SANTA BARBARA, California (VN) — Taylor Phinney’s talent has long been evident. He won a junior world time trial title at age 17, and he is the son of not one, but two, former professional cyclists — Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter. All the same, Thursday’s victory into Santa Barbara at the Amgen Tour of California was only the second time Phinney has won a road stage in the pro ranks.
More typically, Phinney’s best results have come in the time trials. His career highlights include winning the prologue and wearing the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia, a silver medal in the world time trial championship, and two elite world titles on the track in the individual pursuit.
Though he twice won the U23 Paris-Roubaix, victory in the elite ranks has come more slowly. In part, this reflects the difficulty of the races that suit Phinney’s talents. The monuments such as Paris-Roubaix or the Ronde van Vlaanderen tend to reward weathered experience over youthful exuberance.
Phinney’s highest finish so far at Paris-Roubaix is fifteenth in 2012, which was his début appearance. Though he has yet to better that result, Phinney’s performances at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem this season suggest that he’s steadily growing into his talent in the classics. Phinney’s trajectory is not unusual, either. Fabian Cancellara won the Tour de France prologue at age 23 before eventually developing into one of the best one-day riders of his generation.
And it looks as though Phinney has added a new weapon in his arsenal. The late, solo attack is the classic tactic of the time trial specialists, whose best chance to win races is a long, hard, lonely effort. Phinney won his first road stage last year at the Tour of Poland in just this way. It’s not an easy move to pull off; impeccable timing, the right terrain, and stellar legs are essential. When it works, it’s certainly memorable.
“Winning time trials is nice, but you don’t get the same feeling as when you win a road stage,” he said. “You don’t have that moment where you put your hands up with a couple hundred meters to go and soak in the energy from the crowd and you get goosebumps and you just have this electric shock that goes through you. You don’t get that magic when you win a time trial.”
Phinney started Thursday’s stage with hopes of a high finish, and he had solid support throughout the day from his BMC Racing teammates. “I said I wanted to do well today, and they really helped me — Larry Warbasse, Greg Van Avermaet, and Thor Hushovd, especially.” Though he worried about the climb and the effects of the heat, which hit close to 105 degrees, Phinney drew confidence from his team’s support.
“You believe in yourself more with a team that believes in you,” he said. “I’m sure when I attacked at the top of the climb, they were like, ‘oh what is this idiot doing, he’s ruining all this work that we did for him all day.’ But it worked out.”
Phinney had circled Thursday’s stage as a target, but he had never really intended to shoot for the stars. In fact, he had planned to wait until around four or five kilometers to go before making his move. But on the stage’s final climb, Phinney saw that sprinters Mark Cavendish and John Degenkolb had been dropped. Their absence meant two fewer teams to contribute to the chase, which improved his chances.
“I saw the way that Cannondale was kind of isolated,” he said. “The guys that Cannondale had, they just didn’t seem that fresh and powerful. If there is a chance to thwart the sprinters, it’s a race like this, especially a stage like today with the heat and the climb.”
Phinney also knew the long descent into Santa Barbara suited him, because he frequently trains in the area. The descent down San Marcos Pass is smooth, wide, and high-speed. There are no tricky corners —the road was built to replace a far steeper road that follows an old stagecoach route down the coastal mountains above the city. Get aero and stay off the brakes is the name of the game.
“I knew the descent, I just knew it was full-speed, and you didn’t need to brake, ever,” he said. “There’s only one time in cycling I have an advantage, and it’s when we’re riding downhill. I weigh a lot more than everyone else and I was able just to pull away, just tuck and pull away.”
Even as the gap stretched out on the descent, to about 30 seconds, Phinney didn’t think he would make it to the finish. “I wasn’t convinced it was a very smart move,” he said. But once committed, he never looked back, not until he was inside the final kilometer.
Now he’s hoping it’s the second in a long series of victories to come, perhaps eventually, in some of the sport’s biggest races. But Phinney isn’t in a hurry. He’s willing to savor each magic moment that comes his way.
“To do what I did, it’s kind of one of those things where you get to the finish and you think, ‘how did I do that? And why did I do that?’” he said. “But sometimes it works, [and] when it does, it’s really, really special. To be able to put your hands up so far before the line and really soak everything in, that’s what we all live for. That’s what I live for.”