Taylor Phinney is holding out hope to race in next year’s Olympics, and skipped surgery late this summer to have a shot at the Rio Games.
The hilly route featured in the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games is drawing cycling’s biggest names, including the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Chris Froome (Sky), and Phinney wants to represent the U.S. national team, if he can. And to give himself the best shot, he decided against one doctor’s recommendation for additional surgery to his injured left knee, which keeps his Olympic door open.
“The Olympics next year would have been out the window,” Phinney said. “Even just a few days before [the Tour of] Utah, I met with a surgeon, who wanted me to do more operations, and I didn’t even think it would be possible to race at all this year.”
Phinney’s Olympic aspirations, and those of his entire racing career, nearly came to a screeching halt in the 2014 U.S. national road cycling championships in Tennessee, when he crashed heavily, breaking his tibia and severing his patella tendon.
After more than a year of rehabilitation following surgery in the wake of the crash, Phinney made an impressive return to competition this summer. Surpassing expectations, he rode to third in the opening stage at the Tour of Utah in early August — his first race since his crash — and then won the opening stage, and was second in the closing stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado.
It was his decision to forego more surgery and opt for physical therapy that allowed him to return to racing, providing the possibility of racing a full 2016 calendar that he hopes will include a return trip to the Olympics.
“We decided to do a lot of physical therapy instead,” he said. “It was a lot less intrusive, and it meant I could race.”
After Utah and Colorado, Phinney raced in Europe for the first time since 2014, riding the Tour of Britain in September before helping BMC Racing defend its world team time trial title in Richmond, Virginia. After posting a respectable 12th in the time trial, he rode into a late breakaway to finish 85th in the road race.
Going the full, 261km distance in the elite men’s road race was an important milestone. It was the longest distance he completed since the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, and it will be a similar distance to what he will need to do to try to be competitive in Rio.
“I am working to get my leg back in balance, so I can do races with this distance, like the classics,” Phinney said. “I am thinking about the next months, and getting back into a rehab grind, and plan out next season as best I can.”
Phinney and his BMC Racing teammates will gather in Spain early next month for the first round of team meetings ahead of the 2016 racing season. Phinney is hopeful another off-season of rehab, physio work, and training will put him back on solid footing to ride a complete 2016 season. He will sit down with team staffers to lay out the roadmap for what lies ahead.
“The biggest thing I am looking forward to is the Olympics next year. It’s a unique course, and we can adapt,” he said. “It would have been a huge game-changer if I had undergone that surgery.”
The 25-year-old has a soft spot with the Olympics, and wants to return for a third time to the pinnacle of international competition. At 17, he made his Olympic debut on the track in Beijing in 2008, riding to seventh in the individual pursuit, and nearly scored a medal in 2012 London, riding to fourth in both the individual time trial and the road race.
Things are already looking up for Rio, and Phinney held up his end of the bargain. When Tejay van Garderen was sidelined with injury, Phinney rode the elite men’s individual time trial, even though he knew he wasn’t in top condition. With a 12th-place finish, he assured USA Cycling of a start spot for the Olympic individual time trial. Under UCI rules, a top-10 would have secured a TT spot for Rio, but because two nations (Italy and Poland) each had two riders in the top 10, the rules meant those slots were allocated to other nations, giving the U.S. the green light for Rio.