While the rest of his BMC teammates are ramping up their training ahead of the 2015 season, Taylor Phinney is still slowly working his way back to full strength after his devastating leg injuries sustained in his crash at the US championships in May, and has had to push his expected date to return to racing further into next year. Earlier this summer he had hoped to be back to defend his title in the Dubai Tour, but now the Tour of California is his more realistic goal.
"It's hard to think that far on and completely miss the Classics, but I did a number on myself," Phinney said from the team's camp in Denia, Spain. "It will be an almost entire year removed, and that's a long time."
A year is not long enough to erase the memory of that day: a warm, sunny day and a relatively simple descent during the championship road race in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which turned into the worst of his career. A motorcycle official stopped in the middle of a bend, and Phinney was forced off his line to avoid it, crashed into a guardrail and shattered his lower leg.
Phinney has had to take his recovery more slowly than expected - his broken leg is still four centimetres skinnier than the other, and lacks its full range of motion and strength. He is determined to get back to his top form, but there is "always a concern" that he won't be able to get there.
"It wouldn't be for lack of effort," he said. "I will put everything into coming back and doing it healthily and sustainably, where I can have a life with an operational limb after my cycling career. I had a conversation with the doctor where he said, 'Hey, you can push and you can come back, but if you push too hard you can give yourself an arthritic knee for the rest of your life after the age of 30'."
"I can't get too carried away thinking about it. I have to focus on the day to day, getting the strength back and not having any pain. I can do too much in the gym, or too long of a ride, and the knee will get swollen and be achy. It's not excruciating pain, but you don't want to feel so you have to be careful."
Phinney admitted that he had thoughts of what he would do if he could not come back to racing. He had to fight to keep the accident from creating an unhealthy fear of guardrails or become a mental block to his descending, which has, together with his time trialing abilities, been one of his greatest strengths on the bike - one that earned him an impressive solo victory in the Tour of California not long before his crash.
"I learned from free skiing as a child ... the first thing you have to do [after a fall] is get up and do the same thing again otherwise you're going to lose it and it is going to become something bigger in your mind," he explained.
"In one of the first rides I did outside - it was way too premature - I did this small climb and a long descent back into town. It's a descent I know and love, one of my favourites in Boulder - Lee Hill. I got to the top of the hill and my whole goal was to do this descent and rip it like normal.
"There's one blind corner that you can take full gas, but it's scary, because you go in at 85kph and you can't see the end of it - but you know from doing it so many times that you can do it. I came into it, saying 'you just gotta do it. No brakes, just go for it.' I ended up doing it, and got this massive rush.
"As I was exiting the corner, I took my hands off the bars and flipped off the guardrail."
"For me, mentally, that's what I had to do. Everyone confronts his demons in different ways. For sure psychologically I've had to go through a lot of different things that have made me a more well rounded and sound individual overall. I honestly am thankful to have had this experience in my life, even though I'd never wish it upon anyone - it makes you think about a lot of things and put things into perspective."
Hour record, season delayed
Another goal that Phinney had on his list for 2015 was an attempt at the Hour Record, which he had hoped to take on earlier in the season, but he has now pushed those ambitions back to the end of the year. The Hour Record will also be complicated by the increasing popularity of the event, with his teammate Rohan Dennis and Jack Bobridge announcing their attempts, and Alex Dowsett, Bradley Wiggins and Tony Martin all likely candidates to follow.
"If you want to go for the Hour Record, it shouldn't matter what the [record] is already or if you're going to do it just to beat it. It's past that point now. Jens [Voigt] kind of did that. There are people coming out every week saying they want to do the Hour Record.
"It's been around for a long time and I'm really happy it's something that's 'cool again'," he said. "To do it just to have it for a month before Wiggins does it, it's kind of.... you never really race for second place. It's something that I'll consider a little bit further down the line. If I was going to do an attempt, it would probably be after Richmond or after the Tour or if I'm able to do the Vuelta this year. It's not something I can just bang out right now."
A debut at the Tour de France was likely on the schedule for Phinney before his accident ruined those plans, and he would like another chance at it in 2015, but another important goal will be the UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia.
"Richmond, being in September, is for sure on the radar. I'd for sure love to make my Tour de France debut, but like I said I can't get too carried away thinking about what I'm going to do and not do."
One ambition which has not vanished since his accident is the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016, where Phinney aims to make up for twice missing the medals by one place in London in 2012.
"The Olympics are always on the radar. They have been since the day after the time trial in London. They just mean a lot to me in general, as they do for most athletes. The most realistic opportunity for me in Rio is the time trial. We haven't personally seen the road race course yet, but it looks quite hard. It also looks kind of generally demanding - with some cobbles and steep sections. I'm constantly evolving as a bike rider. I can't say for sure I'll go for a medal in the Rio road race, but at the same time you can't put a ceiling on yourself."
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