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Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing)
American testing himself for possible Tour of Flanders selection
Riding with a purpose, that being Paris-Roubaix in a fortnight's time, Phinney claims to be the "wildcard" in the BMC pack this weekend with Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd and Greg Van Avermaet the protected men in the outfit.
"You never know what's going to happen," he admitted on the eve of E3 Harelbeke, eyes wide and expressive, before laughing. "I was just kidding."
He considers himself to be an "observer" to his more-experienced teammates, specialists in the fine art of traversing the cobbles and successfully executing the tactics to claim the biggest one-day races of the calendar.
"What they do with preparation and also in the races and the positioning and how they call on teammates," Phinney said.
"Paris-Roubaix is a lot about knowing the roads, knowing the cobbled sections, being in the front when it matters. Most of these Classics races are about that. It's kind of being an observer and taking as much in as I can."
The 22-year-old's start to the season has been impressive, with third overall at the Tour of Qatar; two top 10 finishes in Oman and then seventh at Milan-San Remo last Sunday, with a late attack off the Poggio in a bid to catch the lead group in an applauded show of strength. It was a performance that exceeded even his own expectations.
"Weather conditions like that are already going to suit me because I have a knack for pushing through stuff like that," Phinney said. "And also just the craziness in the day - I got caught up in it. While it was easy to complain and say we shouldn't be stopping or we should continue I got caught up in the drama of it and I started to love it and even though I couldn't feel my hands for most of the day, it ranked in that whole category of epic which was what I always liked to see as a kid when I watched cycling. It's what cycling used to be about in the old days."
Given the rock star qualities of the BMC line-up, there is much riding on the results of E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem for Phinney, namely the Tour of Flanders which the American sees as an important race in his development. At present, there are no guarantees regarding his selection for The Ronde.
"Flanders is a complicated team to make because that's the race that everybody wants to do," he said. "Roubaix is up in the air but a bit more of a guarantee for me, so really when I was doing my training in November and December I was pinpointing Roubaix as where I want to be good because that's my race. That's the race that I love and that's the race that the team will give me a bit of a guarantee that I'll ride. With regards to Flanders we'll see with selection for that but I have more of a passion for Roubaix than I do for Flanders and that's mostly because there's less hills."
In spite of the highlights that 2012 was able to provide - wearing the maglia rosa; and Olympic campaign and two world championship silver medals - and perhaps because of it, the Taylor Phinney heading into this cobbled crusade is in better shape than in the 12 months previous. While the proof has so far been seen in his results, the true benchmark should be achieved with Phinney looking to better his 94th in Gent-Wevelgem and 15th in Paris-Roubaix last season.
"I'm a lot stronger than I was last year coming to this," he stated. "Already coming into Qatar and Oman and the earlier races I'm a lot stronger and fitter than I was before. I'm in a similar place to where I was at the end of the season last year around the Olympics and that's an important place for me to be."