The Tastemaker: Taylor Phinney

There is no one like him in cycling; Taylor Phinney is a world-class bike racer, but is embarrassed if he misidentifies a man's fragrance

Sniff. Sniff.

The large figure of Taylor Phinney peers down. It’s the day before the 2012 USA Pro Challenge begins in Durango, Colorado. Phinney is mid-conversation, with someone else.


“Is that the new Tom Ford scent you’re wearing?” he asks me, with casual aplomb.

Shocked. It’s as if a thoroughbred has leaned over a fence and just asked what cologne I have on. We are standing on the grass outside the dorms of Fort Lewis College. Just a few dudes killing time before a bike race, discussing fragrance lines.

“No. No, it’s Dolce & Gabbana,” I stammer. “Ahhhhh,” he laments, as if he’s just failed New Fragrances 101. That’s absolute Phinney — an enormous talent, an enormous man, but also an enormous personality, in a peloton that can be a tight-lipped and surly lot.

The Ridiculous American

It could be that Taylor Phinney is this way — loud, affable, charming, and ridiculous — because he wants to be. Or, it could be because he had no other appealing choice. It was be this person, or be the awkward, angular American kid in a foreign country, in a foreign sport.

“I was really pretty introverted when I was in middle school. And then my family and I moved to Italy, and I had to basically develop a personality really quickly. I sort of had two options. I could just be the quiet American guy, or I could be the ridiculous American guy who was making every- one laugh. And I really liked being the ridiculous, funny one,” Phinney said.

That he enjoys who he has become is as apparent as his love for extravagant watches and plush blazers. Phinney, 23, takes to Twitter and Instagram to post photos of himself and his hair — enigmatic and strange hair that is its own thing, its own personality — and discusses men’s fashion, in addition to racing a bike for a living.

“I attribute a lot of my openness and self-deprecating humor to the fact that I was, at a young age, put into an environment that was really uncomfortable, and I just had to make a fool of myself. A lot. And make mistakes. A lot. And speak terrible Italian until I spoke very good Italian. I just kind of took that when we moved back to the States — just that guy. I try to be very genuine. But at the same time, I like to make people laugh,” Phinney said. “I’m definitely an observer of people and life and different cultures. I like to understand people, what gets them going, what makes them tick.”

Phinney is fluent in what it means to be a bike racer. He finished fourth in the road race and time trial in the London Olympics last year, is a multiple-time individual pursuit world champion on the boards at both the junior and elite levels, and a national time trial champion, in 2010. He’s also versed in what it means to be a marketable asset, as his BMC Racing team has realized. And that doesn’t mean selling out to corporations (but please, for comedic relief, imagine him as a shampoo salesman) or coming out so vanilla that he’s unable to offend. In being earnest, he’s able to sell something more important, and that’s the idea of himself.

“I’ve known that part of my job as an athlete is to be a personality, and to be a character. And I’ve always known that I was physically gifted. But I think there’s another side to being an athlete, and that is that you are an entertainer,” Phinney said. “The sport makes most of its money off of TV and being seen on TV, sponsors being seen on TV. If you have a personality to go along with the fact that you can ride a bike, that sets you apart. That’s been something I’ve realized that I have, and also that I just have a voice that people will listen to, and that’s a pretty important thing for me. Not everyone can say that.”

And even those who can, sometimes don’t. This is a sport full of guys in helmets and sunglasses and, until very recently, one that retained a stifling, zip-the-lips culture. Riders compete on television in front of millions, but that’s not a venue that allows fans or even journalists to get to know them outside of short podium interviews and a few on-camera smiles sprinkled between shots of chateaus dappled upon the countryside. Phinney tries to shrink the space between himself and the cycling public.

“I like to put myself out there in a way that I’m not setting this massively high standard for people. I think a lot of people try to put their best face forward all the time. I definitely put my best face forward, but when it comes time to make fun of myself, or make a funny face, do something that’s a little bit, maybe, embarrassing, I’m going to do that. Because I think it’s good for people to see we’re all just real people as well,” Phinney said.

The younger generation — guys like Phinney and German Marcel Kittel, for example — strike different chords with the media than their predecessors. Phinney, in particular, goes out of his way to accommodate interviews, and pauses before he answers questions, thinking for a moment, rather than lapse into the athlete-interview vortex, in which the interviewee rips off “I’d like to thank the team” and “anything can happen” and “we’ll have to see.”

Asked why he’s so open, Phinney plainly said it’s because he has nothing to hide. And that would make sense, given that the generation prior to his is plenty busy trying to nail the doors of their closets shut, lest their skeletons slink out.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s also the son of cycling legends Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter; he’s been around fame his entire life.

“I think the past relationship between the media and the athletes, cyclists, has been kind of a strange relationship, in a sense. And I’ve always had a really good relationship with the media. I’ve been ‘media trained’ since I was, like, 17 years old. I understand the media, and I get that side of it. At the same time, there are no hard answers that I’m hiding. I don’t have any reason to be short with the press or to come across as being quiet,” he said.

American Evelyn Stevens knows Phinney and his “personality” well; they briefly shared an apartment in Boulder.

