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DUSSELDORF, Germany (VN) — Taylor Phinney completed the circle Saturday with his long awaited and over-due Tour de France debut.
As a wide-eyed teenager, Phinney visited the Tour nearly a decade ago, and it seemed if it was fated one day he would race in cycling’s biggest event. Fortune would have something else in mind. A horrendous, high-speed crash during the 2014 U.S. national road championships left him with broken bones, and shattered dreams. Phinney’s long road to the Tour would take some unexpected detours, but it finally led home Saturday.
“When I was a kid, I came [to the Tour] with my dad, with a press pass, and we followed the Tour for a whole month,” Phinney said. “I just fell in love with the race.”
On Saturday, under the rainy conditions that he was jokingly hoping for — “If it’s raining, that’s good. It freaks people out, and I am freaked out anyway. It brings everyone to my level” — Phinney completed the circle. At 27, a lot wiser and no longer cycling’s wunderkind, Phinney spun down the start ramp in Düsseldorf. The Tour debut was no longer a dream. He led Cannondale-Drapac home as its top finisher, 12th at 17 seconds slower than stage-winner Geraint Thomas.
“I haven’t done a grand tour since I broke my leg,” he said. “I haven’t felt like I had the physical capacity to finish a grand tour until right now. I am ready to experience this thing for what it is, because I’ve only seen it on TV.”
As good as it felt Saturday, it was a long time coming. Five years ago, Phinney was poised to emerge as cycling’s next big star. He had everything going for him; superb genetics, a natural flare for the cameras, and innate talent that hinted of greatness.
The 6-foot-4 Phinney was born from cycling royalty — his father, Davis, a Tour de France stage-winner and his mother, Connie, an Olympic gold medalist — and Tour success seemed all but inevitable. Promising junior results were quickly confirmed at the professional level. In 2012, Phinney won the opening prologue at the Giro d’Italia to don the pink jersey, and in 2014, he claimed his first stage race title at the Tour of Dubai and won his second national time trial title. The future was an open road.
A start in the 2014 Tour a few months later seemed assured, but just days after the TT, everything changed in a wrenching instant. Phinney slammed into a guardrail, leaving his left leg broken into bits. The injuries were so severe that the conversation quickly evolved not from how soon he might be able to return, but rather whether or not he would ever race again.
“I had a lot of goals of within cycling that I wanted to achieve. Then I broke my leg, and everything got thrown out, and mixed around,” Phinney said. “My perception of this sport and life has completely changed.”
[pullquote align=“left” attrib=”Taylor Phinney”]”I had a lot of goals of within cycling that I wanted to achieve. Then I broke my leg, and everything got thrown out, and mixed around …”[/pullquote]
In that painful instant, Phinney went from being a young athlete, whose future simultaneously was scripted and full of promise, to a young man facing uncertainty perhaps for the first time of his life.
The severity of his injuries meant his life could be very different than the one he had been born into. Cycling’s crown prince was suddenly left adrift without a kingdom. Phinney turned inward, plumbing his innermost emotions, fears, and expectations of what life might be like without being a professional cyclist. Part of that journey was documented in the film, “Thereabouts 2,” and he came out on the other side still committed to pursuing cycling.
“I think people forget how devastating that injury was, and how far he’s come,” said his mother, Connie. “Let’s not expect too much out of him. Let’s just let him try to ride the race and represent Cannondale well and represent himself well.”
This year, after a switch to Cannondale-Drapac, the Tour de France was back on the radar. There was another obstacle with heavy crash during the Tour of Flanders, but Phinney made it Düsseldorf.
“Just being here, being at the Tour. I am stoked and I feel a genuine sense of excitement,” Phinney said. “This whole season has been full of different comeback experiences. This is an unknown. This is something I’ve never experienced before. I love that, I love an unknown. I am here, I am focused, and I am ready.”
Racing on Saturday was the first victory. The goal now is to finish his grande boucle, France’s big loop, and make it to Paris. A city, curiously enough, that the world-traveling Phinney has never visited.
“I’m thinking about the Champs-Élysées, Paris, making it there,” Phinney said. “I always had this weird thing that the first time I go to Paris I want it to be in the Tour de France. I never thought that would actually happen, and I thought I would go to Paris at some point, but now there is a chance of a tangible dream coming true.”