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On the road: a Q&A with Taylor Phinney

By Ian Dille

Taylor Phinney says his Olympic experience was just that — an experience.

Photo: Graham Watson (file)

The newly formed Trek-Livestrong under-23 team held a training camp this past weekend in Austin, Texas. Ian Dille sat down with Taylor Phinney, who at 18 is already one of the world’s best track cyclists and the team’s most recognizable name (other than its director, Axel Merckx). Below are Phinney’s musings on his plans for 2009, joining forces with Lance Armstrong and leaving the Garmin-Chipotle under-23 squad, and how riding the pursuit is akin to stabbing yourself in the legs. Check back in the next couple days for a full writeup on and photo gallery of the Trek-Livestrong team.

VeloNews: How’s the training going so far?

Taylor Phinney: It’s going well. This is the first year I’ve ever really focused on putting in a good base. A couple years ago I did cyclocross and then last year it was all about the track, so it’s been nice this winter to do some longer rides and get to spend time with friends. I tested a week or so ago and put out better numbers than I have any other winter.

VN: How did the Trek-Livestrong under-23 team come together?

TP: It was Lance’s idea — kind of his child, I guess you could say. But I don’t think we’re going to be seeing him at races. Obviously, he’s a busy dude. He put his name and resources behind it, and then other people took it from there. Bart Knaggs and Capital Sports & Entertainment are the people managing the team. They ran the Discovery team, and they basically told us we’re going to do the same thing for you guys. That’s really cool for me, and really cool for the other guys, because it’s a huge support structure. That’s not something I’m really used to, but I won’t go into that.

VN: Did you know Lance through your parents before this team got started?

TP: I’d met him a couple times, but we just recently became friends.

VN: Was there any fallout with Garmin?

TP: No, not really. We didn’t talk to Jonathan Vaughters. We talked to Doug Ellis, the team owner, and he was really supportive. He realized this was a career move for me, to be associated with Lance, with the comeback, and everything else. To be racing for Livestrong, that’s huge. So, I think when we talked to Doug, he really understood where I was coming from.

VN: What’s it like going from VMG-Felt (Garmin-Chipotle’s under-23 team), where you’re just a notch below a team full of superstars, to a team like this one?

TP: That’s what’s really important about this team. We’re our own team, it’s our own support structure. We don’t get hand-me-downs to race with. We get the prime stuff, you know what I’m saying? I like it a lot, because I don’t like being left out.

VN: Did you do many races with VMG-Felt last year?

TP: No, I was chasing the Olympic dream. I didn’t do really anything with them. In a way I wasn’t really racing with the under-23 team, I was just associated with their team. I thank JV a lot, for bringing me from a 15-year-old kid who’d never raced before to sort of what I am today. Part of that is my own doing, but he was there to push me along and give me the support. But, business is business. This was a better option so I took it. That’s what it comes down to.

VN: Did you feel any pressure being the “name” rider to build this team around?

TP: To start this up we had Lance’s name, and we had my name. My name is really thanks to my parents, as people know, and me a little bit just from what I did last year. I was fortunate enough to have this name and to have some sort of power that comes with the name. But this is definitely not my team. We’re not going to go to a race and I’m the number one guy no matter what. We’re going to go to races and if Ben King (who raced with Kelly Benefits in 2008) is the fastest guy we’re going to ride for him. We’ve got a really good group of guys and I think we’re all going to ride really well. The best guy at every race is going to be leading the team. It will be me at some races, but it won’t at others. We’re all just learning. Axel has a really good vision for what he wants to do with all of us, and we’re just going to let him guide us. That’s probably the best thing for cyclists our age. It’s a hard time for cyclists in the U.S. right now. We’re all really fortunate to have this guidance and funding.

VN: What’s the focus for yourself now that the Olympics are over?

TP: I’m doing a lot more road racing this year than I ever have. Track is awesome because it’s an Olympic sport and if you do pretty well you can develop a name for yourself, like I did. But that’s mostly in Olympic years and years leading up to the Olympics. Other than that, track dies down a little bit. With the lack of funding for USA Cycling, and now having the Brits come up and just destroy everybody, it’s hard to be really committed to track. Also, it’s hard to ride around in circles all day. I prefer the road, I prefer racing on the road, but I like that I have track as something I can touch upon during season. I’m going to go to the world championships hopefully in March. My biggest goal would be, between now and 2011, to win one World Championship. That would be awesome. Then, hopefully in 2012, win the Olympics.

VN: In hindsight, how do you feel about your Olympic experience?

