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The long road to Beijing with Neal Henderson, Taylor Phinney’s coach

Today marks one week in South Africa for Taylor and I. It's been a good week so far, but there have been the ups and downs. When I left off last time we still didn't have Taylor's bike and the weather had been not so nice.

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By Neal Henderson

Today marks one week in South Africa for Taylor and I. It’s been a good week so far, but there have been the ups and downs. When I left off last time we still didn’t have Taylor’s bike and the weather had been not so nice.

The first real good news was when Taylor’s bikes (and my bag) arrived early on Friday morning. When I say early, I mean really early — 5:15 am. Connie (Taylor’s mom) and I left our hotel at 5 am to go to the Cape Town International airport to hopefully great the bags. When calling on Thursday to confirm that the bags were actually going to arrive on Friday morning I first felt confident, then I felt reasonably comfortable, then I didn’t think they would arrive, and then again I thought that we might get lucky during the 2+ hours of calls made to South African Airlines, United Airlines, and to the airport to try and get info about the status of the bags. I went to bed at midnight feeling optimistic … since that’s really the best way to go about things when you have no control over the outcome.

We had started to hatch out plan B in the event that Taylor’s pursuit bike would not arrive. That consisted of borrowing one of the bikes from the New Zealand team, as their team leader has been really helpful and his son who is one of their pursuiters had gotten sick and wasn’t going to ride … fortunate for us, but not for him. The other good news was that he is just about the same size as Taylor, a touch shorter but still tall enough.

When all three bikes showed up on Friday at the airport we were quite relieved. I think that the Phinneys were also pleased to have me change into some new clothes! The entire lack of bike situation was starting to get a little tense, but their arrival provided a nice boost to Taylor’s morale. We returned to the hotel and also led two more US riders, Iggy Silva and Kit Karzen, as well as USA Cycling track team leader Clay Worthington and mechanic Marc and massage therapist Erly, both from Belgium.

The first order of business was to build up the track bike and make sure that everything was good to go. Fortunately everything was perfect … it didn’t even look like the TSB had molested the bikes in any way! Then it was time to hit the track for a “get to know it” session. Taylor did an initial warm-up on the track, and then we started to get ready for his standard day before efforts. Taylor was absolutely flying initially, which was surprising given that the track is concrete, bumpy, and it was cold inside (about 60 degrees). This was Taylor’s first time getting ready to race on a concrete track — all the tracks used for world cups (and of course the world champs and the Olympics) are wooden tracks. The concrete was definitely a bit bumpy, but otherwise Taylor felt good about the Bellville track even though it has relatively long straights and tight turns.

In the opening efforts Taylor was ahead of our planned schedule, and in downloading his SRM data we knew he was going a little harder than he could sustain (based on his world record rides in LA last month). We decided to reduce his gear a little bit to keep his race cadence to be what he is used to. Most pursuits are ridden at a relatively high cadence, often in the 120 RPM range, and Taylor is definitely a spinner. We left the track with a good feeling for the Saturday race schedule. Taylor was paired with a Russian rider in the final pairing of the prelims on Saturday afternoon. In the event, there were 18 pairings and the top 4 times for the qualifying make the final round — the bronze medal round for third and fourth place, and then the gold medal round for the win and 2nd place. Times don’t necessarily matter in the final … as the riders in the bronze medal ride cannot move up … and the loser of the gold medal round can’t move down below silver based on time. In fact, if a rider catches his paired rider then they automatically win without even having to finish the ride.

Friday night we had a nice dinner of pasta and got to bed just a little big anxious. There was a lot of pressure on Taylor to win the event, as he has been competing in a world class level, but had never raced a junior track event. He is the defending world champion in the junior time trial, but he didn’t go into that event as the favorite.

This was the first time in a track race that Taylor was the prohibitive favorite and if he did anything other than win — and win big — then it would be a failure in some people’s eyes. Taylor is a competitor, though, and he rises to the challenge. Saturday began with breakfast and an easy spin on the rollers. I rode along with Taylor on a stationary trainer. During one of his stretch breaks I asked Taylor how many watts he thought I could do, and he replied “540, dude”. I had my own challenge — to at least make 540 watts for a minute, and I shifted into the big ring and went for it. At 40 seconds into my effort I was at 580 watts, but I was starting to crack. I did everything I could to keep the watts above 500 for the final 15 seconds. At the end of the minute my average was 555 … and I was spent.

In comparison, Taylor starts the first minute above what I could manage only for one full-gas minute and then settles in for the remaining two minutes (when competing in the junior pursuit distance) at his power at VO2 max. Good pursuiters are animals … and Taylor is definitely born for the pursuit. After a nice lunch, we relaxed until it was time to head to the track. Taylor’s diversion during the trip has been him playing Pro Cycling Manager 2008 … a killer pro cycling simulation game. In the races that Taylor was playing on PCM, he kept getting 2nd and was hungry for a win. At the track, Taylor was also on a mission and looking for a win.

The warm-up for his qualifying ride went well. Everything was smooth and Taylor looked loose but focused … an interesting study in the contrasts necessary to perform well. The warm-up process was over and so it was time for Taylor to ride. I was calling out time splits for Taylor each lap to let him know how he was doing. In his opening lap he got a little bit too fast, but nothing extreme.

Over the next three laps he continued to ride ahead of the planned schedule, but I could tell by his face that he was still in control. For the final eight laps he ran right on schedule — like a metronome, each lap within .1 second of the previous…exactly what we had hoped he would do. He caught his paired rider with 2 laps left, but couldn’t ease off as the first round is all about your qualifying time. Taylor stayed right on the mark and finished in 3:20.2, a couple of seconds off his world record time but very respectable given the track and temperature. The first order of business after the ride is to recover — spin easy, drink some recovery drink and water, and then relax. We decided to leave the track, as we had about three hours until the final. He was paired with an Australian rider, Rohan Dennis, who had finished in 3:22.7.

In the time between, we (Taylor, his sister Kelsey, and I) went to our van in the parking lot and idled, drying out Taylor’s skin suit with the car heater vents while Taylor played Pro Cycling Manager. Kelsey and I just kept it relaxed, and goofed off a little bit. The race plan for the second race was much the same — especially to get out fast, as the Aussie rider didn’t have a real quick start. If Taylor could put serious time into him in the first kilometer, then he might be able to catch him before the finish. We returned to the track about 75 minutes before the final and re-checked everything — tire pressure, gear, etc. and then began the warm-up. Everything, again, went spot on … no hitches. Taylor got onto his bike with a mission.

He started out a little fast, but the Aussie was also not far behind. After 1K, the difference was only 1 second … not a big gap, and not comfortable as a coach. I gave Taylor splits until the half-way point, and then I started to “walk the line” giving him an estimate of how far ahead or behind he was relative to his opponent. After 2K, Taylor really started to pull ahead and by the finish he was 3.7 seconds ahead of the Aussie! Taylor earned his second ever junior world championship title, and first on the track.

The same post-race cool-down period was on order, and then came the medal ceremony. Taylor looked great with the gold medal, though they gave him an extra-large rainbow jersey … definitely a little big! As a result of going fast and winning, Taylor also had doping control. The line to wait was relatively long, but Taylor passed the time well imitating his New Zealand accent while talking with everyone else waiting in line … it was pretty entertaining. Not only was Taylor the fastest on the track in the pursuit that evening, he was also the fastest in the “wait and pee” race in doping control. He’s already a pro at the process and we finally left the track at nearly 11pm. All in all, a good day’s work at the “office”!