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TERNEUZEN, Belgium (VN) — Taylor Phinney still recalls specific scenes from his breakthrough ride at last year’s Paris-Roubaix.
In one memory, Phinney realized that he had ridden into a group containing Greg van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra, and the other pre-race favorites. The kilometers ticked down, and the fatigue of the long day on the stones had set in. Phinney, 28, recalls feeling a mixture of exhaustion and joy.
“Just to be in that front group was a dream. I was pinching myself but I was also so blown,” Phinney told VeloNews. “I told myself, ‘hang on man.’ That’s all I could do.”
Phinney eventually sprinted to eighth place, the top American finish at cycling’s “Hell of the North” since 2005, when George Hincapie finished second. At the time, Phinney told reporters that, “Nobody really cares if you get top 10 in Roubaix.” A year later, Phinney has a different perspective on the result.
Simply riding into the top groups on the road shed light on the dynamics of the race, and the effort required to ride at the front. Phinney was exhausted from the push. As it turns out, everyone else, including the Roubaix favorites, were also shattered.
“You know that once you get into the group, everyone is blown in the last hour. Knowing that now, and having the mindset to just push through that before making it, is one thing,” Phinney said. “Having made it once gives me confidence going forward, but I know now how difficult it is to make that front select group.”
Whether that newfound perspective helps Phinney during Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix is the American storyline to follow during the 2019 event. Phinney enters Paris-Roubaix after a disappointing classics campaign that saw him miss E3 Binck Banck Tour and Gent-Wevelgem due to a knee pain, and record DNFs at Dreidaagse Brugge-De Panne, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and the Tour of Flanders. On Wednesday, Phinney said he was still hopeful for a strong ride at Paris-Roubaix.
The flat, windy race suits him better than the hilly classics in Belgium, he said. And Phinney has a history of bouncing back at Roubaix after a dismal showings at the Belgian races. Prior to his big ride in 2018, Phinney also struggled in Belgium.
“I don’t know what to expect, but I’m excited to do it,” Phinney said. “Last year I wasn’t great in the classics until Roubaix. It’s the only race that is made for me. I feel much more switched on to the races thus far even, even though I have no result to speak of.”
Phinney and his EF Education First classics teammates enter Sunday’s race riding a high after Alberto Bettiol’s surprise victory at the Tour of Flanders. Bettiol will not compete in Paris-Roubaix; EF will target the race with Sebastian Langeveld, Sep Vanmarcke, and Phinney.
The mood around the team hotel has been upbeat, Phinney said, even if the team had little time to celebrate.
“We all went back to work to get ready for Sunday,” Phinney said. “There’s not time to just be stoked and decompress.”
The win was proof that EF can, indeed, compete in the cobbled classics, despite the team’s dearth of results in recent years. EF’s precursor, Slipstream Sports, won the race in 2011 with Johan Vansummeren. Since then, the team has come close; Langeveld was third in 2017 and Vanmarcke was sixth last year.
Bettiol’s victory had another big impact on the team, Phinney said. The team no longer enters the race desperate to win.
“A weight has been lifted off of the team’s shoulders that the team has been carrying forever,” Phinney said. “Sep, Sebastian, and I are going well, and it’s the last chance. But classics season is made. That takes pressure off of Roubaix.”