A two-time winner of Paris-Roubaix espoirs, Taylor Phinney (EF Education First-Drapac) finished his Classics season on a high with his best-ever finish in the elite edition. The American took second in a small group sprint to take eighth, 2:31 behind the race winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Phinney's previous best performance had been 15th on his debut in 2012, finishing more than four minutes behind the race winner Tom Boonen. Since that debut six years ago, he has battled challenges bigger than the race he'd just finished after he broke his leg in an accident at the 2014 US national championships. It is only his second time at Paris-Roubaix since the accident, but he remained coy when asked if it's a return to the Phinney of old.
"I'm making a comeback every year at this point," he joked as he sat on the grass in the centre of the Vélodrome André-Pétrieux. "I just got top 10 at Roubaix, I'm pretty freaking stoked. It would have been super cool if Sep won and I got top -10."
"It's a gnarly experience to kind of digest 30 seconds after it's finished. You just want it to be over so badly and you don't even know if you're going to make it to the finish line and you're also trying to do well so it's a really strange balance of survival versus aggression."
"I'm really stoked to go home. I've been on the road for seven weeks and it feels like I've been pounded and getting left off the back so it's good to leave this block and think, yeah, I am a good bike racer."
Phinney was the only American rider on the Paris-Roubaix start list and he is also the first American to make the top 10 in a decade. In 2008, George Hincapie finished ninth, three years after he finished second to Tom Boonen.
"It's pretty rad, but at the end of the day nobody really cares if you get top 10 in Roubaix," he said laconically. "I care. I think it's sweet but George Hincapie was second, and then it was like when's George going to win Roubaix, so I guess I get to look forward to that curse."
Carrying an extra 18 water bottles
Phinney enjoyed a little dig off the front on the front across the Mons-en-Pevel sector soon after Sagan's race-winning move before finishing but said that it became more of a battle for survival in the final kilometres rather than aggression. He did hold on and managed a sprint to beat the likes of Zdenek Stybar and Jens Debusschere to take eighth.
"Those guys came up to me and I did everything that I could to hang on and I was trying to help out but I could barely pull through, all the way to Camphin en Pevel. I wasn't expecting to come through that sector in the front. I feel like I slowed everybody down but I was toast by then," he explained. "I just tried to hang on, got onto that second group's wheel. It was good to hang onto that group."
If you were to describe Phinney's 2018 Classics campaign in a single word, challenging may well be the word you would use or some synonym. A lowly 100th at the Tour of Flanders had been his best result until Wednesday's Scheldeprijs, where he finished 19th in a frenetic edition of the one-day race. At least he managed to finish it, which couldn't be said for E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
Phinney said that he hadn't felt his best at the start of his spring programme but Scheldeprijs, though he didn't particularly want to do it, let him know that something was possible this weekend. He attributed the lack of altitude metres to his turnaround, saying that his heavier weight was a disadvantage.
"I raced 200k and I got to the end of it and I felt like I wasn't too tired, I was just kind of happy," said Phinney. "In Gent-Wevelgem, 200k into that race I felt destroyed. I had some back luck but I feel like everybody has excuses for everything. You feel the way that you feel in these races and everybody has bad luck. There are no hills in this race. I'm 85 kilos.
"I maybe don't look like I'm 85 kilos, that's what you would say if you wanted to make me feel good. Sep is 78 kilos. All these dudes are eight or nine kilos lighter than me so when we're going up climbs, that's the equivalent of 18 full water bottles. I can push some big watts but that's a lot of extra watts. I try to do what I can with my weight but I can't get too skinny, or otherwise, my body just doesn't work, or at least I don't think it does. So, this is my shit and that's what I'm saying."