Don't miss a moment from Paris-Roubaix and Unbound Gravel, to the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta a España, and everything in between when you join Outside+.
By Neal Henderson
The past week has been quite a busy one. First, Taylor finished up with the UCI junior track world championships by racing in the points race last Monday. There were two qualifying heats in the afternoon that were used to field the final later on that evening. Taylor went extremely well in the qualifying heat and won a couple of the sprints and also took a lap on the field, winning convincingly. He felt good about the qualifying race and was excited about the final.
We were concerned about making sure that the race stayed safe, as a fall or accident at this point wouldn’t be good — with the Olympics just over a month away and his defense of the time trial coming just four days later on Friday. The positives of doing the points race were in gaining mass start racing experience, possibly having another top finish, and at least getting a solid 40K of race effort in (15K qualifying heat, and 25K final). The latter of the arguments was important as the weather on Monday had again turned ugly, and Tuesday was only going to get worse.
The final was a fast one, and while Taylor rode strong he didn’t have a finish. He did take some points in the sprints, but there were a couple of small groups that were successful in taking laps on the field. Taylor was also fairly heavily marked, as he is clearly stronger than anyone in a straight up constant effort like the pursuit … but the points race rewards a combination of fitness, finesse, and cunning. In the end, Taylor took solace in knowing that he learned something about effectively racing a points race, that he got in a couple of excellent efforts leading up to the TT and now only had to rest to be prepared for Friday, and that he can sprint well against other top junior track cyclists.
Tuesday was spent almost entirely indoors, as the weather was crappy and we were a little freaked out about the nearby crime that was committed late Monday night. I was up late on Monday after the races catching up on emails and other work sitting down in our hotel lobby. I finally went to bed around 3am. At 4am, I heard the screech of car tires and then the sharp sound of gunfire. Being fairly sleepy, I kind of thought that I was just dreaming and drifted back to sleep. In the morning, though, we found out that a 35-year old police officer (and father of three) had been shot and killed while chasing a robbery suspect.
The gloomy weather combined with the knowledge of the senseless violence occurring just a block away from our hotel gave us all pause to think about things other than cycling on Tuesday. To further keep our mood somber, Taylor and I watched the movie “Blood Diamond,” which had some scenes in it shot in Cape Town. Finally, Tuesday eventually came to an end and we got some good sleep that night.
On Wednesday, the good weather was back and we got out for a nice ride outside. Some of the other road team members from the US had arrived on Tuesday, and they joined Taylor and I for a ride in the afternoon. On one flat section Taylor did a short effort and I couldn’t even hold his wheel while I was going full gas. That told that Taylor was feeling good, and definitely ready to race.
The rest of Wednesday was pretty relaxed, and then Thursday was the one day to preview the time trial course. The setting for the time trial was visually spectacular, but was in a relatively remote area about an hour north of Cape Town. We rode 3 laps of the course while checking out the wind, road conditions, etc. Again, Taylor rode he me off his wheel several times … in one instance I hit a season-peak 2-minute power (discovered after the ride, while downloading my power file) while getting dropped on the race’s opening climb as Taylor did an opening effort on the second lap of the course preview. The course was challenging with plenty of wind, constant rolling hills, but only two places each lap for a short recovery during steep descents. Taylor left the race course on Thursday feeling good and excited for the race on Friday.
We got back to the hotel, ate dinner, and prepared all of the clothing, equipment, bottles, etc. necessary to keep Friday morning relatively stress free. The weather on Friday morning was great as it was warm (projected high of 70-75 degrees) with some light winds. I drove to the course earlier than Taylor with the other junior men racers who were also excited to show their stuff.
Everything during the warm-up went according to plan and Taylor was the final rider to start. The time gaps were 1-minute between each rider and there were four flights of 15 riders per flight with a few minutes separating each flight of rider. The other US riders were in the second and third flights so the USA Cycling junior team coach, Ben Sharp, was able to drive the follow car for each of them and get time splits at different places along the course. The first US racer unfortunately had a mechanical at the start (broken derailleur cable … can you imagine that?) but rode well after he got going, and Nate Brown who had a top-10 position at the finish as the last flight of riders began.
Michael Kwiatkowski of Poland was Taylor’s minute man, and was the likely favorite. He had won several junior nations’ cup events this year and was hungry and looked fit. We based Taylor’s split feedback based on Kwiakowski knowing that he would likely be the one to beat. In Taylor’s case, he was the defending world champion but with the focus on the track pursuit, some of his fitness wasn’t specifically developed toward the longer time trials.
Taylor is a competitor, though, and I knew that Taylor was still a legitimate medal contender and even possible winner if everything went well. After going through the requisite bike check process (gear roll-out, bike dimension check, etc.) Taylor looked composed and prepared to roll. About 3 minutes before he was to start, one of the UCI commissaire’s said that he needed to check Taylor’s bike. We said that he already had done it, but decided to just give him the bike again to let him get it over with. After a second check, all was fine. I left Taylor in the starting house while I jumped into the follow van driven by Ben Sharp.
In the van were Taylor’s father Davis Phinney, Ben, two USA Cycling staff and myself. The van took off behind Taylor and we watched the race unfold before our eyes. Taylor did a great job pushing through the early hills and staying aero the entire time. The initial time splits showed him to be even with the Polish rider, and ahead of Nate’s splits. At the end of the first lap, we thought that Taylor was about 5 seconds down on Kwiatkowski. Taylor continued his strong ride and kept the gap through most of the second lap. At about 3K to go, it appeared that the gap had gone out a little over 10 seconds, but we’re not sure as there was no good timing available … just visual references on course.
With 2K to go, Taylor passed his mother Connie who was on course giving encouragement. Taylor did seem to be going well as he entered the last kilometer. As Taylor approached the turn back to the finish it appeared from the van that Taylor wasn’t in the right place to make the turn. He did have a motorcycle near him which he said caused him to take a slightly unconventional approach, but from our vantage point in the follow car everyone got a little freaked out and shrieked before Taylor swung wide and took the turn at full speed. He pushed it hard through the finish and in the end was 7.9 seconds behind Kwiatkowski and just over 2 seconds behind a German rider who had gone in one of the earlier flights.
That was good enough for the bronze medal, just 0.4 percent out of first. At this level of competition, as in the Olympics, it is tiny margins that separate the victor from the rest. We were pleased with the podium finish, but I do know that Taylor is hungry for more. For now, it’s off to the track in Bordeaux, France, to find the fractions of fitness and performance that will determine Taylor’s Olympic fate.
Neal Henderson is the Sport Science Manager at Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. He is a USA Cycling certified coach and works with a diverse clientele at BCSM. He has been Taylor Phinney’s personal coach since 2006 and will is traveling with Phinney and his family in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.