Before becoming US time trial champion, Taylor Phinney wrote this entertaining account of his experiences at the Tour de l'Avenir.
Literally translated as Tour of the Future, the Tour de l'Avenir is a mini Tour de France for U23 riders. Avenir is the biggest race of the season for us. Run by ASO, the same organization that runs the Tour de France, it is almost exactly the same in every way except that it is shorter and everyone is under the age of 23. The jerseys are the same, the courses, the way they are set up, the following cars, the motorcycles, everything is scaled after the Tour de France. Bernard Hinault even comes out and stands on the podium to congratulate the riders. The yellow jersey even gets a TdF lion every day on the podium...
So needless to say, the Tour de l'Avenir is pretty rad.
Originally, before my crash at Tour of Denmark, I wasn't planning on attending Avenir. But, unfortunately for me, I came down hard on my left knee and had to fly back to my home in Boulder, CO. From there I went to Tour of Utah, had a good showing, winning the prologue and time trial ahead of a stellar US field. Granted, I did finish in the gruppetto every day (the gruppetto being the last group on the road, usually containing the sprinters and non-climbers i.e. me), so I was fresh for that TT, but it is always nice to say you beat Levi in a time trial... Even if he was wasn't wearing a skin suit but bibs over a jersey, and only by two seconds. Hey, a win is a win right! I'm rambling...moving on.
After Utah, I flew to Lucca, Italy where I'm planning to live next year. My Mom came with me because I am still a small child and I like it when she takes care of me. We found an awesome apartment for me to live in, and took a couple days to adjust to the time change before I headed to France to meet up with Team USA.
Team USA had a rock star line-up for Avenir. Our team leader/mountain goat was US U23 National TT champ and winner of many mountainous races this year, Andrew Talansky. Andrew is a special breed. And I mean that in the best way possible. The guy has a very intense focus, and is a goal-setter, which is what I like a lot about him. Too many riders in this sport just go out and race with no goals. Talansky had been eyeing Avenir all year and specially prepped for it. It makes it easier to work for someone so focused because you know they are going to deliver. Beyond Talansky, we had a group of the best riders the US has produced to this day. Alex Howes was last years U23 National Road and Criterium champ. He also won the Snowbird stage at Tour of Utah last year, a result which got him a lot of attention! We had a falling out last summer but have since then made peace and have actually become great friends. Alex is an incredible teammate and never fails to make me laugh.
Ben King was this year's U23 National Road and Criterium champ, as well as U23 Pan American Rad and TT champ. Ben has an incredible motor and is a guy who could ride the front of a race for 10 days in a row, by himself if he had to. Chris Butler raced for Team BMC this year and was our secret weapon in the mountains. Chris is a quiet guy but will crack a joke every once in a while at the dinner table that causes an eruption of laughter. We also nicknamed him bluebird because he looks a bit like the little bird from Twitter. Ian Boswell just got 3rd behind Levi Leipheimer at Tour of Utah, an incredible result for a 19-year-old. Ian might be the funniest guy I've ever met, period. And finally that leaves me... My role at Avenir was to win the prologue, go for sprints and help the boys at the base of climbs and I was pretty excited to get things rolling.
The prologue was 7.8km long with the first 3km stair-stepping up a climb. After a 1km fast and incredibly bumpy descent, there was a 3-4km drag race to the finish. I was a little worried about the hill at the beginning because if you went to hard or too easy on it, you could lose the race right there. I knew I had good form after Utah, but also knew that Alex Dowsett (who was 2nd in Utah prologue) was also going to be fast. I was second to last starting at 3:58 and had the whole day to kill before hand. Before prologues I eat 4-5 hours in advance just to limit the possibility of...well...throwing anything up from going so hard. So as you could imagine, that gives me a fair amount of time to do absolutely nothing. Luckily the hotel we were staying in had internet, even if it was glacially slow. Still, I could load my Fabian Cancellara YouTube videos and visualize TT perfection. Time goes slowly leading up to the prologue but eventually I wound up on the trainer with 50 minutes to my start.
