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Phinney, on his classics critics: ‘I don’t have anything to be worried about’

BMC's Taylor Phinney said that he's got plenty of time to win a classic like Flanders or Roubaix

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Expectations, particularly in sport, can be a double-edged sword. Live up to them, and you’ve accomplished what was anticipated. Fail to live up to them, and you’ve disappointed, often no matter what the circumstances.

Such is the case for BMC Racing’s Taylor Phinney, particularly when it comes to the spring classics.

Few riders came into the sport with as much hype as Phinney, the son of world-class cyclists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter.

So prodigious is his natural ability, that when Phinney qualified for the 2008 Olympics in the individual pursuit at age 18, and went on to take an elite world title nine months later, physiologist Allen Lim gave him the nickname “All-Twitch,” a term used to describe his unusual blend of slow-twitch and fast-twitch muscle fibers.

Because Phinney twice won the under-23 Paris-Roubaix (at ages 18 and 19), it was widely predicted that, upon turning professional, he would promptly become a classics king, a perennial Roubaix contender.

That hasn’t happened yet, though Phinney did place 15th on his debut of the Queen of the Classics, in 2012. Last year, he attacked early, in the Arenberg Forest, and was dropped when the action heated up late in the race. Last month, his third attempt at Roubaix, he was riding in the front group when he punctured in the Carrefour de l’Arbre with 15km remaining. There’s no telling how he might have ended up, but it’s safe to say he would likely have finished in the lead group of 11 riders.

A week earlier, Phinney had ridden in the daylong breakaway at the Tour of Flanders, riding in support of Greg Van Avermaet, who finished second. A month earlier, Phinney had finished seventh, in the lead group, at a wet and wild Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Two months earlier, he’d won the overall at Dubai Tour after winning the time trial. Eleven months earlier, he’d finished seventh at Milano-Sanremo in his second attempt. Twenty-three months earlier, he’d won the prologue at the Giro d’Italia and worn the maglia rosa, when he was not yet 22.

Somewhere in there he also finished fourth at the London Olympics, in both the road and time trial events, and took silver at the world time trial championship. Yet he hasn’t won a major classic yet; in fact, he hasn’t reached the podium.

Because he he’s now in his fourth season as a professional, it’s easy to forget that Phinney is only 23 years old. He turns 24 on June 27, a week before what will likely be his Tour de France debut, riding in support of longtime friend and Colorado pal Tejay van Garderen.

Heading into the Amgen Tour of California, Phinney had his hopes pinned on winning the 20km stage 2 time trial in Folsom. That wasn’t meant to be; Bradley Wiggins scorched the course, 44 seconds ahead of the next-best man. But that next-best man was another 23-year-old, Aussie Rohan Dennis of Garmin-Sharp; Phinney placed third on the day, 52 seconds down. It was a subpar performance for Phinney on a day when only a perfect day could have brought him within striking distance of one of the sport’s best-ever time trial specialists.

That day also saw BMC’s appointed leader, Peter Stetina, fail to deliver against the clock and lose all chance of reaching the podium, giving Phinney free rein to chase after stage wins. And Phinney knew exactly where he would make his move — on the descent into Santa Barbara, which bottomed out nine miles from the finish line.

One of the best descenders in the sport, Phinney, who is 6-foot-5, 180 pounds, knew that if he could open up a gap, he might well be able to hold off a chasing peloton to the finish. Few riders in the sport are capable of such a feat — Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin are two that come to mind. Phinney took the solo victory just ahead of the bunch, similar in style to his first road win, at the Tour of Poland, last summer. For the last 17 minutes of the stage, he averaged 407 watts.

Ever the entertainer, Phinney took a bow as he crossed the finish line. He hadn’t won the the time trial, but he wouldn’t be leaving California empty handed.

Prior to the start of the Amgen Tour, VeloNews sat down with Phinney in Sacramento to talk about California, the Tour de France, and the spring classics — specifically, the criticism he’s received for not yet reaching the podium of a monument such as Sanremo, Flanders, or Roubaix, though he’s only 23. An excerpt from that interview is presented here.

VeloNews: How would you rate your spring classics season?

Taylor Phinney: It was alright. It could have gone better, it could have gone worse. I feel like I made a significant step up from last year, and the year before. Maybe it didn’t show in the results, but just in the way I was able to prepare for the races, and how I felt in the races, and my general understanding of the races, is much better.

VeloNews: You had some tough luck over the spring, more than once.

