American Taylor Phinney continues comeback with breakaway performance to claim Tour de France polka dot jersey.

LIÈGE, Belgium (VN) — Taylor Phinney was “completely naked,” he specified, when Charly Wegelius walked into his Düsseldorf hotel room with a plan. “He started talking to me about what he wants to do on this stage today,” Phinney said, 24 hours later, standing with a newly-earned polka dot jersey on his shoulders. “I was sort of half like, ‘Yo, bro, I’m naked. But also, I’m listening.’”

Wegelius, Cannondale-Drapac’s director, had an idea. Phinney’s time trial had been good, but not great. He was clearly in good form, and sat in 12th. Sunday’s stage from Düsseldorf to Liège featured two small climbs, both category 4s with a single KOM point available, the first of this Tour de France. Snag just one of them and Phinney was all but assured a trip to the podium and a polka dot jersey to put on for Monday. Step on a Tour de France podium 38 months after the crash that nearly ended his career — that was the goal.

“[Wegelius] wanted to go for this jersey. I had thought about it a little bit, but I hadn’t put on any clothes yet, I was trying to figure out which boxers I was going to wear first,” Phinney said. “Then we had the team meeting this morning and that was the plan. I got a little bit distracted by the music at the second stop, when we were doing the neutral, there was one violin player who was, like, killing it. But once the race started I was like, ‘okay, let’s do this.’”

You probably know the rest. Phinney jumped into the first break of the 2017 Tour de France, just a half kilometer past the neutral rollout and its star violinist, and stuck it almost to the finish line. He and Yoann Offredo were swept up with just 1.2km remaining, but Phinney already had what he’d set out to get.

“It felt like a dream,” Phinney said, and described the dream thusly:

“You’re in a bike race,” he said. “But at the same time, we were passing in the middle of a million people today. With the rain, you think you’re rolling around alone, but you wonder what are all these people doing on the side of the road. It’s the Tour de France! I got the first climb and I started to envision myself maybe going onto the podium, maybe like wearing some polka dot shorts tomorrow. I don’t know if we have this. It just kept going more and more wild. I thought we were going to be caught before the last KOM but they had a big crash behind so we made it to the climb.”

They made it past the climb, actually. The initial breakaway group of four dropped down to two, just Phinney and Offredo. “He was a machine,” Offredo said, and Phinney returned the complement. “He was definitely the strongest dude in the break,” Phinney said. “So when we found ourselves together I just turned to him like, ‘finalement, let’s do this,’ and I think five kilometers to go we really started to believe, we were just going like … but it hurt, a lot. And then we got passed. But. When we crossed the finish line I kind of put my arm around him and was like, ‘We’re friends for life, bro. You got me for life.’”

More than an hour later, with his media obligations behind him, Phinney rode slowly back to a waiting team car, still responding to every shout of his name and request for a selfie. In a brief lull between groups of fans, with only a soigneur and press officer at his side, he reached down and touched his toes, letting out a little groan. “I think I f-cked myself,” he said. “Tomorrow…”

He let out another groan.

Then he stood up. Squared his shoulders. Turned to his soigneur and grinned. “I’ve never had chicken pox,” he said, touching the red dots on his jersey. He let the joke settle in. Another grin. “That’s a lie, I’ve definitely had the chicken pox,” he said. “But I thought while I was riding that I should definitely say that at some point today.”