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Taylor Phinney only has eyes for Roubaix

After winning the U23 Paris-Roubaix twice, Taylor Phinney has made this weekend's race his primary objective

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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Before the 2013 northern classics had even begun, Taylor Phinney’s goal was clear, his love professed: He only had eyes for Paris-Roubaix.

“My biggest goal for this early season is being at a peak fitness for Paris-Roubaix,” he said on March 21, at BMC Racing’s team hotel prior to E3 Harelbeke. “For me, Paris-Roubaix is my favorite race. It’s the best race for me as a cyclist, and so that’s kind of the big light at the end of the tunnel.”

Phinney, 22, has won the under-23 version of Hell of the North on two occasions, and rode to 15th last year in his first attempt in the pro ranks, after working for BMC Racing teammates Thor Hushovd and Alessandro Ballan. He did not start the Tour of Flanders last weekend due to knee pain, but is still on for Roubaix — the apple of his eye.

“I’ve always just liked the entertainment value of Paris-Roubaix, watching it as a kid. It’s one of those races you can watch the last three hours of and just stand in front of the TV and watch it and be captivated,” Phinney said.

The “Queen of the Classics” is Sunday, and runs a rough 254 kilometers, including 27 cobbled sectors. It’s a race that can be dusty, muddy, miserable, and at the same time, beautiful. Or, as 1981 winner Bernard Hinault noted, it can be “bullshit.”

But boring, or common, it is not. After an epic Milano-Sanremo that saw Phinney bridge up to the lead group after the final climb over the Poggio — in miserable, cold, wet conditions — it’s clear the young American has a taste for the brutal, and he’s got the body and motor to match his appetite for the rough.

At 6 foot 5 inches, and 180 pounds, Phinney has the size of a natural-born cobble crusher, and his motor is ample: he took second place at last year’s world time trial championship, and fourth at the Olympic TT in London. Roubaix suits him physically, and the notion that it’s miserable and gritty suits him as well. Phinney loves a spectacle.

“As an American, we always like a show, and we like to put on a show. I guess that’s what I like most about it, is having the opportunity to be part of the big show and the big drama,” Phinney said.

Phinney is entering his third year as a professional after a sterling career on the track. At 15, he began his career on Slipstream’s junior team, and in 2007, he won a junior world time trial championship. He won the individual pursuit at the 2009 UCI world track championships, and again in 2010. Last year, he won the prologue and wore the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia. This year, there’s reason to expect even more.

“It’s always a transition from the amateurs to the pros,” Phinney’s BMC team manager, Jim Ochowicz, said. “When he started his second season, he had a few more objectives and a little more experience. As things progressed, he got better and better. He had a good Paris-Roubaix, a good Olympic Games, a good world championships, and really started to set his sights a little bit higher for this third year, where he’s in the first tier of the team now when it comes to selection for the bigger races.”

Ochowicz said Phinney’s starts at the sport’s biggest races accomplishes two things: they help him gain experience, and give him a bit of freedom to test himself outside of a domestique role at marquee races.

“Every time he does one of these races he learns from it,” Ochowicz said. “Another grand tour, a world championships, one-day classics, just kind of a full, all-round program this year that’s going to be the first he’s had, start to finish.”

Phinney said he wouldn’t be a protected rider for Roubaix, and joked that he was more of a wildcard. But there’s reason to think he’ll be one of BMC’s strongest there: Hushovd hasn’t shown the form to win a monument this season — recently suffering from breathing troubles — and Phinney has been building for Roubaix since the fall.

“I think we go to Roubaix with a guy who’s proven himself in the past there with Thor, and I just kind of sit back and help him in the final — and just kind of always be bouncing ideas off of him, because he’s our main leader going into that race,” Phinney said. “Winning the under-23 version of the race means pretty much nothing, just that I know the course and some of the sectors and that I like it. I need to prove myself a bit more, and I think that’s a good chance for me to prove myself, through helping Thor.”

That said, if Phinney is able, he’ll be right at the sharp end. He’d regret it if he weren’t.

“When I was doing my training in September and November, I was pinpointing it as [the race] where I want to be good. Because that’s my race,” Phinney said. “That’s the race that I love.”

On Sunday, the world will see if the Hell of the North sends any love back his way.