Taylor Phinney: I think the crash in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, right at the front of the race, was really something I couldn’t have done anything about. And then there was a difficult Paris-Nice, with another weird, freak crash involving the team car when I was getting bottles. And then getting sick after Paris-Nice, I kind of had three weeks there where I was in limbo. Those three weeks are really important where you’re trying to build. I missed Milan-Sanremo, which I think would have been a great opportunity for me because it was terrible conditions, and all that brings the level down to a point, and I don’t necessarily feel that effect [of the weather], I feel pretty much the same in crappy conditions than as I do when it’s normal conditions. I tried to bounce back, and got into Gent-Wevelgem just to get a one-day race under my belt.

Then I went into Flanders and Roubaix, and had a really good Flanders, getting into the breakaway, being the team player there. Getting to see that race from the front, the whole day, was very important for the future. And then at Roubaix, I was in the front group until the Carrefour de l’Arbre, and had an untimely flat there, and that’s just the end of your race. That’s the first time I’ve ever made it to the Carrefour de l’Arbre with the front group. I’ve had better results, on paper, but in the previous years I was dropped basically with 55km to go, or 40km to go. And you know, this year I made it to 15km to go. It was a different race, there were a lot more people in the front, but I felt like I was a lot smarter, and played my cards better, and really just was able to do the best with my situation and with my fitness and with my health. Personally I couldn’t have asked for any more. I know that the team is looking at me for the future as a leader of the classics, and I’ll need to show that with results for the next couple years. I know my trajectory is very strong and going in the right direction, so that’s all that really matters at the end of the day.

VeloNews: It seems like you could easily point to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, as well as the moment before you punctured at the Carrefour de l’Arbre, and that’s a top 10 at Omloop, which is the beginning of the classics season, and a top-10 at Roubaix, at the end of the classics. Much of what happened in between was a rough patch.

Taylor Phinney: Yeah, I mean Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was kind of a breakout performance in my eyes, just being to be where I needed to be and making all the selections, and then [BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet] going up the road, just so many things, tactics-wise, and just knowing the course. You need to have that whole mental sense of the race before it even matters how fit you are. So I thought that was a really good success, and started off the classics season off really well. It was just a step forward, winning the Tour Dubai, that was big, it seems like a long time ago, but everything, I felt, in my mind, was a step up. And as an athlete, as a professional, as a human, that’s really all you can ask for every year.

VeloNews: Prior to the big races, people were saying, “it’s time for Taylor Phinney to prove himself at the classics.” The same was said of Peter Sagan, and he just turned 24. Tom Boonen was 24 the first time he won a monument, and Fabian Cancellara was 25. They are two of the best classics riders in history. How do you react to that sort of criticism?

Taylor Phinney: There are a lot of people out there who call themselves cycling fans, but have very strange expectations for the riders. It is just sport in general, it’s “what have you done for me lately?” Even when I came into the sport, I didn’t appreciate the amount of time it would take me, personally, to reach a level to where I could be really competitive in these races. It’s a professional sport, at the end of the day.

I think Sagan, in his own right, is definitely an anomaly, he’s a one of a kind. And I can’t compare myself with him, even though we are the same age, just because of what he’s already accomplished. I realized, pretty early on, it was going to take me a little longer than I thought, maybe longer than what your average fan thought. I’ve had some pretty stellar, breakout rides, in the Olympics, and world championships. I just respect the process. I can’t read any criticism and take that to heart.

For sure you think about the pressures, and things like that, but I’ve always based my career, and my trajectory in the sport of cycling, off of the current greats, like Cancellara and Boonen. And it took them a little while. Sagan is way far ahead of both of those guys when it comes to just winning semi-classics, and just being on the podium at these races. He doesn’t have anything to be worried about, and I don’t have anything to be worried about. I know I’m going to be there. It’s just a matter of time. It’s a matter of not losing that mental focus, and not letting that pressure get to you. Because that’s the only deterring factor, getting demoralized by people having unrealistic expectations, and then turning other people’s expectations into your own.

VeloNews: Races like Flanders and Roubaix, they take a few years to really figure out what it takes to win them. It seems like there’s point in a career, after a rider has raced them a few times, but before a rider has gotten on in years and perhaps lost a step, there’s a sweet spot of five or six years, where you’ve got it figured out and you’re at your physical peak. And you’re not there yet.

Taylor Phinney: That’s late-20s, early 30s. Most stage races, maybe 80 percent of the peloton doesn’t know the roads you’re racing on, maybe a select few have done recon, or lived in the area. When you go into a race where there are a lot of people on a similar physical level that don’t know every single corner, it’s a little “easier” to do well, because it comes down to your physical abilities. But at the one-day classics, there is so much learning. We go race in Flanders, and 90 percent of the peloton knows exactly where we are, at any moment. That’s a huge advantage, and it’s something you try to learn as you go through those races. They also know how those races unfold, and what happens… it is almost a different sport, racing a one-day race versus racing a stage race.