Retrospective: The Phinney family legacy (RIDE #52)

 

This week the Wall Street Journal published a story on cycling that didn’t relate to doping. It related to the rider in last place in stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico and the conclusion was that Taylor Phinney was indeed a winner that day. He has certainly won plenty of other times too. And, as we concluded in a story published in April 2011, “The anticipation continues.” The story by Jason Gay related the tale of Phinney riding a stage of the early-season Italian race on his own with little hope of even making the time cut. He did so because of inspiration provided by his father, Davis.

RIDE‘s feature on the Phinney family legacy was written by Bruce Hildenbrand and it too offers an anecdote about Phinney Snr riding well behind the peloton in the hope of making the time cut… that was Davis in the Tour de France in 1990, only a couple of weeks after young Taylor was born. Here is a flashback to issue #52, inspired by the ride of Phinney Jnr this week…

 

Two generations, plenty of talent, inspiration and a foundation for Parkinson’s disease…
The Phinney family legacy.
(RIDE #52, published April 2011).

 

Father to son: defining success

 

There’s a strong family history with one of the most anticipated arrivals in the pro peloton for 2011.

 

 

– By Bruce Hildenbrand

 

“Victories could still occur, I just needed to adjust my perspective.” 

 

While Taylor Phinney’s arrival in the professional peloton is generating plenty of coverage, it is worth remembering that his father, Davis, won two stages of the Tour de France and an Olympic bronze medal as one of US cycling’s pioneering riders. But, when asked about the cycling accomplishment he is most proud of during his 10-year pro career, the ace sprinter didn’t choose one of his more than 100 wins, but an incident that evolved from the most important of all familial obligations.

In 1990, Davis and his wife, Connie Carpenter, were expecting their first child in mid-July so Davis opted to skip the Tour de France. However, Connie gave birth on 27 June, two weeks early. Only a few days before the start of the Tour, Davis called up the manager of the 7-Eleven team, Jim Ochowicz, and asked if he could still be of service. The answer was “yes”.

Ochowicz wanted a sprinter for the first week and Davis’ potential was good. As it turned out, team-mate Steve Bauer got in a four-man break on the first stage – along with Claudio Chiappucci, Ronan Pensec and the winner that day, Dutchman Frans Maassen. The four finished over eight minutes ahead and, as the best of the quartet from the prologue (21st), Bauer earned the yellow jersey going into the second stage.

With the exception of the stage winner on day two, each of the four who were in Bauer’s escape wore the yellow jersey at that year’s Tour; the Canadian kept it for nine days, before the Frenchman earned a couple of days in the lead of GC, then the Italian (who eventually finished runner-up to Greg LeMond) had eight days in yellow. The US team was on a high in the first week. Adding to their achievements, Davis finished fourth in stage four in a sprint finish at Mont Saint-Michel.

That was the best result in the race for the father of baby Taylor. He wasn’t even meant to be at that year’s Tour. Davis was a talented racer, a sprinter capable of relegating the likes of Sean Kelly and Jean-Paul van Poppel in their prime – as he did in Mont Saint-Michel – but in 1990 he simply hadn’t done the requisite training for a three-week race. The mountains would take their toll. On the 10th day of the race the route was in the Alps: Davis turned 29, Bauer lost the maillot jaune and the US sprinter was about to experience the curious mix of pain and elation that the Tour de France could conjure.

 

Father (Davis Phinney) – US Champion 1991. Son (Taylor Phinney) – US champion 2010.

 

Davis Phinney takes up the call of the 11th stage of the 1990 Tour de France – the day he considers his finest ride as a racer… “I got to the Alpe d’Huez stage and I was about as tired as I could be. There were four passes in total and I got dropped on the second one – right at the foot of the Col de la Madeleine. After about 100 metres of going up the hill, I was dropped.

