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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colorado (VN) — One need not look closely to see the scar on Taylor Phinney’s left leg. It runs from the top of his kneecap down to the middle of his shin, deep and wide, with visible suture marks on both sides. It’s the scar of a leg that was broken into pieces and put back together.
The same could be said of Phinney’s pro cycling career, which was temporarily shattered, in tandem with his left leg, on the descent of Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga on Memorial Day 2014. The compound fracture to his tibia turned out to be the least of his worries; the severed patella tendon was much more serious, causing atrophy and weakness that he still hasn’t overcome.
That all seemed light years away, however, at the finish line of the opening stage of the USA Pro Challenge Monday in Steamboat Springs, where Phinney flew across the finish line, arms stretched aloft, several bike lengths ahead of his friend and training partner Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare). Phinney’s teammate Brent Bookwalter finished third after perfectly setting up Phinney for the win by easing off in the final 200 meters with Reijnen on his wheel.
It wasn’t Phinney’s first stage win at the Pro Challenge; that came in 2012, at a final-stage time trial in Denver. It wasn’t Phinney’s first result since he returned to racing earlier this month; that came at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, where Phinney finished third on the opening stage behind Reijnen and Alex Howes (Cannondale-Garmin). What it was, however, was Phinney’s first win since the U.S. national time trial championship in May 2014. And it was, without question, Phinney’s most emotional victory.
At a pre-race press conference on Sunday, Phinney spoke about the long-term effects of his injury.
“I still have a significant strength difference between my right side and left side,” he said. “I was testing that at Utah, and the left side is not as strong. There are times when my right leg can compensate, and by doing that, it can bring my power output to where I can contend for a stage win.”
On Monday, Phinney did more than contend for a stage win — he took a demonstrative victory from a reduced bunch after a hard 96-mile circuit race.
His win was also a storybook opening for the USA Pro Challenge, which has been criticized for a lackluster field this year, one that includes no riders from last year’s podium, no grand tour winners, and no former champions. Instead, the race opened with a sensational comeback victory from a Colorado native that marked the return of an American cycling hopeful.
“I was pretty much blown away crossing the finish line,” Phinney said. “I can tell you the feeling crossing the line and the roar of the crowd — it was special, and emotional. It’s that electric moment we all live for. I was happy to pay back the guys for working so hard today.”
For a moment, it looked as though Phinney’s teammate Rohan Dennis might steal the stage win. Dennis went on the offensive late in the race, after the daylong breakaway had been caught, pushing forward with Guillaume Boivin (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies). With Dennis doing the majority of the pace making, the pair wasn’t brought back by UnitedHealthcare’s chase until the final kilometer.
“Things went a little haywire on the climbs. I got dropped, but I made it back. I like to call it a little ‘Davis Phinney special,’” Phinney said. “There’s a little dip in the road at 400 [meters] to go. I knew I didn’t have the pop, but figured I’d diesel it through. I had a slight moment of panic that I was going to lose it, but I put my head down and pushed it through. I’ve had 15 months, thinking about what it’d be like to put my hands up in the air.”
At the post-race press conference, Phinney opened up about the life-changing experience.
“The first eight weeks, when I was on crutches, was the worst part,” he said. “Just losing general mobility. I couldn’t go out with friends. I tried to stay in the cycling world for the first three weeks, and then I realized I needed to eject myself from the sport as much as I could. I removed myself, and tried to find things that inspired me. I went to flight school, and got a pilot’s license. I also started painting, and realized I’m a weird artist. I embraced that. It’s been a roller coaster. But through all the down times, art and painting gave me creativity. Those times were painful, but I embraced them through painting and art.”
Phinney also spoke about the experience of watching last year’s Pro Challenge, which included a final stage, starting in Boulder, right in front of his apartment.
“Seeing the Pro Challenge last year was tough, but I never tried to make it about me,” he said. “I went to Colorado Springs to visit the team. I had to leave before the race. I didn’t want to be there. The atmosphere, and limping around, it sucked. I saw them come into Boulder. I saw some people at the team bus. I couldn’t avoid that because it started right outside of my old apartment. It was a bit too much. It was at that point that I needed to pull myself out of the sport. I had to do what I could as a human.”
Bookwalter, third on the stage, also attended the post-race press conference and spoke about how the stage played out, as well as Phinney’s return — to the sport, to the team, and to the top step of the podium.
“We had some tentative plans going into today,” Bookwalter said. “When you have a strong Rohan, plans change. Taylor and I were going into the same climb saying, ‘what is happening?’ It was nice to have [Dennis] up there taking the pressure off us. We didn’t know if we were gonna catch them until about a kilometer to go. We were trying to get the sprint organized. I caught Taylor’s wheel and thought it’d be a good lead out. I saw him shoot around, and then I saw him post up.”
Asked about his relationship with Phinney — they’ve been teammates at BMC since 2011 — Bookwalter said Phinney’s accident had brought them closer together.
“To be honest, I think we relate to each other a lot better than we did before,” Bookwalter said. “His injury, and comeback, gave him time to grow mentally and emotionally. Before that, I valued his friendship and respected him, but before the accident, we weren’t on the same wavelength. He was the young crazy guy, I was the old guy. He was an asset to the team before, but he’s even more important now. The last 15 months gave him time to appreciate his team and value them.”
There will be at least one more opportunity for a stage win for Phinney on home soil, however — the stage 5 time trial in Breckenridge. During Sunday’s pre-race press conference, Phinney said it was a stage he’d had his eye on for some time.
“It’s tough to say. I’m not sure what to expect. It’s something I’ve been thinking about,” he said. “I feel good on the TT bike, the power is there, we’ll see how the week goes. There is a tough little climb, so I’m not really sure. I can’t give a definite answer. Rohan is here, and he’s coming off wining a time trial at the Tour de France. I’ll try to give him as much a run for the money as I can, but I’m not used to time trialing at 9,000 feet.”
Along with Dennis and teammate Damiano Caruso, Bookwalter is one of the riders pegged as a GC favorite. Phinney will start stage 2 in yellow, but with a summit finish at Arapahoe Basin, Phinney knows he will have his work cut out for him as a domestique in the days to come.
“I am not a climber. I can survive some climbs. But climbing isn’t my cup of tea,” Phinney said. “Our focus is to work for the GC guys. I’ll prance around in yellow for a bit, but we’re here for them.”