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Taylor Phinney’s career of KoMs, cobbles, and rainbow jerseys

Phinney's talents on the bike were matched by his ability to express himself off it. We trace the key threads that ran through his career, as he told them to us.

Cycling loses more than a star with Taylor Phinney’s retirement — the sport loses his voice.

Several threads ran through Phinney’s eight-year career. The Coloradan’s relationship with Paris-Roubaix, the grand tours, and the world championships neatly symbolize his path from rising phenomenon to a star robbed of his full potential by injury.

And perhaps no one told the story better than himself. Phinney was a rare star who had the innate ability to articulate the high’s and low’s of being in the middle of the rolling circus called professional cycling.

Phinney’s career was rich and has been well-told, and contains many ups, downs, and wrinkles. However, the overall trajectory of almost constant upward progress, a 14-month period of rehab and inner-exploration following a career-threatening crash, and the final years of striving to rediscover past progression is clear.

Phinney always had a way with words and strong understanding of himself. We picked through the VeloNews vaults and learned that no matter how many people write Phinney’s story, there was a sense that he was telling us that story right before our eyes.

An uncharacteristic king of the mountains jersey

Phinney would never have predicted finding himself in a polka dot jersey. Photo: KT/Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

As a junior, Phinney had won two U23 Paris Roubaix and a junior worlds time trial. As a heavy-set former track rider, these were the types of racing that naturally suited his physique. However, after such a prodigious junior career, the public thought anything was possible.

“There are people when they mention me they also mention me winning the Tour de France. Right now, I don’t have the climbing ability to really back any of those claims,” he said in 2011. “I am never one to say no to anything. I could be up there in some of the stages, sprints, time trials, that’s if I do the Tour in the next couple of years.”

He was right in thinking he wouldn’t debut at the Tour for a while yet – he didn’t appear on the start sheet until 2017.

However, he did race the Vuelta a España in 2011, and lined up at the Giro d’Italia’s opening prologue in 2012. His prediction of targeting time trials at grand tours proved prescient. He won the Giro’s 8.7km opening prologue in 2012, and with it took the overall race lead– only the third American to wear a pink jersey, which he held for three stages.

“It’s an honor to wear this jersey,” Phinney said. “I’ve been thinking about this jersey the past few months. We planned everything to come here in top form. For me, it’s a dream come true.”

Phinney didn’t make it to the Tour until 2017, in part a product of the 14 months he was forced to take away from racing after a crash while avoiding a race moto at the national road championships in 2014.  The resulting snapped leg left him with over a year of rehab and recovery and deep scarring.

Having scored a respectable 12th place in the opening time trial that year, Phinney spent all of stage 2 in the breakaway and found himself wearing the king of the mountains jersey- ironic given his build and earlier forecast he was no climber. Talking to VeloNews after the stage, Phinney put his own shine on the most unlikely of rewards for an 80kg rouleur.

“I’ve never had chicken pox,” he said, touching the red dots on his jersey. “That’s a lie, I’ve definitely had the chicken pox…. But I thought while I was riding that I should definitely say that at some point today.”

The rocky road to eighth in Roubaix

Phinney’s final run at Roubaix turned out to be his most successful, landing him a top-10. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Although Phinney would never have forecasted a climbers’ jersey to form a part of his career, having won the U23 Paris-Roubaix twice, there was a sense of inevitability that pavé would play a part throughout his senior career.

“There’s no hills and I love riding over cobblestones. So, it’s sort of tailor-made for me,” he said in 2012 after he ripped to 15th place in his first senior Paris Roubaix. “Every time I would get on the cobbles I just felt at home in a kind of weird, sick and twisted way. I love this race. Everything about it. Finishing in the velodrome, the cobblestones…it’s the best.”

Nothing dampened that love through his career, and he came closer to mastering the race with every appearance. He placed in the top-30 in the next two editions, each time learning the nuances and skills required to master such a hard event. “That’s the first time I’ve ever made it to the Carrefour de l’Arbre with the front group,” he said after his 2014 ride, where he was in the lead group before being derailed by a late puncture.  “I felt like I was a lot smarter, and played my cards better, and really just was able to do the best with my situation…. Personally I couldn’t have asked for any more.”

