It seems strange to label a 23-year-old’s Tour of Flanders debut as "belated" but Taylor Phinney has been in the public eye for so long that it’s easy to forget his relative youth. Now in his fourth professional season at BMC, the American lines up in Bruges on Sunday after injury forced him out of the selection twelve months ago.
"I always had issues around it so I was never able to do it before now," Phinney told reporters in Kortrijk on Friday. Not that his path to De Ronde has been seamless this time around. Illness kept Phinney out of Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke, but after returning to action at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, he was declared fit for action for the big day.
"It took a couple of more days than I anticipated to come back. I’d planned to be at E3 but I felt tired during the week and the team was lenient with me and let me recover and come back for Gent-Wevelgem," Phinney said. "I suffered a bit more than I wanted to, but that was to be expected after having a week when I was pretty knocked out."
Phinney’s avowed goal this spring is Paris-Roubaix and his role on Sunday will be to ride in support of Greg Van Avermaet. He explained that it would take a number of years before he could truly hope to be competitive in De Ronde, pointing out that, for now at least, the steady efforts over the pavé at Roubaix suit him far better than the punchy climbs of the Flemish Ardennes.
"I’m aware that, physically, I’m more adept at a race like Paris-Roubaix right now, but I think the Tour of Flanders that can become more my speciality as I get older, leaner and have more race kilometres in my legs," he said. "As well as that, positioning is even more important in Flanders than Roubaix, because three-quarters of the peloton knows where they are all the time whereas in Roubaix maybe the peloton hasn’t memorised the course as much."
In spite of his reservations about his ability on the hellingen, Phinney performed impressively in support of Van Avermaet over much of the same terrain at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February – and helped himself to 7th place in the process – although he believes the cold conditions and shorter parcours facilitated his task.
"When it’s cold and raining it’s hard for the guys to go super fast on those climbs, while I go at the same speed in all conditions," he said. "But even then, I was hanging on for dear life at times. They’re really strange races in the sense that you go so far over your limit that you think the day is completely over but then you realise that everyone else around is feeling the same way and you just rebound and come back."
The Sagan conundrum
Another rider born in 1990, Peter Sagan (Cannondale), is one of the favourites for victory at the Tour of Flanders but Phinney was reluctant to draw comparisons between his development and that of the Slovak, a rider he regards as being in a league of his own.
"I just hope that he gets tired of winning," he laughed, when asked if he was looking forward to locking horns with Sagan over the cobbles for the next decade or so. "I try not to compare myself to Peter Sagan because that is a very unrealistic comparison – he is one of a kind."
Rather than measure himself against Sagan, Phinney prefers to gauge his progress against that of Fabian Cancellara, a rider whose first major victories, like Phinney's, came in time trials, and who took time to become a consistent factor in the classics.
"He didn’t win his first major classic until he was 26, but he was always good at time trials and prologues," Phinney said. "This sport takes a long time for anyone to achieve what they want to achieve and somebody like Sagan is definitely an anomaly. He’s fun to watch and I hope that I can be there to help him not win as soon as I can, but I can’t force my body into anything. I’ll get to that point when I get to that point."
For Phinney, a Tour of Flanders debut is simply another step along that path.