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Taylor Phinney: I thought Badlands would destroy me but I feel rejuvenated

'I wanted to have the complete experience of sleeping under the stars. It was beautiful' American says after completing the 750km off-road challenge.

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With 750km of riding through Spanish forests, deserts, and epic coastlands, Badlands is one of the most brutal yet awe inspiring cycling events in Europe. Riders compete non-stop through rugged off-road terrain, sleeping wherever they can find shelter, before pressing on towards the finish. The best of the best complete the event in under 44 hours, while just getting to the finish is a major achievement in itself.

Nestled neatly in the results from this year’s race was a name recognizable to VeloNews readers: former road pro and Olympian Taylor Phinney completed the mammoth challenge in a time just beyond the 51-hour mark. Eighty-three hours if you include sleeping.

Also read: Bobby & Jens: Taylor Phinney opens up about art, ambition, and retirement

During the event the American took to Instagram stories, showcasing not just the incredible terrain as he made steady progress, but the pitch black dirt roads he would camp adjacent to, as well as the limited equipment that would accompany him on his custom steel Cinelli with its 66.6cm sloping top-tube.

With fatigue setting in from the second day onwards even Phinney couldn’t make sense of some of his own Instagram stories, eventually posting new updates with the caveat of an apology and a disclaimer that ‘none of that made sense’ but less than 24-hours after finishing, and during the long drive back to his home in Girona the 32-year-old reflected on what had been a hugely rewarding experience, and one unlike anything he had ever attempted in his life.

“I was aware of Badlands from when Lachlan Morton did it a few years ago. And then I’ve been speaking to Cinelli for the last year and a half about doing something together with them. They presented me with the idea of going to Badlands but my whole approach to the event, and I’m not calling it a race, was to essentially bikepack it by riding all day and then possibly into the night. I didn’t want to put stress on myself, so I just wanted to let the event unfold. I thought I was going to be destroyed but I feel rejuvenated,” he told VeloNews.

Phinney retired from pro-level WorldTour racing at the end of 2019. He enjoyed a highly respectable career that included three Olympic Games, a Giro d’Italia stage win, finishes in the Tour de France and countless other accolades. Since stepping away from pro racing he has remained in Girona, Spain, where he works as an artist, rides his bike, and lives life at a gentler pace.

Badlands was a chance for him to dip his toes into the well of competitive cycling without pinning on a number and getting too carried away. The distance, coupled with the terrain and obvious sleep deprivation were a test in themselves but this wasn’t about a finishing time for the American. This was about fulfillment, fun and freedom.

“I don’t feel the need to be competitive or win but this multi-day event with 15,000m of climbing was interesting to me because it required a different mindset when it came to strategy, sleep, nutrition, equipment and so on,” Phinney said.

“It was important to me to preserve the ‘spirit of bikepacking.’ A lot of people will go and stay in hotels, and that’s totally fine, but I love that there’s different approaches and I wanted to have the complete experience of sleeping under the stars. It was beautiful. I met a lot of interesting people along the way and it was just a great feeling to meet people and not feel like you were trying to smash it in order to get to the finish before them.”

Taylor Phinney riding Badlands 2022
Taylor Phinney riding Badlands 2022 (Photo: Cinelli / Patrick Delorenzi)

At one point during the ride Phinney posted a video of his bed for the night. It was a sleeping bag lying in the dirt next to what could have been a bush, a tree, or perhaps something more threatening. The scene was pitch black, with no signs of life, civilization or indeed safety in any direction. Phinney was asked if he was scared of the dark because the interviewer might have friends who are but he himself [ed. the interviewer] definitely isn’t.

“No,” Phinney said after a long pause.

“I actually found that I enjoyed riding at night. It still gets quite hot here during the day,” he said, changing the subject.

“The sun is intense and it cooks the shit out of you. Once it went down it really appreciated the cooler air. On the second night I felt good, and couldn’t find a great place to sleep. There are some abandoned houses built into the hillside but they are more like caves and that can be quite creepy so I just kept riding until 6:30am. That gets a bit trippy and spiritual at that point. The experience really cracks you wide open and it challenges your perceptions when it comes to thinking about what you really need. Coming from the pro environment you think about needing ‘x’ number of hours of sleep but then you get to events like Badlands and you’re riding your bike for longer than you ever have before, and with even less sleep than normal. There was a real value to the experience, and I learned a lot about how much I’m capable of.”

With Badlands in the rearview mirror the obvious question facing Phinney is what’s next. This is not the prequel to a gravel or competitive comeback of any structured nature but the former Giro maglia rosa can see himself taking on similar challenges to Badlands if the right project or idea comes his way.

“I like the fact that you can explore different places of the world on your bicycle with hundreds of other people,” he says.

“It’s a shared experience, and that brings a lot more out of you. I like the sustainability aspect from a mental point of view too. By that I mean, when I’m able to push myself but never into a negative frame of mind. I want to sleep, explore and work with brands that want to support that. It’s not about pushing myself to crazy limits.”

And finally, does he miss the WorldTour, an environment he left at a relatively young age, and one he could have conceivably remained competitive in for another five years?

“It’s totally different but I do feel grateful to have a few grand tours in the legs and in the head. Spending so much time in the grupetto, chasing and trying to make the time limit over the Stelvio… having done and then gone to something like Badlands where I can ride and rest when I want was totally freeing,” he said.

“But do I miss the WorldTour? No, not at all. This event reminded me of what I don’t miss about the WorldTour, the constant competition, the constant judgment, and the constant toxic air that’s in the environment most of the time. I was just chasing. I was just chasing trying to survive and that’s no way to live. It’s much nicer to go at your own speed and explore. That’s what I’m doing right now.”

Long may that continue.