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Hands holding pens and posters and hats and flags reach toward Taylor Phinney as he steps out of a closed-off media zone and into a growing sea of red, white, and blue.
Phinney doesn’t need to win to draw a crowd.
His 12th-place finish in the individual time trial Wednesday wasn’t the podium American fans, or Phinney himself, hoped for. But examined through the pragmatic lens required by the tumult of Phinney’s last 18 months, it was a success. Wednesday was the latest step in a long comeback for the young American rider, one that began — for the public anyway — in Utah in August and won’t stop until he resumes a full WorldTour schedule with his BMC Racing squad next season.
“It was the first hourlong time trial that I’ve done in, like, two years,” he said, standing with the press as crowds began to mass outside. “It’s definitely a different animal. I feel like I did all I could to prepare for it. I left everything out there — all the clichés you hear in the sport.”
Phinney was never supposed to lead the U.S. worlds team in Richmond. That role was Tejay van Garderen’s until a broken shoulder at the Vuelta ended his season early. That left Phinney as the U.S. top hope for a medal and the linchpin of the country’s Olympic plans. The U.S. needed a good ride at worlds to qualify two riders for Rio, and with van Garderen out, much of that pressure fell on Phinney.
“Who else was going to do it?” Phinney said. “[Andrew] Talansky didn’t want a race; Tejay just broke his shoulder. We brought Lawson [Craddock]. He’s young, up-and-coming. But after Tejay broke his shoulder, I was like, ‘oh, man, I have to do this now. But that’s fine. If you can’t deal with that as a sportsman, than you’re not going to make it very far.”
At press time, USA Cycling officials were unclear as to whether Phinney and Craddock’s TT performances had earned the U.S. two slots. The final tally may depend on the results of this weekend’s road race. If the U.S. does nab the second slot, it will have to be very, very close.
It wasn’t long ago that the concept of the United States team leaning on Phinney for its Olympic berths would have been laughable. His knee will always bear the scars of a horrific crash at the 2014 national championships that knocked him out of the sport until August of this year. It was a crash that changed more than his body.
Time trialists are comfortable with their own pain, a learned masochism gained through hours spent at the edge of their capabilities. But that’s self-inflicted. Injury forced Phinney to better accept pain from external sources.
“I approach races a little bit differently,” he said. “I approach suffering and pain differently. I find I’m better at dealing with pain that is inflicted upon me, by other people, like other racers. I feel like I do that better now than I did before. I never liked the idea of having to go someone else’s speed. For whatever reason now, I can deal with that a little bit better,” he said.
The Olympic pressure weighed on Phinney in the leadup to worlds, though the routine of race day helped put it out of his mind on Wednesday. Phinney was pleased with his result, though not ecstatic. The time trialist can only go as hard as a given day’s body will allow.
“Time trials are weird,” he said. “Sometimes you have a TT where you can really go deep, and sometimes you have a time trial where you can just scratch the surface. Today was a bit of a scratching the surface, like right on the limit, but I felt like I couldn’t really dig into myself. It’s hard to do that for an hour, to commit to that.”
Racing on home soil was a motivator, not a stressor. Phinney is in Richmond with his mother and father, the iconic Davis and Connie, and has the enthusiastic, and loud, support of the crowds everywhere he goes.
The crowds help. Pressure, or a lack thereof, is mostly about perspective.
“The day before the race, you’re stressed out,” Phinney said. “You’re like, ‘man I gotta race tomorrow, this big race.’ And you think ‘I wish I was at a coffee shop across the street from my house, hanging out, having a muffin.’ But then you really think about it, and you’re like, ‘I wouldn’t really be happy eating a muffin across the street from my house right now. I’d rather be here, getting ready for this race.’
“All we can do is enjoy our time racing in the U.S. If it’s another 30 years until worlds comes back to the U.S., I don’t think I’ll be racing,” he said, smiling as he turned to walk out to his waiting fans.