“I soldiered on but, at the top, was 20 minutes behind. I was stranded; totally by myself with nobody in sight. I figured, ‘I am done. My race is quits.’ So, I accepted my fate and enjoyed the roll down the Madeleine. I knew there was a feedzone on the other side. I was looking at the scenery for the first time and reflecting on that I gave it my best shot and how it wasn’t meant to be, and how I would be with my newborn son the next day.

“When I got to the feed, I couldn’t find anybody who had waited with the 7-Eleven team car. I was pissed off.

“I thought, ‘What? They couldn’t even wait for me to quit!’ I went through town and finally, at the last car – at the last possible moment – this hand swings out of the window holding on to a bag that said 7-Eleven on it.

“I grabbed it and slung it over my shoulder and kept going. I turned left and headed up the Col du Glandon. I drank a couple of Cokes. Put a few PowerBars in my pocket. And was just kicking myself. ‘You are such an idiot. Why didn’t you stop?’ I was having this discourse with myself and the fans were packing up their cars and leaving. But, then I got a little way up the Glandon and people were still up there and saw that somebody was coming who looks like they have a jersey that is part of the race, so they started cheering for me.

“The magical thing that happens sometimes in cycling is that you start to feel better… somehow my legs came back.

“I started to believe that maybe the reason for my existence was to get inside the time limit at Alpe d’Huez on this particular day. I was just going to ride the last 100km flat out and every mile of training, every hour spent freezing in cold rain and snow and everything I have ever done is going to be put into this one ride. And I am going to make that time limit!

“I started hauling my butt up the Glandon, getting more and more momentum the whole way up. Towards the top I caught a Spanish rider and was so psyched that I had an ally. Then a motorcycle gendarme pulled up alongside us at the top and I said, ‘Yes! I got someone to work with. I got a gendarme. I’m good to go. I’m going to make it.’ Just as I was thinking all this stuff I heard a ‘bang’ and the guy’s tyre blows out, the gendarme stops and I never see either of them again.

“I’m back to being by myself riding like a maniac down the Glandon taking every imaginable risk from the Sean Yates School of Descending. I topped out at 108km/h down the Glandon – a very rough road, but there is one long straight with a steep pitch and I kept telling myself ‘don’t brake, don’t brake!’ If I was going to make up time going up, I had do so going down as well. I took every risk and I just flew off that climb.

“I came down the valley to the Alpe and as far as I could see there was nothing. Two years before, I had ridden down that valley in the main group just feeling like a king. Here I was: last in the race. By myself, with nobody in sight.

“I got onto the Alpe, but it is a harsh climb because you go from 53/13 to a 39/23 within a few metres and you just have to get going. I was really tired, but the beauty of the race took over. On the upper slopes a gendarme miraculously appeared, he had come up to me on his motorcycle and I was riding right on his wheel – it was the only way I could get through the crowd. The fans were pouring water on my head.

“They were raging for me just like they did for LeMond and Bugno who had gone up 45 minutes ahead of me.

“You lose the sense of pain and time and space and just live in that moment. It is a wonderful, almost frightening, place because you can just push yourself beyond any limit that you would have ever set. I got up to the top and went through the town and took that left-hand corner with 400 metres to go and looked up the road. They were dismantling the scaffolding.

“The scaffolding for the finish line was going down and I was like ‘Oh God, no!’ I shifted into my 14 and sprinted up the hill with everything I had left and crossed the line and went to a complete stop. I’d have fallen right over, but for Jim Ochowicz, the only guy who waited for me. I leaned into him and I just sort of dissolved because at that point, I could let go of all the torment I had put myself under.

“I was completely spent. I have never been so tired.

“I sat there for several minutes collecting myself and then when I stopped rasping Jim leaned in and said, ‘Two minutes. You made it by two minutes.’ To me, that was my greatest victory: making the time limit at Alpe d’Huez in 1990. I found a place in myself that I could go to that was a well that was much deeper than I had ever anticipated.”

