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Americans in Flanders: Phinney, Reijnen talk Belgian cobbles

Taylor Phinney and Kiel Reijnen discussed the unpredictable Belgian weather, recording DNFs, and more.

The stars and stripes have not yet shown up in the top 10 of any of this year’s big cobbled classics, but two riders have been flying the flag for the United States so far at this month’s stretch of Flemish WorldTour races.

Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo) and Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac) braved the low temperatures and high winds at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, and took the start line at a cold and rainy Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday. VeloNews caught up with both riders to get the American take on racing the cobblestones so far this spring.

Reijnen and Phinney were in agreement about the most pressing topic at the start of the day: the nasty weather.

“For sure I think we’ve had exceptional weather since Strade Bianche, Paris-Nice, Tirreno,” Reijnen said. Phinney pointed out that things were going to “suck, regardless” — but seconded the notion that the races have seen colder weather than normal even by classics standards.

The peloton made the Dwars start under spitting rain and temperatures in the low 40s. Intermittent gusts of wind pitched in to make things extra unpleasant.

Reijnen is in Belgium riding for John Degenkolb and Jasper Stuyven. Phinney has been playing his role supporting classics stalwart Sep Vanmarcke. The work both riders put in may not show up in the final results, but as Reijnen pointed out, that unheralded yeoman’s work is a critical part of a successful spring campaign.

Reijnen’s job at Dwars door Vlaanderen is to shepherd his team leaders through the initial stretches of the race, putting in as much energy as he can for as long as he can until the tank runs out. If that means registering a DNF on the day, so be it.

“I’m on the early work man!” he said. “Making sure the team saves all the energy they can in the early part of the race, getting bottles, dragging guys back into the peloton if they need to stop for something, and then positioning the team for some of the key spots that a lot of the time don’t get shown on TV.

“My job is to do that and then ride home. If I’m lucky, I get to finish. It’s demoralizing when you’ve just got a list of DNFs to your name, but that’s the job. When these guys have a good result, I get to count that as something I contributed to.”

Phinney is looking for more out of his own classics campaign than he’s gotten so far this year. He says that he’s been a bit unlucky here and a bit lacking in fitness there, but that he’s hopeful for Paris-Roubaix. He was a two-time winner at the under-23 edition of the race as an up-and-coming talent.

For now, Phinney is focusing on helping Vanmarcke, a constant contender on the Flemish cobbles who has never managed to turn opportunities into a WorldTour win. Nevertheless, he has looked strong so far this spring. Phinney was bullish about Vanmarcke’s chances in the events to come.

For his part, Reijnen was also optimistic about the Trek one-two punch of Degenkolb and Stuyven.

With no single rider dominating the first two cobbled WorldTour races this month, the classics have a decidedly more open feel this year. There are a number of familiar names in the favorites conversation, but none has emerged as the overwhelming top contender thus far. Nonetheless, Reijnen says that doesn’t make things any easier in the pack.

“It makes for more tense racing when you don’t have a real dominant rider for this period. It makes all the team a little more nervous. Everything has to go just right to win, so every little bit matters from the zero-kilometer mark,” Reijnen said.

Smaller team sizes only compound the challenges. Although the shrunken squads have not made an obvious impact on the racing yet this year, the roster reduction has not gone unnoticed for the guys taking pulls for their teammates.

“One less rider has been maybe not noticeable in terms of fireworks during the race to observers, the viewers, but for us we definitely feel it,” Reijnen said. “It’s more stressful. Selection is more stressful.”

Still, EF Education First and Trek both stand to benefit from a more chaotic race, where more riders can get into the mix to challenge the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and whatever rider Quick-Step Floors has decided to support on a given day.

Fans of interesting bike races benefit even more.

“There’s definitely 10 or 15 guys who are all right around the same spot,” Phinney said. “That’s good — that’s exciting.”