All the upward progress he was making was, of course, halted drastically a month later at the road nationals in Chattanooga. He made his comeback to the cobbles in 2016. He finished in 49th – a result that would make some rider’s years – but after a 15th place four years prior, it didn’t cut it.

“I don’t know if I was more naïve or something when I was younger, before the crash, but it definitely felt like it was a lot heavier of an effort this year than in years prior,” he said after a result that left him disappointed. “I still got some work to do, I guess I can be … I’m happy that I was able to make it here.”

A non-start in 2017 meant anticipation was high for his cobble comeback in 2018. He struggled through Gent Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders that year, but the magic he felt on the cobbles earlier in his career came back. “It’s nice to finish off this little block with like, ‘Yeah, I am a good bike racer. Sweet,’” he said after the race.

There was a sense Taylor may “be back.” However, from there on, his career dwindled. A sixth place at the 2018 Tour de France TT was a final flicker as the light started to go out.

Time trial trials and tribulations

Phinney was never able to better his second-place in the 2012 worlds. Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Phinney’s prowess on the pavé was matched by his ability against the clock, a talent that drove his quest for world titles. However, like the ambition to win in Roubaix’s velodrome, Phinney was never able to pick up that elusive rainbow jersey for the individual time trial.

The momentum of a 15th place in Roubaix and Giro d’Italia leader’s jersey early in 2012 rolled forward to TT success in the back half of the season. First there was a fourth place in the Olympic race in August, and the following month, a second at the worlds, just six seconds back from German ace Tony Martin.

“It’s been a season with a lot of near misses, so after the Olympics to come here to get second, I am very excited, even though I probably looked pissed on the podium,” he reflected afterward.

After a fifth place in the 2013 worlds TT, it wasn’t until Phinney was recovered from his broken leg in 2015 that he had another shot at the rainbow stripes. Just months after he starting racing again, he placed 12th.

When he spoke with VeloNews afterward he explained he couldn’t quite force the pain as much as required for success against the clock. Like his statement that post-crash cobbles were that bit harder than those he raced on before 2014, Phinney explained something wasn’t quite there in his performance.

“Sometimes you have a TT where you can really go deep, and sometimes you have a time trial where you can just scratch the surface. Today was a bit of a scratching the surface, like right on the limit, but I felt like I couldn’t really dig into myself.”

It turned out Phinney only had one more opportunity to go as deep necessary on the worlds stage, when he placed 15th in Doha 2016.  Like elsewhere in his career, the momentum of pre-crash Taylor seemed to have been lost and there was a sense of an opportunity lost.

There was always more to Phinney than just racing bikes. Photo: Ben Delaney / VeloNews

The terrible injury that halted Phinney’s exponentially upward curve impacted him far greater than just physically, and there’s a sense that the mental side was as career-changing as the fractures sustained to his lower leg and knee.

Phinney had always had a string to his bow beyond racing – an artistic temperament he made no bones about nurturing. Even before his career-shifting crash, he was active in his pursuit of the arts – in 2013 he partnered with Dolce & Gabbana in a clothing line. “I am not defined by the bike, and I think it’s important to express one’s self both on and off it,” he explained at the time.

When away from racing during his post-crash rehab, he pursued his interest of art and painting, bolstering his love of self-expression and exploration.

As he failed to rediscover a path on the career bell curve that he’d been following before his crash, art began to hold more of a grip on his heart. And that’s where his future path will guide him.

“I’m stepping away so that I can be more true to myself, which means to make art, to make music, to create and cultivate,” he said in the press release confirming his retirement. “I’ve kind of had one foot in the sports pool and then one foot in the art pool, and art just won at some point.

“This decision has been something that I’ve been back and forth struggling with for a long time, and by a long time I mean a couple of years, and ultimately, I feel like my body sort of made this choice for me.”

As he had done throughout his career, Phinney signed off by explaining things better than anyone in the press could ever hope to.