My warm-up felt good, my tunes were good and I was visualizing all the right things. Doubts would pop up in my head every once and a while but I made sure to squash each and every one. I felt a lot of pressure for this prologue. It's hard when everyone 'knows' you are going to win, and especially when they tell you. All the time. But you just have to keep your head on straight and do the best you can. I knew if my legs were good, and my head was good, the race would take care of itself.
Fast forward 49 minutes and I'm sitting in the start box. The first 300m were uphill at about 8% so I started in the little ring. 5,4,3 – breathe in – 2,1, GO! I got up to speed quickly in my little gear and got into the bars. I had no radio, no way of knowing how I was comparing with the others but I prefer it that way anyways: once I get out there, it’s just me. I knew the course, I knew what I had to do, and well, if I'm honest, I did it. The legs felt great, my shifting was just right. The stair stepping hill was not a problem, the descent, while a bit sketchy, was fine, and I had left enough gas for the drag race to the finish.
With about 2km to go I knew that I had done everything right and therefore it'd be hard for someone to beat me but I kept the pressure on, tried not to take any risks in the corners and powered to the finish. It's funny, with the amount of pressure I had felt before the stage, winning it was more of a relief than anything else. Dowsett had come second to me again and I felt bad for taking another win from such a good friend. Hopefully it just makes him hungrier our many battles in the future. Needless to say, I was a happy camper, the team was stoked but as Boswell so eloquently put it; '7.8km down, 1000km to go.' Thanks Boz.
Michael Matthews, a huge talent from Australia was 3rd. The podium was pretty amazing; Bernard Hinault up there congratulating me, the yellow and green jersey with the zip on the back, the lion... If I could put a big toothy grin smiley face emoticon in this blog post I would put it right here. After a cool-down and some congratulations it was time to refocus on the next stage.
This was a stage for the sprinters, so it was a good day for me. Our first goal was to keep the yellow jersey for another day. Fortunately for us, only one rider managed to breakaway so the team had a relatively stress-free day riding the front keeping him in check. While it was calm on the front; behind me, all day all I could hear was carnage. Avenir, being the biggest race of the year apart from the World Championships, can be pretty dangerous with everyone riding for a big result to get noticed and maybe go pro the next year, so we were pretty happy to stay out of the war zone.
The finish was an uphill 800m drag, a finish that would typically suit me because it is all about power. The team was great, sitting on the front, controlling all day, keeping Talansky and I out of trouble. I felt great over the small 1km climbs in the finishing circuit and was hungry for another result. As the finish line approached, the Germans and Australians started to help out and ramped the pace up pretty high. The last 5km consisted of a pretty fast descent, some 90-degree turns and then the straight shot to the finish. I was in prefect position on the descent and fought to stay there on the final turns. My legs felt great and I was eager to make a statement. The team had done so much work and I wanted to show them that I appreciated it by winning.
Unfortunately my luck wasn't quite with me at the finish. I'm not one to make excuses but with 400m to go, sitting on John Degenkolb's wheel I hit a pothole while standing up and my right foot just popped out. I fought to get it back in the pedal but knew my hopes for the win were over. Once I clipped back in I gave everything to try and make the day count getting all the way up to 5th while watching Degenkolb raise his hands in victory. I was pretty unhappy at the finish but the team had accomplished our main goal, which was to hold on to the yellow jersey.
Stage 2: Black Tuesday
At the start of stage 2, it was pouring rain. The forecast had said 20% chance but we all know how accurate weather forecasts are... I was not a terribly happy camper on that Tuesday morning. The course was an unknown, there were 3rd-category climbs at the finish but no one really knew how hard they were. I had felt great on the short climbs the previous day so was looking forward to getting amongst it.
However. The rain. I was still a bit scarred from my crash in Denmark (mentally and physically), so was not looking forward to this crazy field attacking left and right on wet roads. Fortunately in the beginning we stayed safe and a break of only 3 got up the road. For team USA this was actually pretty lucky because 3 riders are still pretty easy to control. The boys lined themselves up on the front just like the day before and did a great job controlling the race. The rain did not stop. For the first 3 hours it rained non stop. Nobody was very happy but that’s bike racing sometimes, so we trudged on.
