Taylor Phinney’s return to European racing this season has had its up and downs, with the latest highlight coming last week when his BMC Racing squad won the opening team time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The 25-year-old American has put in 12 race days in Europe so far this season, starting in France with his debut at Tour de Haut Var, where he finished an inauspicious 57th overall. He followed that with 73rd overall at Tour la Provence and 76th at Strade-Bianche before lining up at Tirreno-Adriatico.
The Italian WorldTour race provided a boost to Phinney’s morale after the opening team win and his 15th place in the 10.1km individual time trial on the final day.
The path back from his debilitating crash in June of 2014, when he severely fractured the tibia and patella of his left leg and ruptured his patellar tendon, has been arduous, but there are signs of his old self starting to emerge. Phinney returned to racing in August of last year, starting things off with a podium finish in the opening stage of the Tour of Utah and then winning a stage at the USA Pro Challenge in his home state of Colorado.
He was on BMC’s winning squad at the team time trial world championships in Richmond, where he competed in the both the individual time trial [12th] and road race [85th]. Phinney told Cyclingnews' Stephen Farrand on Tuesday after the Tirreno-Adriatico finish that his return to European racing is a work in progress.
“It’s been a very pleasant Tirreno with the cancelation of the queen stage and good weather, so for me it’s a pretty perfect week,” he said. “At the team time trial, I personally felt great and the team obviously did a good job. So I was happy that I was able to contribute there.
“The rest of the week we were just kind of taking it day by day,” he said. “I started to feel the discrepancy between the left and right side toward the end of the longer stages. It’s easy for me to kind of forget that that’s still a thing, but there’s definitely some work that I still need to do.”
Despite realising there’s still ground to cover before he’s back in the form that saw him win the prologue time trial at the Giro d’Italia in 2012, Phinney said he takes solace from the week’s effort and his finish on Tuesday.
“To get to the end of this race with the field that they have,” he said, trailing off before shifting his track. “I was looking at today and I was really amped up to do well. I went out there and gave it everything that I had. I don’t really remember much. The race was petty intense – 11 minutes or whatever.
“I have some work to do, but this weekend couldn’t have gone any … I mean it could have gone a little better, I guess, but it really couldn’t have gone any better.”
Learning to ask for help
Phinney, whose scars provide a constant reminder of his injuries and their severity, told Cyclingnews that regular sessions with his physical therapist have become part of his race routine, and he can feel the difference when he misses the extra work.
BMC had a physio at the race for the first four days, he said, and so his post-race routine involved an hour or more of massage, followed by another hour of physical therapy. He also got some work in before each stage in the morning.
“With all of that I felt pretty comfortable in the race, but then not having it yesterday, already today, this morning and even in the time trial I could feel that the left side just wasn’t quite as responsive as the right side,” he said.
“And so that’s kind of the ticket for me, having to do all that therapy everyday. It’s totally feasible, it just consumes time, but what else are you going to do in the afternoon, I guess, except watch a movie or read or talk to someone you like, or (laughs) anything.”
Phinney is obviously trying to take it all in stride. He prides himself on being a low-maintenance, laid-back rider, but he’s learned through his recovery that he’s got to be vocal about what he wants and needs from his team.
“If there’s anything that this whole process has showed me is that it’s OK to be high maintenance,” he said, “especially at the highest level of the sport and dealing with the injuries that I had.
“In that way the team has definitely listened to me and listened to my needs, and then also respected and congratulated me when I’m able to do a good job for the team like earlier this week.”
Hoping for a spot in Paris-Roubaix
Following his return WorldTour racing at Tirreno-Adriatico, Phinney said, he’ll turn his attention to the upcoming weeks and hopefully a return to Paris-Roubaix. In three previous tries there, in 2012, 2013 and 2014, Phinney finished 15th, 23rd, and 30th, respectively. He won the U23 version of the race twice in 2010 and 2009.
He acknowledges that if he returns to Roubaix this year, it will likely be in a support role or for the experience. He admits that’s not ideally where he’d like to be, but “it’s better than nothing.”
“Get back to Belgium and get back to some races on the cobblestones,” he said. “Maybe get back to De Panne, another TT there, and then at some point in this early season I have to jump back into rehab mode, get back in the gym and do some more strengthening ahead of this summer.”
The recovery so far has taken a toll both mentally and physically, but Phinney is taking the bad with the good and trying to stay positive as he plans season and works on his body.
“It’s up and down,” he said of his feelings about the comeback from injury. “It’s so mentally consuming, having something wrong – not wrong – but recovering from a pretty intense injury, it can definitely take its toll just in my head and kind of take me out of what I’m doing and make me question why I’m here and why I’m doing it.
“But at the same time, those kind of lows bring me up to highs I wasn’t able to appreciate before, so after the team time trial, or even before the team time trial when I was feeling good and started to get that primal excitement before the race, that’s something I haven’t really felt before because I’ve always just been good at that and I sort of took it for granted. So it’s up and down, but it’s more positive than negative.”