Taylor Phinney has some big decisions to make this year. His contract with BMC, where he has raced since 2011, expires after this season, and the 26-year-old American's future remains up in the air as he continues his comeback from devastating leg injuries suffered during a crash in June of 2014.
The results that Phinney stacked up with relative ease before the crash are starting to appear again, but a full recovery of the strength, form and promise he showed before the crash are yet to be realised. More than two years after the crash, Phinney says his left leg still isn't as strong as his right.
His recovery remains a work in progress and a 2017 contract hasn't yet been secured, but Phinney says he's pushed those issues aside for the moment as he rushes headlong toward the Olympic Games this August in Rio de Janeiro.
"There's always discussions," Phinney told Cyclingnews about a possible 2017 contract as he travelled across Belgium toward the start of Sunday's Rund um Köln in Germany. "I kind of wanted to wait until after the Olympics because I've been pretty focused on the Olympics and I find contract negotiations get in the way of riding bikes.
"I haven't really thought about it too much," he admitted. "I'm just focused on trying to make the Olympic team. I'm hoping I've done enough to do that. I just sent in my discretionary nomination form. So that's where my head is at right now."
Phinney recently won the US time trial championship, repeating the 2014 win that came just days before his crash in the road race that sidelined him for 14 months. Previous to nationals, Phinney placed third in the Tour of California individual time trial in Folsom, coming in 20 seconds behind winner and teammate Rohan Dennis and three seconds behind fellow American Andrew Talansky (Cannondale Pro Cycling).
The US has two spots in the men's Olympic time trial and four spots in the road race, where the two riders picked for the time trial must also compete. Phinney finished just out of the medals in the 2012 London Games, coming fourth in both the road race and time trial. The road course in Rio is a hilly parcour that doesn't suit Phinney as well as did the London course, so his best bet for a medal this year is in the time trial.
Asked if he considered himself a favourite for a medal in Rio, Phinney said he wouldn't want go to Rio if he didn't think he could win a gold, silver or bronze, but he hesitated at labelling himself a favourite.
"I'm going to devote the next couple of months to really training specifically for the time trial course down in Rio," he said. "It is hilly, but there's also some solid sections of flat, fast parts of the course.
"I'm not going to stand on a rooftop and scream that I'm a favourite," he said. "But I'll tell you that I wouldn't want to go unless I could do well, and doing well for me is winning a medal."
Phinney has raced 27 days so far this season, his first full campaign since the 2014 crash. He says he wanted to race this week's Tour de Suisse, but he didn't make BMC Racing's roster for the Swiss race. Instead he's on the BMC line-up for the five-day Ster ZLM Toer GP Jan van Heeswijk, which begins Wednesday in the Netherlands. Following the Dutch race, he'll return to his hometown of Boulder, Colorado, with a single-minded focus on the Olympics, assuming he's selected for the US team.
"Colorado Springs has some good facilities," he said of the nearby Colorado city that is home to the US Olympic Training Center. "There's the velodrome down there, and then there's also this environmental chamber that they told me I could use to simulate being at sea level, doing efforts at sea level. Boulder's not so high that you can't put out the right kind of power, but it's high enough to make a little bit of a difference. So once a week I'll go down there to do some sea level stuff.
"Otherwise, I have all my resources in Boulder. I'm still doing a lot of stuff in the gym trying to bring my left leg strength back up to the right. That seems like it's sort of a never-ending process. It's coming along, making gains, which is all you can really ask for."
Phinney's crash, arduous recovery and extended time off the bike have clearly led to some soul searching for the cycling prodigy who earned multiple world championships on the track before he was 19, was the U23 time trial world champion at 20, won the prologue at the Giro d'Italia and wore the maglia rosa at 21, and was second in the world champisonship time trial at 22.
Earlier this year, Phinney joined Australian brothers Lachlan and Angus Morton, along with another Aussie, Cameron Wurf, on a cross country cycling trip from Boulder to Moab, Utah. Lachlan Morton rode three years at the WorldTour level with Slipstream's Garmin teams before suffering from burnout and walking away, eventually signing with US Continental team Jelly Belly-Maxxis, along with Angus, for 2015 and 2016. Wurf is another former WorldTour rider who is taking a sabbatical from professional cycling this season.
Joining the trio of Australians on one of their "Thereabouts" rides of self-discovery prompted no small amount of speculation that perhaps Phinney was searching for something that has been missing from his current cycling exploits. Rumours spread that he might be thinking about calling it quits after this season and walking away from the sport.
Asked about the speculation, Phinney admitted he has thought about it.
"I think everybody has thoughts of stepping out of the cycling bubble and checking out the world a little bit," he said. "I had a chance to do that in my recovery. But yeah, it's something that I've thought about, but I think it's something that everybody thinks about. It's interesting that you've heard about that."
It's clear, however, that Phinney has more to accomplish in cycling. An Olympic medal is certainly on his bucket list, and he's got unfinished business with the Tour de France, which was on his 2014 program before the crash ended that dream.
"I'd really like to do the Tour de France," he said. "It's funny. It becomes more and more strange to me that I haven't done a Tour de France yet and I'm 26. I guess I did have that crash that set me back a couple of years, but I really would like to do the Tour de France.
"Winning a stage at the Tour de France is one of those goals that's kind of on the level with an Olympic medal and a world championship. So that's something that I look forward to next year or the next couple of years. But I'm not going to do anything about it this year."
This season is obviously all about the Olympics for Phinney; he doesn't appear to have looked much beyond the races this August in Rio. He did say that riding another Grand Tour at this year's Vuelta a Espana in September is a possibility, although maybe not a probability.
"Tejay [van Garderen] is really trying to get me to do the Vuelta," he said. "But I'm going to spend a pretty extensive amount of time getting ready for Rio, and jumping straight into a Grand Tour from being in Brazil – on the Olympic come down – doesn't sound like the most fun thing to do. But it could be alright."