The breakaway was in check as we came up to the hills and I was feeling good, even hungrier for the stage win than I was the day prior. But just as we crested the first of the last three climbs all hell broke loose. Our team leader, Talansky, flatted and had to get a wheel change leaving him quite a ways off the back. Riders started attacking and the roads started to get narrower. The rain had finally stopped but the roads were mossy and wet making them incredibly slick.
The pack lined up single file as people fought hard to follow the wheel in front of them on the technical first downhill. I saw my Australian Trek-Livestrong teammate Timmy Roe keeled over a barbed wire fence on a tight turn. Bikes were everywhere, bodies were everywhere, my wheels were barely gripping the wet roads. Still being scarred from Denmark, this was my worst nightmare. Meanwhile at the base of the next climb a large group containing Degenkolb had gained an advantage over the strung-out peloton. I got to the front on the climb and drilled the pace, only to have a couple of Colombians go sprinting past me. I followed the wheel but hurt from my effort. At the top of the second-to-last climb the pack was all together but Talansky was still racing behind us to catch up. At this point, there were about 20km left and nobody was going to start slowing down now.
The next descent was worse than the previous. A Belarussian was taking huge risks at the front of the pack and I was just fighting to stay upright. The rider in front of me kept losing the wheel in front of him so on a sweeping left hand turn I came around his right to pass. Then, out of nowhere I was down. I still am not sure what happened because I did not hit my brakes. Maybe someone ran into the back of me, or I just hit a mossy spot... All I remember is the fire that erupted from my arm as I skidded to a halt across the rough road. I remember feeling something hit my back very hard and initially I thought it was my bike but as I looked around I saw the yellow and light blue of a Kazakstan outfit fly over my head.
On the side of the road I was in serious pain. I clutched my arm and tried to keep my composure but I was delirious. I thought of getting back up, but my body wouldn't allow it. I couldn't move, I wouldn't move from where I was, hunched over, sitting on the side of the road, yellow jersey bloodied and dirty, barely hanging off me. Our director Pat Jonker ran up to me as I sat on the side of the road. Alex Howes stopped to check on me, visibly upset at the circumstances. The ambulance showed up and the doctor came to check and see if anything was broken. Pat and the doctor were encouraging me to get in the ambulance but I was slowly emerging from my delirium and refused to quit. Against their strong wishes I told them to shut up and put me back on my bike.
I looked around for my white and yellow Oakleys that I had made specially to match my jersey. They lay on the road about a meter away. As I went to grab for them I saw a flash of silver and heard a loud crunch as the Great Britain car speed off into the distance, my glasses gone from sight. I made sure to give the Brits some crap for that since Dowsett ended up in my jersey. Pat actually found part of my glasses and they were fully intact, just missing the arm pieces which are replaceable.
I slowly got back up after the OK that nothing was broken and hopped on my spare bike. British rider Timmy Kennaugh had also crashed and we rolled slowly over the next climb and down the next descent to the finish. I knew almost immediately after the crash that my yellow jersey chances were over but I wanted to finish not only for myself, but for the guys on Team USA, especially after everything the team had done for me. I might've shed a tear or two as I crossed the finish line, but I tried to keep my head held high as the race doctors cleaned me up and sent me to the hospital.
It was a long evening at the hospital and not much was accomplished but for the many meters of tegaderm and anti-stick bandages that now patched my left side. Once I got back to the hotel it was good to see the guys, get a good meal and have a good sleep. Pat and I decided that if it was raining hard the next morning I wouldn't start, just so as not to run the risk of doing any more damage. I had my fingers crossed.
In one day I had gone from yellow jersey to lanterne rouge (last place), while Talansky hadn't managed to catch on and lost a valuable minute and twenty seconds.
Stage three was the first mountain stage at l’Avenir. The profile featured a couple of small hills before two category 1 climbs one right after the other at the finish. This was a day for our climber, Talansky. I have always fancied myself as a Fabian Cancellara-type rider who can lead his team leader into the big climbs at a very high speed, and so I was hoping to do that on this day.
