American still counting himself an "underdog"
American Taylor Phinney is still only 23, but in his third year at the WorldTour level he is a perennial contender in individual time trials, his name standing alongside more established champions like Fabian Cancellara, Tony Martin, and Bradley Wiggins. Though he still counts on his youth to afford him the status of "underdog", the former U23 world champion is anything but.
In 2012, Phinney took his first Grand Tour victory in the opening time trial of the Giro d'Italia and led the race for three days before completing the race and then turning his focus toward the Olympic Games. Two heartbreaking fourth-place finishes left him without the Olympic medal he sought, but two silver medals in the 2012 UCI road world championships were some consolation.
This season hasn't gone quite to plan. Phinney dropped out of the Giro d'Italia, was out sick for two weeks, but came back and claimed his first ever WorldTour road stage in Tour of Poland. Then, he had a disappointing time trial result in the Eneco Tour and then a crash which damaged his knee.
Fast forward a few weeks spent at home in the Tuscan sun, and Phinney says everything is fine, his knee included. "I really smacked it and it scared me because I've had knee problems in the past, but I've laid down a really specific plan with Bobby Julich, who just joined the team [as a coach], and Daniel Healey who's the team's sports scientist, and did a really intensive few weeks.
"I've never worked like that and I'm excited by what I've been able to do in training."
Phinney's preparation for the world championships was helped by the fact that he resides within riding distance from the courses in Italy, and hasn't had the focus of the Olympic Games to affect his build up.
"I was a bit more relaxed before Worlds last year because it was an Olympic year, and I had done a lot of really specific preparation for that. It took us a few days to gear up for Worlds last year, and I came here and had a good result. But this year I had a tougher first half of the season, but I've been really focused since after the Giro when I had to take a few weeks off because of sickness. I think I'm coming here at a similar level to last year and it's going to be really special."
The individual time trial on Wednesday will be the first time that all of the big favourites will face off against each other, and Phinney said he's happy to compete against all of the best.
"I can still come in with the underdog status, at least for this year," he said. "I don't think anyone has worked as hard over the past two weeks for this time trial as I have, but I also wasn't able to do the work two months ago. I've done everything I could in training, and have done everything off the bike to be in my best physical and mental condition. I know every crack in the roads - although they've all been newly paved ... it's going to be a really exciting time trial to watch."
Phinney has been working with Healey to gain the mental strength to withstand the brutal 50km of dead flat, straight roads with nothing except the body's screams for mercy as company, and it has involved some innovative training sessions.
"We've been working on these long intervals, and being mentally ready to commit to putting out the wattage and accept it. In last year's course there was the Cauberg, so you went over your limit, then recovered, and there were turns to break it up. It went by really fast, but this year, once you get over that first hill and down through Pistoia, it's this grind.
"It favors a guy like Tony Martin who can open his mouth, hunch his shoulders down like he does and just push a massive gear. I've been trying to mentally wrap my head around just holding that effort," he said. "I did an hour interval - you never do that unless you are actually racing an hour-long time trial. It's so difficult to grasp because it's in training, but I've done the work. I hope I can be up there.
"I guess I'm looking forward to it - at least afterward."
Perhaps after Wednesday, Phinney will no longer consider himself an underdog, but after BMC's defeat in the team time trial on Sunday, he hopes for different conditions."Yeah, I just hope it's not a head wind again. It's difficult on the mind when you're fighting into it on the long straight roads. I live near the course and normally it’s a tail wind in the afternoon. So if it flipped on Wednesday and gives us a push it'd be nice."
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