After displaying prodigious talent as a teenager, Taylor Phinney has long been identified as the next big thing in US cycling. After a meteoric rise to fame that included a host of world and national junior championships on the track and victory in the U23 race at Paris-Roubaix in 2010 in Livestrong Trek colours, much was expected of him when he signed to race for BMC last year.
But not everything went to plan in his debut season as a full-time professional. By his own admission, the 21-year-old from Boulder wasn't fully prepared for the step-up and didn't find his feet until late in the year. But he is confident that it will be a different story this time round and claims that he is "excited" rather than "stressed" as he begins his season at the Tour of Qatar.
"Compared to last year I think that having a full year underneath me as a pro has been really important and I’m a lot more relaxed," he told Cyclingnews. "Last year I had a couple of knee problems and I didn’t really know what was required during the winter to get myself into the best shape mentally and physically.
"Having a season with 70 plus race days under my belt has made a huge difference. My busiest year before that was around half that number, so last season was a big step up for me and I don't think I was truly ready for it."
Up until that point Phinney's reputation in the sport had climbed every year, so hearing murmurs of doubt from the press was a new sensation for him. Having come out the other side, does he feel that he has a score to settle with both himself and some of the critics that came out of the woodwork in the early part of last year?
"I don’t really feel I have that much of a score to settle," he said. "I got back up on my feet quite well in the latter part of 2011. I had a good show at the ENECO Tour in August and then a decent time trial in the Vuelta. I got further than I thought I would in that race and it gave me confidence. I just need to keep progressing from those performances and keep improving. I feel that I am in good shape to do that.
"Happiness and stress levels are a huge factor in a rider’s performance. Generally I’d say my stress levels are a lot lower now and happiness is much higher, and that has helped me to have fun at these races as opposed to being nervous about them. I have really been looking forward to racing with Thor [Hushovd] and Phil [Philippe Gilbert], who are two of my huge idols when I think about my favourite riders on the peloton. Being be able to race alongside them is a huge thrill.
"This time round everything is more familiar. I know people on the peloton and have made a lot of friends now. I am able to be more social and hang out with the guys a bit more. I’m really excited to be here in Qatar and I know Eddy Merckx puts on a really good race every year. I missed it last time but I’m glad to be back."