Fortunately at the start it was not raining, just a bit damp. I was a bit disorganized after the night before but was ready to race. The day started off with some crazy crosswinds so the team did their best to help out Talansky and keep him protected. When the break went, we established our spot behind the Brits, who were keeping tempo in the group. The kilometres ticked down until the base of the first climb and as we got close, I got very excited to do some work.
About 5km out I took the front with Howes and Boswell and we ramped the pace up. I pulled my heart out until it started to go uphill and then faded back while I watched Howes giving his last pull, tearing the bunch to shreds with Butler and Talansky right on his wheel. That was satisfaction enough for me and I felt it was a job well done. Over the next few climbs I rolled easy in a small group of about 10, saving up energy for the next day. Talansky wound up 3rd on the mountain top finish, a solid result we all felt proud to have been a part of. I further solidified my spot as lanterne rouge, which in the Tour is actually somewhat of a prestigious award. Or at least it used to be... I find that Americans don't quite grasp the concept as well as the Europeans, but I was proud of my position. Still being in the race after my crash was enough for me.
On paper, stage 4 looked relatively simple. Go up for a while, not too steep, then go down, then go a lot higher up but still not too steep, then descend to the finish. Easy enough. Not. This stage was absolutely miserable for me. I'm not sure if I was feeling terrible from the crash or just in a bad place mentally, but I was constantly yo-yoing off the back even early on. The climbs were much harder than I had expected and to make things worse, the roads were wet. Any time the road dipped down, and was wet, I was slipping back. I have always considered descending and wet riding as some of my specialties but after my last two big crashes I was timid. It was one of those days where nothing felt right. Uphill hurt my legs, downhill made me scared out of my mind and incredibly uncomfortable. There was no flat.
As the stage went on, my mental state went from bad to worse. I just couldn't push myself any further and 3 hours in, I dropped off the back for a final time. Sometimes you have those days. It sucks but it is very prevalent in bike racing. I had an awful day and will remember it as one of my worst for races to come. Fortunately I got in a small gruppetto and we rode steady to the finish. When I crossed the line I swore my race was over.
This stage started straight uphill, one of my least favourite ways of starting a bike race. I woke up sure that I was going to drop out, but someone once told me never to make a decision before breakfast, and so after I had some granola and croissants in my belly I thought about my options. I even texted my Dad who basically told me to be a man, but I knew that was coming.
The whole morning I just went with the flow, ended up getting dressed and getting ready for the stage. 'Ahh, if I get dropped early on it'll be OK I'll just hop in the car,' I thought. Well, it turns out my mind can play tricks on me. I stayed up in the field on the first climb, got dropped on the second one but joined up with a 50-man group and rolled to the finish. A good friend from the Netherlands team, Coen Vermeltfoort, told me that once you step off your bike and quit, the first thing you will want to do is get back on and keep going. So why spend the energy stopping? I kept that in mind and the group rolled easy to the finish. I had survived. My mind was coming around...the thought of me actually finishing the race was starting to grow into a reality. But the next day was the queen stage, 204km. Surely, doing that wouldn't be a good idea. Right?
Just like Stage 5, I wasn't planning on starting stage 6 when I woke up. The race was very long (204km) and I had bigger objectives. Pat Jonker our director gave me the green light to quit at the feedzone after 58km. I would just have to make it over two big climbs first. Easy enough, even if I get dropped I'll just roll to the feed, hop off and drive to the finish. In the team meeting, Pat made it clear that I wouldn't be in the peloton at the finish, even though the lead up to Risoul, the finishing climb, would have been a perfect opportunity for me to wreak havoc on the field and help Talansky with his GC goals. I remember thinking in the meeting... 'Damn, I really wish I could be there. I just can't, I just can't make it there. I can't, I know I can't.'
But I did. I made it over the first climb off the back but chased back on. I made it over the second climb and didn't stop, remembering what Coen had told me. The whole day I set goals to reach and then exceeded them, surprising not only myself but my teammates who were getting excited that I was still up there. At breakfast I had one croissant with nutella because I was only going to be riding 58km. After 58km I said to myself, just go to the feed zone at 120km, then hop off. At the feed zone I grabbed two musette bags to fuel up and kept on going, staying in the pack looking after the boys.