The next season, his final year racing in Europe, Phinney won the US professional championships. Davis retired after the 1993 season and became an accomplished cycling commentator working alongside the likes of Phil Liggett. In 1999 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease which forced him to retire from his second career. But as Phinney points out, “Being at home allowed me to be there with my children while they were growing up.” He founded the non-profit Davis Phinney Foundation (davisphinneyfoundation.org) which is dedicated to inspiring and informing those affected by the illness.

“I needed to define my own cure. I started thinking about all those bike race victories and how the feeling – the elation of winning – makes all the training, all the toil worth it. I realised that those victories could still occur, I just needed to adjust my perspective on where the finish lines were and what counted as a win,” said Phinney on his foundation’s website.

 

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Being a pro bike racer with its ups and downs is something Taylor Phinney experienced before his first season even started. Dogged by a nagging knee injury, he was forced to forgo his debut at the Tour of Qatar. He is no stranger to the downsides of cycling. His highs at races like the world championships have been tempered by a few setbacks. Last August, as a 20-year-old, Taylor rode as a stagiaire for Lance Armstrong’s RadioShack team but they never rode in the same race. Then, back with the national squad for the Tour de l’Avenir in September, he won the prologue (ahead of fellow future pros Alex Dowsett and Michael Matthews) but suffered a bad crash the next day. After the fifth stage, he quit. “That in itself was more of a blessing,” he confided.

“It gave me some time to recover and some time to focus on the big goal which was the world championships.”

Before that his successes for RadioShack included both the prologue and the 15km TT for stage three at the Tour of Utah, one second ahead of Levi Leipheimer. He beat Levi again one week later at the national championships to claim his first elite US title. “Before all of that I was set on turning pro, but after September and October I definitely knew I had made the right decision and that it was my time to move on and go up to bigger and better things.”

Given his relationship with Lance Armstrong and the successes he has had with the Trek-Livestrong team before his stint as a stagiaire, it was widely considered that Taylor would turn pro for RadioShack. Somewhat surprisingly, however, he signed for Team BMC at the end of the 2010 season.

“Jim Ochowicz [president of the US-registered BMC outfit] worked with my dad back in the day at 7-Eleven as the director. He is a really good family friend and has been close with the family since I was little. My nickname for him is ‘Uncle Och’,” explained Phinney. “I really thought if I was going to entertain any offer from another team it was going to be from Och just because he was such a good family friend.

“He came out to Boulder and blew both my parents and myself away with the structure of the team, where it was headed, the longevity of the contract BMC had with the team. It is going to be around for another four years. My main goal over the next couple of seasons is the Olympics in London.

“Being able to have a stable environment for the next two years leading up to the Games is great. One worry I had with going to RadioShack is that the sponsor’s contract is up after this year so they could only offer a one year contract.”

Taylor is grateful for his tenure at his old squad. “I had two of the best years of my life on Trek-Livestrong. I really enjoyed getting to know Trek, Lance, and CSE [Capitol Sports and Entertainment] – the people behind the team. I just felt it was time to graduate and move on to a different team, another one that I already have a bond with. It was a tough break-up… it’s always hard to say ‘goodbye’, but I can’t be more thankful for what Trek-Livestrong has done for me and for my career.

“The Trek-Livestrong team continues to be a great program. We had six or seven riders from that team go to ProTeam squads this year and not all of them went to RadioShack.”

There is little doubt about where his career is heading, is he worried about turning pro at 20? “Yeah, for sure. That was one thing when we were looking at teams for me to turn pro with. I wanted to have a pretty firm grasp on what my schedule was going to look like. How many race days I was going to have. I was trying to make sure I was not going to come out of the gate too fast and too hard and have my first year as a pro have over 100 race days. That would just be unhealthy.”

 

 

Phinney is looking to do 60 to 70 days of racing in 2011, but even early in the season that schedule has been compromised because of the knee injury which has hindered him early. “It is really to make sure I can assimilate and fit into the pro peloton before I start to kill myself with over-racing and over-training. That’s definitely something I am good at. I am good at holding back… maybe even too good.”

