny racing through France. I’m far more concerned about whether the US is going to have a nuclear war with North Korea.’

 

Taylor Phinney timeline

1990: Born 27th June 

2008: Signs for the Trek-Livestrong team aged 18

2009: Wins the individual pursuit at the Track World Championships

2010: Claims victory at Paris-Roubaix Espoirs and the prologue of Tour de l’Avenir

2011: Signs for BMC Racing

2012: Wins the opening time-trial at the Giro d’Italia to go into the pink jersey

2014: Crashes badly at the US Nationals and requires major surgery on his leg

2015: Part of the winning US Team Time-Trial outfit at the UCI World Championships

2017: Signs for Cannondale-Drapac. Holds the King of the Mountains jersey after Stage 2 of Tour de France

2018: Finishes eighth at Paris-Roubaix

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