TP: My Olympic experience was interesting. It was definitely an Olympic experience and not just an Olympic race. I went to the opening ceremonies. I stayed in the Olympic village. I went to the Olympic arcade and played video games until the late hours of the night. I wasn’t as focused as an Olympic athlete should be, but you know, I was only 18 at the time. I still am 18. It was sort of a hard lesson for me to learn because now I look back at the Olympics and I’m not very proud of how I did. That’s tough, but it’s sort of like a bad breakup, it just takes a while to lose its effect. I watched the opening ceremonies when they were rebroadcast recently and I was like, wow I was there — that’s pretty cool. In that sense I’m starting to get my head around it being a positive experience. For the past couple months it’s definitely been looked upon as not so great. But you know, it’s an experience and it’s got to be looked upon in the long run.

VN: How dramatically are the stakes raised from competing in a World Cup to racing in the Olympics? Is the level of competition that much stiffer?

TP: It’s not the level of competition; it’s just a huge stage. It’s like if you’re performing at your elementary school play and then you hit up Broadway the next week. For me that didn’t make that big of a difference. I wasn’t nervous. I just took the experience in too much. There was so much going on that I lost sight of what I was doing. I lost some focus.

VN: Do you think you’ll face a steeper learning curve toward having success on the road as opposed to racing on the track?

TP: Yeah, it was easy for me to just hop on the track and go fast — it’s just four and half minutes. But that’s what this next year is about, is seeing what I can do. I really don’t have an answer for you because I don’t know yet. It is a way bigger learning curve, but we’ll see if I can tackle it as fast as I did the track.

VN: What has your experience been road racing up to this point?

TP: Well, I won the junior world championships for the time trial a year and half ago, and right after that was my introduction to the track and the realization that, wow, you could go to the Olympics. So, after that, my road experience died down. I won a time trial stage of the Tour de Pays du Vaud, a junior stage race in Switzerland last year, and that was really with minimal training because I was training for the pursuit. I went over to Europe for two weeks and did two stage races and they kicked my butt, then I came home and did more training for the pursuit, then a couple months later went and did the junior world time trial in South Africa. I raced my heart out and got third. That was sort of disappointing, but when I look back on it, I did it with no base, and no real road miles at all, and I still managed to get third at the junior world time trial. I think now, with a good base and Axel telling me what to do, good things will come in 2009.

VN: Do you have some specific goals for this year?

TP: Yeah, the under-23 Paris-Roubaix is in June and the world championships are in September. Also, the track world championships in March. But in regards to the road, going over to Europe and doing races like the Tour of Flanders and the other under-23 classics races will be my main focus. I’m sort of built for those races. I’m sort of a big person.

VN: Do you have a specialty other than time trialing?

TP: I don’t really know. When it comes to steep hills I kind of have some trouble, but that’s also because last year I wasn’t really training a whole lot. I probably averaged eight- to 10-hour weeks the whole season. This year I’ve probably been averaging 15 to 20 hours, or about twice as much. I mean, when I first got into cycling I thought of myself as a climber, just because I thought it was cool, then I got bigger and I thought of myself as a sprinter, just because my dad was a sprinter. Then I became more of a time trialer and started to think of myself more as a classics rider because of the power. But you never really know. I’ll probably have a different answer for you next year.

VN: How influential have your parents been in helping you make decisions and plot your career?

TP: The best way that they’ve been influential is that they let me do my own thing. I played soccer until I was 15 and really had no pressure to race bikes, until I committed to it. Then, once I committed to it they were like, OK, you’ve got to do this because you’ve committed to it. But other than that, I really did my own thing. With the pursuit, a lot of people ask me what advice did your parents give you. That’s one of the hardest questions to answer. They didn’t sit me down and be like, OK, you’re going to do this. The pursuit is really something where you have to figure out yourself how you’re going to ride it. Everyone rides it differently because it sucks so much and it’s so hard. It’s sort of like stabbing yourself in the legs and you have to figure out what the best way to stab yourself is. People can’t tell you how to do that because it’s stabbing yourself and it sucks. You know, it’s painful — you’re stabbing yourself in the legs.

VN: Lance probably shared a lot of the same experiences you’re having. Does he relate to you in that way and offer you any advice?

TP: I consider him a close friend of mine. He’s a homie. I came down here a month or so ago with Ben King and we stayed in his guesthouse. We go on bike rides and pretty much talk about girls the whole time. I feel like he’s an older brother. He gives me a lot of grief. When we were staying with him, Ben and I burned some steaks on the grill. We left them on there at like 800 degrees and forgot about them. He gives me a hard time about that pretty often. But he’s there for me when I need him, and I guess I’m there for him too. I’m not sure what I’d do for him though. I guess I bring a younger vibe. He’s getting old, man. He hangs out with a lot of old people.