“He has a personality?” mocked Stevens. “I met Taylor because of [his mother] Connie. He’s an incredible personality, and that’s the best way to sum it up. He is such a big personality, but also having spent time with him, he takes the sport very seriously, very professionally. It’s exciting as a cyclist to see kind of an up and coming cyclist. And I think he’s going to do incredible things.”

The Social Effect

Cycling used to be a blue-collar sport, an escape from factories and fields for the European pros. Stateside, it never functioned as a way out, as an alternative to manual labor. Rather than an escape, it was respite. For the most part, the contemporary peloton seems to take that latter path, especially young riders like Phinney; they ride bikes because they want to, not because they have to.

And they’re damn happy about it. Just look at Phinney’s social media feeds: pictures of him checking a lavish watch while out training with friends; a photo of his helmet and face covered in ice at Milano-Sanremo; tweets about modern fashion. He offers up a cross-section of his world, and shares it willingly.

Is this a job? Yes, and a physically taxing one. Does it look like the best gig in the world at times (other than that Sanremo dip into frozen-over Hell)? Sure does. His approach to the business of bike racing is in direct opposition to the way things were once done in the proletarian sport. But, according to Phinney, someone like him is accepted just fine in the bunch.

“The introduction of social media has helped a lot of relationships in the peloton. I think maybe if I was the way that I am now, 10 years ago — really outspoken against doping, and just sort of this kind of joker figure who’s always doing weird things with his hair and try- ing to make people laugh — I think I would have been banished for being a weirdo,” Phinney said. “But with the introduction of social media and the fact that we as riders follow each other and talk on Twitter and Facebook and joke with each other and then see each other in races, you see a lot more guys letting their personalities out, letting their opinions be known. I like to think of myself as pretty well received in the group.”

Maybe too well received, even. To be a winner, at least the right kind of winner, one must push guys out of the way with forceful grace. “I have a ton of friends. I maybe have too many friends in the sense that maybe I need to be more of an asshole when I’m trying to win the races I want to win, but that comes with a little bit more time and a little bit more respect,” Phinney said. “I’ve always liked the athletes that people have massive respect for, but who are not really known as, like, big pains in the ass.” That’s the rider he wants to be. Liked, respected, but able to gracefully move guys out of the way in those decisive moments.

Boulder’s Timmy Duggan (formerly of Cannondale and Saxo-Tinkoff) knows Phinney well, racing with or against him throughout the years, notably together on last summer’s Olympic team. Duggan credits Phinney with being able to keep things light, but turn the screws at the right time.

“The Italian influence on him, through his upbringing, his parents, definitely gives him a colorful personality, for sure. And he takes that and runs with it, you know?” Duggan said. “He’s — there’s a lot of pressure on him. He was the junior phenom. His parents are his parents. And it’s good to see he can deflect that pressure, and, very [Peter] Sagan-like, just have a very playful attitude about it all, but not that you don’t care, you’re just unattached to it. When it’s go time, it’s go time, but it doesn’t have to be go time all the time. … You can balance that, you know? With fun, and relaxation, and also working hard when it counts. There’s no reason you have to be a monk and never smile to be the best athlete you can be.”

You could call Phinney a lot of things. A monk isn’t one of them.

Elements of Style

No description of Phinney is complete without noting his bold styling, the manicured disarray of his hair, or his penchant for fine clothing. Look no further than the cover of this magazine. That jacket? It’s his.

Style is inherently limited in cycling — “it’s a hard sport to make look cool because you’ve got a lot of different body shapes trying to fit into the same clothes,” Phinney said — but that makes it all the more noticeable off the bike. And Phinney is noticeable off the bike.

Asked about his tips for the winter season, he was elegantly loquacious. Heavy knitwear — he’s a real sucker for chunky sweaters with “cool Nordic print” — and mountaineering boots with red laces. He’s currently on the search for a long, Swedish military coat, the one worn by the villain Bane in the recent Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.

There’s a feeling that all this, though, is in good fun, too. And though he is genuine, he doesn’t come off as serious about any of it. “Some people may be worried about not being able to pull that off,” he said of a certain clothing item. “But I must say, you’re only able to pull off what you think you can pull off. So just do it.”

As far as Phinney’s fashion don’ts? Do not look like a bag person. Show a little respect for yourself.

“I always try to leave my house looking pretty respectable. It doesn’t mean you have to get dressed up. But if I’m gonna wear sweatpants, they’re going to be nice-fitting sweatpants. If I’m gonna wear a hoody, it’s gonna be something that’s kind of cool, that sets you apart. I wouldn’t just jump out of the house in a full tracksuit,” he said. “We get a lot of that in Boulder. You’ll go out and there will be, like, a guy in cargo shorts at [a nice restaurant]. And, you know, it’s not that hard to just class it up a little bit. Just don’t be lazy, you know? Get into it. If you look good, you feel good, and then you’re going to have a better time going out.”

One more thing, he says. “Get your clothes tailored,” he said. “It’s, like, the easiest thing to do.”

And if you happen to take them to the tailor in Boulder, he notes, “Ask for the Taylor fit.”

This feature originally appeared in the February 2014 issue of Velo magazine, The Personalities Issue. Learn more about the personalities featured by clicking here.