An American bound by team orders at a major French race is a story we’ve heard somewhere before, but Taylor Phinney insists he is happy to obey the BMC team hierarchy at Paris-Roubaix on Sunday.
On paper at least, Phinney lines up for his second Hell of the North as a supporting act rather than the leading player: Thor Hushovd tops the bill, in spite of the former world champion’s uninspired recent output.
“The team hierarchy is defined. Thor is the man, but you never know what happens on the road,” Phinney told Cyclingnews in Compiègne on Saturday. “We’ll go out there with that in mind as it’s a very unpredictable race.”
Even so, Phinney enters Paris-Roubaix nurturing distinct aspirations of his own. A double winner of the under-23 version of the race, his pedigree on the pavé is beyond reproach and he duly finished 15th in his first crack at the real thing last season. While at pains to highlight his fealty to Hushovd’s cause, Phinney has a clear idea of what he would like to achieve this time around.
“If Thor doesn’t need me and if I have my own freedom, then I’d love to be top 10 and the podium is the dream,” said Phinney, who in spite of his youth sees no age restrictions on ambition. “You can’t really come to this race and just say that you’d love to be in the front group.
“It’s like the Olympics for me last year [where he was 4th in both road race and time trial.] You go in with the goal of doing the best that you possibly can, which would be the podium. Although with team tactics we’ll see how that plays out.”
A knee injury means that Phinney has not raced since Gent-Wevelgem two weeks ago but he said that he opted to sit out last week’s Tour of Flanders by choice rather than by necessity. “I think I could have raced on it last week but I was at a point where it might have made it worse if I had done that,” said Phinney. “I’ve been thinking about Paris-Roubaix for the last five months but not necessarily the Tour of Flanders, so I just decided to go 100 per cent for Roubaix and make sure I came here healthy and fresh.”
Indeed, Phinney’s lay-off was part of Filippo Pozzato’s reasoning for labelling the American as perhaps the biggest threat to Fabian Cancellara on Sunday. “Phinney doesn’t have the fatigue of Flanders in his legs, so he’ll be dangerous,” warned Pozzato. Ahead of the London 2012 Olympics, Phinney already showed his rare ability to build and maintain form with limited racing and he enjoyed a quiet lead-in to Roubaix at his base in Tuscany.
“I took a couple of days off for my knee and I’ve been getting a lot of therapy,” said Phinney. “Then, these last five or six days I’ve been training and motor-pacing a lot with Max Sciandri. I’m in good hands when I’m in Italy.”
Phinney was coy about discussing how BMC might use its collective strength to overcome the favourite Cancellara – “We’ve got a really strong and motivated team and if we remain united then anything can happen,” he said – but he allowed himself a grin when asked if, at 22 years of age, he might be too young to win Paris-Roubaix.
“If you look at Sagan, it’s never too early to win,” Phinney said. “This is my race to shine where I can be on the same level as these guys because there are no hills so my weight is not at all a hindrance. I felt great here last year and did a lot of work, but I still finished in the second group. This year, I come back and I’m in a better place and I’m a bit higher up in team hierarchy.”