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U.S. Pro preview: Phinney returns

Two years after a crash at nationals nearly ended his career, Taylor Phinney will compete for the stars and stripes this weekend.

The stars and stripes of cycling’s U.S. national champions will be on the line this weekend as the domestic peloton descends on Winston-Salem, North Carolina for the 2016 Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships.

The event makes its return to the Carolinas following a three-year stint in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Defending road champions Megan Guarnier of Boels – Dolmans and Matthew Busche of United Healthcare will both be on hand to defend their titles, as will reigning women’s time trial champion Kristin Armstrong of Twenty16 – Ridebiker. Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky, winner of the 2015 men’s TT title, is not scheduled to participate.

Racing begins with Friday’s national time trial championships, when a pair of former winners — Armstrong and BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney — will enter the start house as odds-on favorites. For Phinney, a return to nationals holds special significance. The 25-year-old Boulder, Colorado native came to Chattanooga in 2014 so confident in his ability to win a second U.S. time trial title that his team had already designed and manufactured a patriotic skin suit for him to wear at the Critérium du Dauphiné the following month. While Phinney took the 2014 title handily, besting second-place finisher Tom Zirbel by nearly a minute over the 19.2-mile course, his star spangled skinsuit would never be worn in competition. Two days later during the road race, he crashed on the descent of Lookout Mountain and suffered a break to his left leg that nearly ended his career.

“It’s obviously present in my mind,” Phinney said of his return to the race that kept him off the bike for a year. “It’s a little weird, but truly, I think my whole outlook on that incident is much more positive than people would assume.”

Phinney describes his convalescence as an unexpected opportunity to grow as a person, rather than simply an athlete.

“It gave me the opportunity to step outside of not only the tiny bubble that is cycling, but also the slightly larger bubble of the sporting world itself,” he said. “I am forever grateful for the opportunity to go through that and come out with a completely different outlook on what I’m doing. It’s made me so much stronger mentally. I’ve been doing a lot of yoga and meditating. It’s opened up a whole new side of my psyche.”

This new — and more grounded — Phinney hasn’t given the first thought to the design of his next champion’s skinsuit, much less produced one in advance. Instead, he will approach Friday’s 29.8-mile (48km) time trial as a stepping stone to his season’s primary goal: landing a spot on Team USA for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. In this regard, he isn’t alone.

For Armstrong, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, Friday’s time trial could also be the decisive punch on her ticket to Rio. With three women’s slots scheduled for selection on June 24, the 42-year-old Boise, Idaho native hopes that a fifth national championship will seal her place on Team USA.

The 20.5-mile (33km) women’s TT course is one that should suit the defending champion well, with a series of sharp rollers that make the course profile look not unlike an EKG reading of one’s heartbeat.

“It’s a really great time trial course,” Armstrong said after a test ride on Wednesday. There are really no flat sections. It’s just roller after roller. And they’re sharp. Every one is 3-6 percent. It’s not an especially technical course. The roads are super smooth, so there isn’t really any fear of potholes or cracks, but the challenge will be those rollers. They call the time trial the race of truth, and I think they’ve really nailed it with this Winston-Salem course.”

One person not sweating whether she will be headed to Rio is reigning women’s road champion Megan Guarnier. With her third-place finish in the road race at the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond last October, Guarnier is the only American woman whose spot on Team USA is secure.

For Guarnier, who won her first national road title in 2012, the past few years have been a whirlwind of escalating success. After spending a year as the only American on the Rabo – Liv women’s team in 2013, where she rode in support of world champion Marianne Vos, the 31-year-old Glens Falls, New York native signed with the Dutch Boels squad in 2014. She has shared leadership duties on that squad with a who’s who of the biggest names in the women’s peloton, including current world champion Lizzie Armitstead, Chantal Black, and fellow American Evelyn Stevens (who will also compete on the roads of North Carolina this weekend).

Fresh off the biggest stage race win of her career at the Amgen Tour of California, Guarnier will arrive in Winston-Salem as both the defending national champion and the current leader of the UCI Women’s WorldTour. For Guarnier, the chance to fly the colors of her nation on the sport’s biggest stage is a dream come true — and it’s not one she’s eager to turn over.

“Yeah, I really, really want to win and defend this jersey,” Guarnier said of Saturday’s 87-mile (140km) women’s road race. “It’s always really nice to wear the stars and stripes over in Europe … and to be able to be on the podium in that jersey? I just feel like I’m representing the United States in a special way.”

Trek – Segafredo’s Kiel Reijnen has long had his heart set on representing his country in the same way. The 29-year-old Bainbridge Island, Washington native has placed third in the national road race on four prior occasions, including a near-miraculous comeback on the streets of downtown Chattanooga in 2015 after a mechanical on the final downtown circuit threatened to place him far out of contention. Despite a heroic effort that put him almost inexplicably on the podium in third place, the loss was crushing to the former UnitedHealthcare rider.

“That day it was really hard to swallow,” Reijnen recalled of the day. “I mean really, really hard to swallow. But a little later I was able to look back on it feeling really proud of what I did that day. It was definitely one of those in the moment kind of things where it didn’t really sink in until later how it had all gone down.”

Asked if this most recent close encounter with the stars and stripes left him determined to take them home on Saturday, Reijnen was unequivocal.

“Absolutely. I’ve been close so many times now, even on days where my legs didn’t feel that great,” he said. “There’s something about fighting it out for that jersey in front of a ‘hometown’ [American] crowd, that gives you a little something extra. To wear that jersey would be amazing.”

VeloNews’ Dan Wuori will be on location in Winston-Salem all weekend. For live updates from the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road and Time Trial National Championships, follow Dan on Twitter at @dwuori.