The thought started to occur to me that I hadn't come all this way, crashed and barely finished, had one of the worst days on the bike and continued, just to drop out when I was finally feeling good again. My mind started to work in my favour again and I started to get the right picture. 'You came to win this race for Talansky, you came to tear this field apart at the base of climbs. You came here to prove to yourself you can race for 8 days in a row without getting too tired. You came here to train for nationals and Worlds. Who cares if you are almost last on GC, you are here for your teammates, your country and for you.'
I started to realize that I could be that weapon at the base of the climb for Talansky that I had so wished I could be the night before. I had made it through the worst of the stage and now just had to wait and sit in before I could get to the front and tear it up. As the kilometres ticked down to the base of the climb, Belgium was doing a lot of work on the front for their team leader and yellow jersey Yannick Eijssen. Ben King went to give them a hand so Team USA could line up on the front and not have to scramble for position.
Originally, the boys had thought that the run-in to the climb was a simple valley highway but we turned off it and hit a small road that stair stepped up for a couple kilometres. Ben and the Belgians were giving it good pace and the peloton was lining up behind us. I was waiting patiently behind Talansky for my turn at the front. With about 8km to the base of the finishing climb and just at the crest of our little side climb, I hit the front and rolled with Michael Kwiatkowski from Poland and another Belgian rider. We ripped over the top and barrelled down the descent, my descending skills finally returning to me.
When we popped out onto the main road it was a long tailwind drag uphill. A perfect opportunity for me to line the field up and give everything I had. I proceeded to absolutely bury myself as I held about 60 kph. Alex Howes rolled to the front briefly to give me a breather and then I punched it with anything that was left. Once the road started to go uphill, I swung off, legs and lungs on fire. Alex Howes took the reins and as I pulled off I looked back to see the state of the peloton. A huge smile spread across my face as I saw the damage. Only about 30 riders were left of about 100. Behind us was just empty road, I couldn't see anyone. What a feeling. I thought to myself: 'My race is over, I can quit now. I'll see my Mom at the base of the climb and I'll just hop in her car and quit. No big deal.'
But I didn't see my Mom, and I didn't stop at the base of the climb. I had a 28 on my back cog so I just spun easy up the mountain. For the 4th time in one day, I didn't quit when I thought I would. Ian Boswell rolled up to me on the climb and Howes had been waiting for us in some bushes so we kept an easy pace all the way to the line telling stories, basking in the fact that Avenir was almost over.
Howes had done a massive pull as well after I swung off and Talansky got second on the stage and was only 55 seconds back on the yellow jersey. We had all made it, and Talansky pulled through big time so Team USA was happy that night at dinner.
Time trials are my thing. Hill climb time trials? Not so much. To end Avenir, the organizers had us set to time trial up to Risoul, the finishing climb from the day before. I was second off because I was second to last and kept my power steady just to get a good gauge for a longer 40 minute effort. The numbers were good and it was relieving to cross the finish line... I hopped in the shower and then went back down to the finish to cheer on Talansky. The team did incredible work for him all week and he pulled through with a fabulous time good enough for 2nd on the stage and a 2nd place overall. I had to leave just as the race was finishing, so I couldn't celebrate with the boys but we'll have ample opportunity in Melbourne at the World Champs in a couple weeks.
I learned a lot about myself this week at Avenir. I completed my goal of winning the prologue and I surprised myself with my ability to hang tough when things weren't going so well. As I fly back stateside to Greenville for the Elite Nationals, I very fondly think back on this race, and am very happy with not only my ability to push through but the way the team rode and the way USA Cycling is coming up the ranks as one of the best cycling nations in terms of development. Pat Jonker, our new director for this year couldn't have been any better. He is one of the greatest guys to work for and a true legend in the sport. I apologize if this is a long article, but it was a long race... Hope you enjoyed it and stay tuned. I have two races left on my calendar now: the U23 world championships TT and Road Race.