In the 2008 Olympic Games, Taylor Phinney placed seventh in the individual pursuit in Beijing as a precocious 18-year-old son of two Olympic medallists, barely eligible to compete because of his age. In 2012, Taylor Phinney was a heartbroken fourth place in the road race and the time trial, but still with ample promise at age 22. Draw a straight line in between the two points on a graph, and by this measure he should be on the podium in Rio tomorrow after the individual time trial, but his last four years have been anything but straightforward.
Phinney made a somewhat late entry into the sport of cycling - his mother Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who won gold in the first women's road race in 1984, and his father Davis, who took bronze in the now defunct Olympic team time trial - wanted him to find the sport, if he wanted to, on his own terms. At 15, he began taking it a bit more seriously, at 16 he was on the podium at the national championships. At 17, he was twice junior world champion - in the time trial and pursuit - and was selected for the Olympic Games on the track. In 2011, he graduated to the WorldTour and seemed to be on a steady ascent to greatness.
He topped off his pre-Olympic palmares in 2012 included the prologue victory in the Giro d'Italia and three days in the maglia rosa. After missing out on the medals in London, Phinney got back to his pro career with BMC Racing with the 2016 Olympic Games always in the back of his mind. But a crash on a fast descent at the national championships in 2014, a compound fracture to his lower leg and numerous torn ligaments and muscles put his dreams on hold.
"I thought a lot about these Olympics when I was in the hospital in Chattanooga, getting the diagnosis of all the various things I'd broken and torn in my leg. I thought 'at least I have more than two years to get back to the Olympics', and it's really taken every one of those days to get here," Phinney said from Rio on Tuesday.
Unlike many of the riders who will toe the line on Wednesday for a tough 54.6km time trial on the same Grumari circuit used in the road race, Phinney has not raced since mid-June. His BMC Racing team allowed him the time to stay home to do specific training, rather than race the Tour de France or Tour de Pologne in July.
"Those race days are good, they bring your level up, but it can take a toll mentally," Phinney said. "Depending on the weather, or if you crash or get sick, you have to go through a lot of non-productive energy. The last six weeks have been 100 per cent productive, positive energy. I've had a bubble of that around me. I'm grateful to BMC to have allowed me that time."
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Phinney spent those six weeks in Boulder, Colorado, working to eliminate some of the last remaining weakness in his injured leg, and hone his mind to endure the hour of agony he will need to put himself through if he wants to win a medal.
Since he lives at altitude, Phinney used a special room at the Olympic Training Center to simulate sea level conditions, with heat and humidity turned up to Rio-levels. "The last session I did was a 52-minute interval at race pace. That's the kind of work that I was doing. That ended up being totally mental - just closing your eyes and exploring the pain, what that red line looks like, what it feels like, and how you can push it and further evolve and adapt. I was doing stuff like that once a week.
"Nobody else was doing that. I feel fortunate that I had the infrastructure to do that, and the mentality to be able to commit and put in that kind of work."
Over the past two years, the media have followed Phinney's progress in rehabilitating his leg, and he's been frank and honest about how difficult the process has been. Perhaps it was the inspiration of the Olympic Games, or the support of his family and friends like Allan Lim, Mike Friedman and brothers Lachlan and Gus Morton who helped him simulate race pace, but the muscle imbalances and pain that have plagued him for so long were absent in Rio.
"In the last couple of days I've really started to feel the absence of that discrepancy between my legs that has been such a protagonist in my life over the past two plus years. It's really cool to ... come to the Olympics having those sensations.
"My goal is to win a medal tomorrow, and I would be over the moon with that. I've spent a lot of time visualizing and meditating on that, on what kind of a ride I'll need to deliver in order to do that. What will be, will be. I feel great, I feel really strong. I feel confident," he declared. "What happens tomorrow, happens, but you can be proud of the work you put in."
For Phinney, the disappointments of the 2012 Olympic Games are too distant and too much has happened to feel a need for redemption or revenge.
"I am mostly focused on the work that I've put into this and the experience that I've had preparing for it. It's changed my life and my outlook on what I do, what this sport means to me, and what the Olympics, in particular, mean to me as an athlete. I've waited a long time to be able to line up for this. I'm nervous and excited, but these are the moments you live for and it's going to be over before I even know it."
If all goes well, they will be over quicker than anyone else in the race.
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