It is rare to hear a four-time world champion (two junior titles, and two elite – one each from road time trials and track pursuits) admit that he might hold back a bit on his training. “There are some times when I could definitely do a little bit more than I have in the past. I think that is something that will serve me well as I go forward. I haven’t burned myself out yet. I haven’t finished a season and said, ‘Oh my God. That was way too much. I need to just shut it off for a while’.”

Phinney clarifies what he means, so it doesn’t seem like he’s lazy. “I am definitely motivated. I don’t have problems in the motivation area. Making goals and fulfilling them is a pretty big part of my routine for the year. When I am far away from a goal it’s pretty hard for me to fully focus on it. That is something I will learn to be better at as I get older. In the off season it is hard to bring the focus and the motivation up when you don’t race for another two or three months. That is something I’ll get used to and my body will get used to getting more training in the winter. That is something that I am working on now.”

Taylor admits there is some room for improvement. “I’m not crazy about training. I don’t go out and do too much of it. I could definitely do a little bit more. I feel that is a good place to be at because I can only go up from where I am at now.”

What will be the hardest adjustment for Taylor as he moves to the big show? “Riding next to guys who I have grown up watching on television and idolised. It will definitely be different to jump in and be riding right next to them and potentially fighting them for a wheel. It’s a daunting thought to be getting ready for a climb and have Fabian Cancellara come up and bump me off a wheel. I don’t know what I would do about that. Adjusting to the riders. Making friends. Hopefully not making any enemies. Establishing my place and my role in how the peloton ebbs and flows. It is really going to be a big learning experience next year. It is going to be pretty cool.

“I am going to be just like a kid in a candy shop surrounded by all my heroes. Hopefully I can have the fitness and the confidence to bust out of that and pull out some good results.”

That was before his first race with BMC. By the time he started in the Volta a Catalunya, he was reminded that reputation doesn’t amount to anything once the pace heats up. Either you have it, or you don’t. In stage one of the Spanish WorldTour event, he didn’t have it. “It’s definitely a different level,” he said after stage one. “It’s very different from the under-23 or even the Tour of Oman. It’s a hard race, there are a lot of big hitters here. And I got dropped, so it’s a fitting start to my WorldTour debut. I can only go up from here, so that’s perfect.

“It always sucks to get dropped but I was happy that I made it over the first climb. I had a couple of aches and pains along the way, just getting back into the rhythm of really racing hard. This week is going to be a suffer-fest for me. I’ve been able to train well,” he concluded about his appearance in Catalunya, “but there have been so many setbacks at the beginning of this year and this race is going to be a true test for me. Hopefully I can just push through and suffer every day and, if I can do that, I’ll come out stronger and better and faster – hopefully in good form for the Classics which are more my sort of races.”

By stage three, he had quit. The knee pain became too much for him to cope with. His team doctor Max Testa confirmed that, despite the high price BMC has paid for his services, there is no intention to put any pressure on him. “We didn’t want to take risks, so we decided to stop him,” said Dr Testa.

Phinney Jnr is still optimistic about his prospects for April. His withdrawal from Catalunya came on 23 March, 18 days before the 20-year-old hoped to line up for the elite equivalent of the race he’s now won twice in a row as an under-23: Paris- Roubaix. “In the end, I had to do what was best for my health,” he said about abandoning the Spanish race. “I’m still hoping to make the start line for Roubaix.”

 

 

Even before the season began he was in consideration for the cobbled Classic. “I am definitely on the long list for Paris-Roubaix. I’d love to do that. It will be a hard jump from the 185km under-23 version to the 260km elite one, and still be up there and competitive, but you never know. I never want to limit myself… if I am on form and I do get selected for the team it is going to be a very cool and difficult race.”

Phinney explains why he has become such a master of the cobbles. “I think that my build, being a bigger rider (193cm and 82kg) – a stronger more powerful rider from the track where I am doing four-kilometre efforts in the pursuit at a very high wattage – is very similar to riding the cobbles. It is really the wattage and the power you need to hold the whole time you are on the cobbles. That is something for the past couple of years I have been training a lot for.

