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Relief may be the most apt descriptor following Taylor Phinney’s successful return to Paris-Roubaix. Relief that the leg held up; relief that he still has the fight in him; relief that yet another hurdle, perhaps the biggest yet, has been cleared on his path back to the top. But for a rider once touted as a future Roubaix champion, the most important question remains unanswered.
Can he win the Hell of the North?
“I don’t know,” he told reporters from inside the Roubaix velodrome, his face still crusted in sweat and dust. “I hope so. I think so. But it’s going to take a little longer.”
Phinney finished the day in 49th, 14 minutes and 23 seconds behind a victorious Matthew Hayman and just behind Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. It was a far cry from the 15th-place finish in 2012, at the ripe old age of 21, that had pundits declaring him a future Roubaix winner. But Phinney never expected to jump back into the fray so easily.
“I don’t know if I was more naïve or something when I was younger, before the crash, but it definitely felt like it was a lot heavier of an effort this year than in years prior,” he said. “I still got some work to do, I guess I can be … I’m happy that I was able to make it here.”
With his start slot confirmed just prior to the weekend, fans and Phinney himself wondered how his left leg, and the scars it will always bear, would hold up. The answer is largely positive, he says. Though the limitations he’s fought against since his crash have not disappeared.
“I was feeling pretty good, going into the sectors in the right place, until after Arenberg, and then it felt like the lights went out a little bit,” he said. “Maybe I wasn’t able to eat as much as I wanted to in the beginning. But I definitely felt the left side kind of start to shut down. And it took awhile for that to come back, but by then I was already off the back, and I was just in the groups behind, just trying to make it to the finish.”
Beyond the physical demands, Roubaix requires much of its competitors’ minds. Phinney felt confident, he said, better able to handle the elbows-out battle for positioning than he was in his last Roubaix.
He was able to fight, to take risks. “That’s something I wasn’t sure I would be able to do or not, if I’d be scared or skittish,” he said. “It feels like a positive building day, as I go forward, but yeah these races are pretty wild. All the classics were really really hard this year from the start.”
With team leader Greg Van Avermaet out with a broken collarbone sustained at the Tour of Flanders, Phinney and his BMC teammates were given a long leash. Marcus Burghardt and Stefan Kung made their way into the front group, but Phinney was caught behind the same early crash that derailed Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara’s chances. Once shoved onto the back foot at Roubaix, there’s little chance of jumping forward again.
“I was right behind Fabian there, he went over the front and I just kinda slipped around him, put my foot down,” Phinney said. “I was just right there, but when they’re going that fast in the front and you have to put a foot down its definitely no bueno.”
Imperfect luck and a moment of physical limitation were enough to send Phinney back into a large chase group, where he stayed until the velodrome; 49th — it’s a result many riders can only hope to attain. Simply finishing the most heinous race of the year is encouraging, but the day left the most pressing question unanswered, even for Phinney himself.
Andrew Hood contributed to this report.