Taylor Phinney already provided a boost to the USA National Team for the UCI Road World Championships just with his presence, his charisma and his leadership, but now with a gold medal in the team time trial with BMC adding momentum to his Worlds bid, the American will provide an edge both in terms of morale and physical power to the elite men's team.
Phinney burst on the scene back in 2009 with a victory in the elite men's individual pursuit at the track world championships and the cycling fans across the USA noticed.
When he won the U23 time trial at the World Championships the next year after also taking out the U23 Paris-Roubaix, it became clear that Phinney's parents - Connie Carpenter and Davis Phinney - bestowed upon him a special combination of genes that could give the country its first great one-day race specialist in many years. But it could very well be that an accident, which nearly ended his cycling career, has given him the most important tool in a racer's arsenal - patience.
Phinney's raw natural talent propelled him much further than most riders could ever dream to get - a win in the Giro d'Italia's opening time trial in 2012 and three days in the maglia rosa, a silver medal in the world championships, an Olympic fourth place, and the overall win in the Dubai Tour. But the forced introspection of a 14-month rehabilitation from a devastating leg injury in 2014 has built a calmness and a maturity that could be the key to turning him into what the country has lacked in more than two decades - a rider able to win the rainbow jersey.
"I am more calm, more conservative, I can weigh pros and cons a little better in a road race. I'm a little more aware of where I am and where I need to be," Phinney said at the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond. "I feel like maybe before the accident, being genetically pretty talented you can get carried away and rely on your personal strength to take you as far as it's going to take you. Coming back now and having to deal with this injury, and not being 100 per cent, I had to be a little smarter. I still think that way."
That new quality shone through when at the Tour of Utah -his first race back after the crash in the 2014 US national championships, Phinney took an impressive third place on the first stage. He did even better at the USA Pro Challenge last month, where he won the opening stage and took the race lead.
Going the distance
Neither Phinney and USA Cycling VP of Athletics Jim Miller are sure where he will stand in the elite men's road race come next Sunday. Phinney's first goal was to help his trade team BMC Racing defend its title in the team time trial, and then try to get a top result in the individual time trial. But the 260km road race could raise up some surprising results from Phinney, who has a history of performing far better than anyone expects of him.
"It's been an emotional journey for him and for a lot of people involved," Miller said of Phinney. "[His results in Utah and Colorado] were good for his morale. Where he will be after 260k, we don't know, I don't think he even knows. But he's the absolute leader of this team on and off the bike. Just by being in the team he makes the team better. Guys believe in him, and they should."
Phinney admits that the distance is a bit of an unknown, but he pointed to his recent participation in the Tour of Britain, which had several very difficult stages including one 217.4km long from Edinburgh to Blyth.
"You can kind of get a sense of what that would feel like with another 50k," Phinney said. "I'm not really sure, but you feed off this weird energy that you get from having thousands and thousand of people screaming for you - and most of them probably drunk, so they're screaming at higher decibel levels."
It could be that Phinney's weaker left leg - he is still working on the strength imbalance - will start to factor in, and he would simply work for his team. Miller said he expects Alex Howes and Brent Bookwalter to be up there in the finale as they were last year in Ponferrada, and Phinney wants to see the USA win a medal next Sunday, but added, "It's going to take a little bit of something."
That something could be the unique dynamic the riders on the team have - all of them get along well, unlike many national teams. Phinney, Howes, Bookwalter, Tyler Farrar, Ben King and Lawson Craddock are all friends, Phinney says.
"These are all guys I would personally hang out with. You can't say that about a lot of teams... In national teams you usually get some sort of weird rivalry or something going on, but we're all guys who would actually go out and have dinner together if we were in the same place at the same time. That will add a lot to the chemistry of the group and that changes a lot for a team."
Team USA needs to get some results, in particular with the individual time trial. Because the American riders have been scattered across the World Tour teams, many of them working in the service of riders from other countries throughout the year, the country as a whole did not chart very well in the WorldTour nations ranking - they were 18th of 34. It was only through the results by the Continental teams in the UCI America Tour that they earned enough points to be assured a six-man team as host country.
Chasing Olympic dreams
Phinney's goal lies mainly in getting back to full strength for the 2016 Olympic Games, where he hopes to turn around his crushing one-off-the-podium result in both road race and time trial from London. In order to do that, the US needs to earn its place, and the best chance for that is to get a top 10 in the men's world championship individual time trial on Wednesday.
"My main goal is the Olympics in Rio, and that's what I've been looking forward to this whole time. I started racing the second half of the season in preparation for next year, and it's gone a lot better than I anticipated for a variety of reasons, a lot of them mental. Now to be able to be in Richmond and doing all three races is a huge bonus, it's not something I was expecting," Phinney explained.
"My baseline goal for the time trial is to finish in the top 10 so we can qualify a spot for Rio next year. If I'm on a good day, I wouldn't put anything past myself. The road race is a whole other animal. I think it's realistic for the US to win a medal in the road race on Sunday. I think that would be an ideal scenario."
"Depending on where we're at the end of the year in nations ranking on the WorldTour, we may have to qualify through the America Tour - we hope not. A good result here would certainly help us get into the top 15 and qualify through the WorldTour. Typically with Taylor, pre-injury, the podium's the goal if not the world title. If we were to be in the top 10 nations with him, we'd be happy and he'd be happy. Everyone would consider that a success."
However, Miller also said, "I happen to have directed him a lot as a Junior and U23 and on the track. The one thing I learned with him is you can never say it's impossible. He always rises to the occasion above and beyond what you think is reasonable and surprises the crap out of you."
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