“I think it comes down to mentality, too. I have fun when I am riding on the cobbles. It’s bumpy, but it is almost like racing in a complete downpour. You get tunnel vision – it’s just you giving it as much as you can. You can’t really think about how much pain you’re in. You are just in the moment going for it. That is what I look forward to when I know cobbles are in a race – when I can get on those cobbles and I get into the zone.”

He made his BMC debut at the Tour of Oman, after that his program was wide open and it was being carefully managed to ensure that his injuries were tended to. “I have the national time trial champion’s jersey… which I’m excited about, and I’d like to bring that out and represent the good old USA.”

He did that in Oman (even if it wasn’t on a true time trial bike, see p.147), but exactly when it appears again will only be known when the issue with his knee is resolved.

Phinney rode the individual pursuit at the Beijing Olympics as an 18-year old. In London he would have been a heavy favourite for the gold medal, but the 4,000m individual pursuit race has been replaced by a six-event omnium for 2012. This change has caused Phinney to re-evaluate his Olympic goals.

“The thing I love about the pursuit is that my performance is all down to me. It is about 99 per cent controllable. It is my training. It is me. It is all my time. If I can go fast enough, I will win,” explains Taylor. “The omnium is a different. There are a lot of variables. There are a lot of things I can’t control. With six events over two days which include a miss-and-out race [where the last rider for designated sprints is eliminated] it will definitely be a fun event to watch on TV because you won’t know the winner until the last race. But as a racer it is hard to spend years preparing for an event you can’t control.”

While Phinney may take a pass on the omnium, he is still focusing on the Games. “When I look at the 2012 Olympics and my success in the time trials this year it does give me hope for maybe making the team in the TT on the road. I know it will be a relatively flat course, a power course, which will suit me. It is something that over the next couple of years I will be able to lock down a bit more – which direction I will choose.

“Right now if I knew I could make the team for the time trial and the omnium I would probably choose the time trial just because it is much more controllable. It is not a decision I will be making today or any time soon.”

His mother won the gold medal in the road race of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles back in 1984, and his father’s history on the bike is already documented earlier in this feature. When one has such successful cyclists as parents, the roles they play in their son’s development could take many paths. “They have always been pretty laid back with regards to my cycling. They are definitely there for me. They are my managers and mentors. They have always been there supporting me and telling me what they think would be best for me and we tend to agree on that. They have always let me do my own thing and figure out my own way and haven’t pushed me terribly hard to be whoever they would want me to be.

“That really helped me when I got into cycling, because [Davis] was there if I needed him but he wasn’t over my shoulder making sure that I was doing this or that. He let me figure the sport out for myself and make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. It has been good for our relationship.”

With his pedigree in cycling, his early career success and all the publicity that comes with being one of the “next big things” to fill the void now that Lance Armstrong has retired again, Taylor has sometimes been perceived as being cocky. “I feel like a lot of people perceive young and successful athletes as being overly confident… It is a hard thing to do to let people know that I am not overly cocky. I like to be down to earth. I like to just go with the flow and be relaxed. I have a lot of fun on Twitter and I think the people who follow me know more of my personality. I don’t have any weird human tricks I can do, but I can learn some if people would like that.

“I am definitely confident. If I go to a race and know my abilities, I’m not going to scream it from the rooftops… but it is hard to convey confidence in the media because it is usually perceived as being a bad thing. It is always hard to be young and read about yourself and have your parents read about you. There are always going to be bad things, but I am working to try to limit that as much as I possibly can.”

With such a stellar amateur career it is easy to believe that Phinney will continue to be successful at the next level.

At the tender young age of 20 it might take a few years for his world-beating ways to follow him to the pro ranks. But with so many aspects – from his parents, to his team, to his own capabilities – it is not a question of if, but rather: when? The anticipation continues.

– Bruce Hildenbrand

 

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Author: rob@ride

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