It’s not quite outright team leadership but Taylor Phinney’s wildcard role in BMC’s squad for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is an indication of his development as a classics rider at the beginning of his fourth season as a professional.
Though criticised for their lack of spring success in recent years, few squads boast as much strength in depth for the classics as BMC. Local rider Greg Van Avermaet and the experienced Thor Hushovd are the designated leaders on Saturday, but Phinney has been handed the freedom to go on the offensive should the opportunity arise.
“I am a bit of a wildcard in the race tomorrow, so I’ll be doing wild things,” Phinney joked in Kortrijk on Friday afternoon. “Obviously I can’t tell you my secret plans for tomorrow’s attacking, but we’ll see.
“This will be my third time coming to this race and I feel like I understand it better every time I come here. It’s a race where you need experience and to know the roads. I’m here for these guys [Van Avermaet and Hushovd] but if there’s a chance for me to do something strange or out of the blue, I’ll do that.”
Even before he turned a pedal in anger in 2014, Phinney had described this past winter as the most consistent off-season of his career to date, and those sensations were confirmed by an assured overall victory at the Dubai Tour at the beginning of February. “It’s probably the best feeling of my career so far and it’s really good to get a win before your main target races,” he told reporters at BMC’s pre-Omloop press conference.
Now facing into his third Belgian campaign, Phinney is all too familiar with the brick and stone interior of the Broel Hotel in Kortrijk, BMC’s classics base. More importantly, his knowledge of the cobblestones of Flanders and northern France – and how to race over them – has also deepened in that time. The 23-year-old was reluctant to be drawn, however, when asked if he could be a viable contender for a monument victory as soon as this year.
“That’s kind of a heavy, big question. I’m not going to say that I’m going to go into those races demanding leadership,” Phinney said. “I think that every year I progress and physically become stronger. A lot of that is mental, too, and just understanding the way races unfold and being patient. That’s something that I’m continuing to learn year after year.”
For all his pedigree on the cobbles at espoir level, Phinney’s best performance in a major classic came at last year’s snow-interrupted Milan-San Remo, where he finished in 7th place after almost catching the winning break on the descent of the Poggio.
On Friday morning, RCS Sport confirmed that the planned new climb of the Pompeiana will not be on the route, nor will Le Manie, as the safety of the road could not be guaranteed in time for March 23. From a purely sporting point of view, the absence of those climbs is clearly to Phinney’s advantage, but his delight at the news extended beyond the narrow optic of the professional athlete.
The reversion to the pre-2008 route is, to Phinney’s mind, a return to the true Milan-San Remo, and maintains the character of that most anachronistic and finely-balanced of classics. “I am pleased about that. Ever since they put Le Manie in and now they’ve put the Pompeiana in, I wondered what it would be like to do the old, classic Milan-San Remo route,” he said.
“Even if it’s not what RCS wants, I think it’s kind of special for the riders, at least for me, that we’re able to do that old version and really feel the history of that race and what it used to be. I know Greg [Van Avermaet] probably isn’t that happy about it but I’m stoked.”
Milan-San Remo is still three weeks away, of course, and for now, Phinney’s focus does not extend beyond the low, grey skies of Flanders. Indeed, unlike in previous seasons, where BMC seemed to stake its season on small clusters of major races, there appears to have been a shift in philosophy under the new management of Allan Peiper, who has taken over the reins from John Lelangue.
In 2012, for instance, the star-studded roster didn’t land a win until Critérium International in late March, whereas this time around, Phinney and his teammates have already notched up six victories. “Usually we’re a bit slow to get those wins in the early season but I feel we’re on a new path, in a nice new direction,” he admitted.
“We have a really strong positive team atmosphere this year. That’s not to say that we didn’t have it in the years prior, but you see that something has kind of clicked for us already in this beginning of the season.”