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Phinney looks within, comes up big in Winston-Salem

Taylor Phinney's philosophy on bike racing has changed after his 2014 crash, which comes with both benefits and challenges.

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WINSTON-SALEM, North Carolina (VN) — BMC Pro Team’s Taylor Phinney won his third U.S. Pro national time trial championship on Friday outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In truth, he crushed it, besting Rally Cycling’s Tom Zirbel — a former national TT champion — by well over a minute. But to hear Phinney tell the story, the 48km out-and-back course was as much a battle of the mind as one of the legs.

“At the turnaround, I thought I was having my worst day ever,” Phinney confided when greeted by teammate Brent Bookwalter after the race. “Truly. The worst. Ever.”

The race marked Phinney’s first return to nationals since a disastrous outing in 2014, when the 25-year-old Boulder, Colorado native badly broke his left leg on a descent of Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain. Since the accident, he’s become more introspective, which, for a pro cyclist, comes with both pros and cons.

“That was just the weirdest mind game,” Phinney said of Friday’s race against the clock. As I was doing my warm-up, I was thinking, ‘I don’t really feel very good.’ But you sort of push through that and you think, ‘Don’t listen to yourself, it’s 7:45 in the morning, and warm-ups are there for a reason.’ I started out pretty conservatively, and I was feeling good at first. But then, by the first turn I was already thinking, ‘Oh man, this is a lot more painful than I want it to be right now.’

It was then that the doubts set in.

“Honestly going into the turnaround on the second lap, I just felt like I was soft pedaling. I had completely given up. That’s what I felt. But then I was like, ‘What are you doing man? Go for it!’ It’s the strangest thing. I can go from being extremely confident to having zero confidence all in the same hour. Coming through the finish, I was pretty sure that I’d won. But 15 minutes before that, I was completely sure that I was off the podium.”

There’s little question that Phinney is more caught up in his mind these days, but he’s the first to tell you that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“That accident helped me to broaden my horizons so much,” he said. “I’m truly grateful for the experience. It’s given me a completely different outlook on what I’m doing in life. It’s added a lot of clarity to why I ride my bike, but it’s also made me ask a lot of questions.

“I think that professional cycling — racing a bike — is a great teacher,” he explained. “There are a lot of really intense lessons you learn, about yourself, about your mind, about your body. I love that I know how my body works and how to take care of my body. I learned all of these things from professional cycling, and I wasn’t really aware of all of this before my accident, you know? I got into racing a bike because I was really good at it. It was something I could be quote-unquote ‘successful’ at. But now I’ve been spending a lot of time challenging that idea of success and what success even really means. So that’s kind of the journey that I’m on right now.”

At present, success — on the bike at least — means one thing only for Phinney: Rio.

“Since the crash the biggest thing that I’ve been focused on in my own mind is the Olympics. And I see the national championships as a stepping-stone to the goal of qualifying and preparing for the Olympics. So while I’m a lot more relaxed about the national championships than I was a couple years ago, I was here to win.”

And win he did. Asked if another year in the Stars and Stripes will help him lock down an Olympic berth, Phinney smiles broadly.

“It definitely won’t hurt. It’s a discretionary selection, so I’m not locked in yet, but I think this win was a really important step. I’ll put my proposal in, along with everybody else and hopefully I’ll get a spot. They announce the team in the middle of June.”

In the meantime, the BMC rider will continue working to recover his strength. He still goes to physical therapy two to three times a week, and while he’s experiencing success in short bursts, his racing calendar remains necessarily limited.

“I was initially going to try to do the Giro this year, but based on the recovery level of my leg — the strength of my left leg compared to my right leg — a three-week stage race just still seems a little bit premature. I’m trying to get on the Tour de Suisse roster, but that’ll be up to the team.

“Even though I have a slightly less powerful left leg, I feel very much stronger mentally. And I think that’s the thing that really matters.”