American on form in Qatar
As BMC wheeled to the start line of Monday's stage 2 team time trial at the Tour of Qatar, Taylor Phinney appeared a picture of distraction; smiling, joking and even singing, he was seemingly oblivious to the 14km test that lay ahead of him.
Yet by the time the clock counted down to BMC's start time, Phinney had swapped the mask of whimsical young American abroad for the role of experienced team leader, calling out to remind his teammates to check that they were in the right gear for the start of their effort.
Phinney continued in the same manner once the team time trial began. He was mindful to temper his own enthusiasm in the block headwind in the first half of the course so as to save his teammates' legs, but then recognised that he needed to open his wings on the rapid run-in to the finish and help turn an 11-second midway deficit into a five-second victory over Team Sky.
On the podium, Phinney was back to his pre-race self, joking with teammate and golden jersey Brent Bookwalter, and hamming it up playfully for the small crowd that had gathered when he was presented with the pearl jersey of best young rider.
After the finish, Phinney explained his particular brand of leadership. "Team time trialling is kind of my thing and I like stepping into more of a leadership role," he said. "Brent's the one in the leader's jersey right now, but I maybe have a little bit more team time trialling experience, so I can be upbeat and keep everyone relaxed and happy, and at the same time motivate them. It was great, it went perfectly."
Phinney's relaxed exuberance before the start is perhaps also indicative of how much preparation for the team time trial had been done before his BMC team had even stepped on the plane for Qatar. With BMC fielding teams at the Tour Down Under and Tour de San Luis in January, there was a depleted attendance at the squad's January training camp in Denia, and new performance director Allan Peiper decided to avail of the opportunity to simulate the Tour of Qatar's exposed Al Rufaa Street course.
"We had a January training camp where we spent a couple of days exclusively working on team time trial work with this group and it just so happened that where we were in Spain it was even windier than how it was today," Phinney said. "A lot of teams come here with a new combination of riders and they work on their team team time trialling skills on the day of the race, but we've been working on it for weeks and really pinpointing it."
Phinney et al even went so far as to practice team time trialling on their road bikes, so as to replicate the peculiarities of the Qatar stage. "We just basically looked at this race as a goal for us and spent a fair amount of time trying to improve our skills as a group. Just being able to rotate smoothly as a unit makes a pretty big difference."
After a mixed debut season as a professional in 2011, Phinney made a marked leap in quality last season, and he credits his successful outing at the Giro d'Italia as the catalyst for the upturn in his fortunes that saw him take fourth in both road race and time trial at the Olympics and silver in the time trial at the world championships.
"I changed a lot as a bike rider after finishing the Giro: I lost a couple of kilogrammes throughout that race that I never gained back. Losing that extra bit of weight makes a pretty big difference," he said. "It's also been a question of confidence, and that came from working really specifically on my time trialling before the Olympics and world championships. So I ended the season at a pretty high level and I made sure to stay on top of things throughout the winter."
After finishing a promising 15th at his debut Paris-Roubaix last season, the expectation is that Phinney - a double winner of the under-23 version of the race - will make an even bigger impact at the Hell of the North this time around. Wisely, Phinney was keen not to make a song and a dance of his Classics prospects when quizzed by reporters, steering the conversation back to the task in hand in Qatar, where he lies second overall behind his teammate Bookwalter.
"This race is always a test, it's always good to see where you are in relation to everyone else because a lot of Classics riders are here," he said. "So far I could say that I am proud of where I'm at right now, and I'm looking forward to keeping it going. But hopefully the overall of this race is plausible."
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