When a muddied and weary Taylor Phinney rolled to a halt outside the BMC team bus in Ghent’s Sint-Pietersplein on Saturday afternoon, he was greeted with a handshake from manager Allan Peiper in recognition of a job well done.
There was disappointment in the BMC camp that Greg Van Avermaet had been denied Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory by Ian Stannard (Sky) in the two-up sprint, and concern that Thor Hushovd had crashed out midway through the race, but Peiper felt there were positives to be drawn from the afternoon, not least from Phinney’s performance and 7th place finish.
The 23-year-old was to the fore on the final climb of the Molenberg and then led the pursuit of the escapees Lars Boom, Niki Terpstra and Edvald Boasson Hagen on the cobbles that followed, helping to bring Van Avermaet back into contention.
“Phinney rode an awesome final for Greg, he’s come of age,” Peiper told Cyclingnews. “He was riding intelligently, riding on the front for Greg and pulling back that group that was away with Boom, and then blocking behind when Greg was off the front.”
After showering and changing Phinney emerged from the bus and sat into the passenger seat of a team car parked outside, picking at his post-race meal of microwave rice and mulling on a wet afternoon of racing in Flanders.
“I was really happy with the way the race unfolded for Greg and I. It’s unfortunate that we lost Thor so early and some of the other guys were suffering I think coming from Oman straight to the cold and rain,” Phinney told Cyclingnews.
“I saw that Greg was super, super strong in front and I tried to take care of him in moments that he needed to be taken care of, and also to be attentive and aware for little breakaways and little moves.”
With back-to-back wins in the under-23 Paris-Roubaix to his name, Phinney entered the professional peloton with weighty expectations surrounding his prospects on the cobbles. Now in his fourth season at BMC and entering his third classics campaign, he is hopeful that his Omloop performance marks the beginning of a leap in quality.
“There were times when I thought I was going to be dropped but I just recovered and stayed up there,” Phinney said. “I know this course now. It’s the third time I’ve done it, though they change it a little bit every year. I felt like I made a step forward every year but this was a big step forward for me. So personally I’m really satisfied with the way it went."
On the eve of the race, Phinney had joked of doing “wild things” at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but as it turned out, his actions were eminently sensible throughout. Without radio earpieces as the race is not part of the WorldTour, Phinney and Van Avermaet had to weigh up the options for themselves when Boom, Boasson Hagen and Terpstra went on the attack, and they assessed the situation well.
“It’s pretty hectic in the race. There’s people going everywhere and you’re just staying attentive and staying smart, but Greg and I have always worked well together,” Phinney said.
Boom’s untimely puncture helped seal the fate of that breakaway, and when Van Avermaet then escaped in the company of Stannard with 17 kilometres to go, Phinney must surely have thought his teammate would go on to land the win. Instead, the Belgian’s quest for that elusive spring victory continues.
“I’m a little bit heartbroken for Greg. He’s been second a lot in his career and he certainly deserves a big win. They’re going to start coming for him soon,” Phinney said. “I have a lot of belief in him. I think he’s one of the best riders in the peloton, especially for the classics and he deserves all the success he can get. I think this is going to be a big year for him.”