Two Sundays, two Classics, two different briefs.
At the Tour of Flanders, Taylor Phinney’s task was to infiltrate the early break and lay the groundwork for his BMC teammate Greg Van Avermaet. But at Paris-Roubaix next weekend, the American will be looking to go with moves 200 kilometres further along the roads and cobbles of Northern France.
A former double winner of the Under 23 version of Paris-Roubaix, Phinney is now lining up for his third tilt at the professional version, and aims to gauge his progress by surviving as deep into the finale as possible alongside the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Twelve months ago, by his own admission, Phinney wilted as the pace wound up in the final 80 kilometres.
“Sometimes you have the legs and sometimes you don’t. When the big guys went, I just could not follow,” he admitted but with the confidence that he has the condition to be in the shake-up this time around.
“I’m definitely not at the level of Boonen and Cancellara at their best, when they can seemingly just ride away from the other best riders in the world but I think I’m better [than last year] in the sense that I will have the legs to make that selection when it happens,” Phinney told reporters in Kortrijk. “From then on out, it’s a lot of playing your cards right, responding well to moves and not wasting too much energy.”
Phinney finished 15th in his debut Paris-Roubaix two years ago, but in a one-day race, the final results sheet can often be deceptive. He was out of contention before Boonen launched his winning attack with over 50 kilometres remaining, but picked his way through the remnants of the race all the way to the velodrome.
“I sort of survived through the race and people were coming back and then I just sprinted out of a group and got 15th place. That was sort of the simple way to do things but it’s much different when you’re out in front playing for the win. We’ll see how that works out,” Phinney said.
The 24 year-old American began his spring campaign on a high, heartened by a strong showing and seventh place finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
“That’s the first time in a major one-day race I’ve been up there with that select group of 20 or guys going for the win,” said Phinney, who will be buoyed also by his solid display at the Tour of Flanders following the illness that kept him out of Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke.
The terrain at Paris-Roubaix, too, is far more amenable to Phinney’s characteristics than the hills of Flanders. The longer, steadier efforts over the flat pavé are reminiscent of those required of an individual pursuiter, he explained, and he finds the fight for position easier to manage to boot.
“At Roubaix it seems like it’s a bit easier to be at the front when you need to be, although maybe that’s just me because I’m not thinking about a climb coming up,” he said. “I find it’s easier to fight before a flat cobbled section and expend energy that way, rather than think about going into the Kwaremont or Paterberg or something like that.
“For me it’s going to be about being in the front and following the big guys. That’s what I missed last year because I just didn’t have the legs to make that selection of those twenty guys that decided the race in the front.”
Five months of preparation
Phinney’s five months of preparation for Paris-Roubaix have not been limited to his work on the road. Like an American footballer in the video room, many of his evenings at BMC’s Belgian base in the Sandton Hotel have been spent studying old footage of Paris-Roubaix and the other cobbled Classics. Ironically, being in the thick of the action means that a rider often has little concept of what has just happened – and, more importantly, how it happened.
“YouTube is great for that with regards to having a lot of footage from previous years of these big races. I don’t know if a lot of other riders do that but it’s really good to re-watch races from the past,” he said. “It’s one thing to be in them but for the most part you don’t even see who’s gone off the front if you’re not up there: you’re just kind of surviving.”
Phinney will aim to do more than just survive at Paris-Roubaix this year, although with Cancellara seeming so strong, winning the race seems beyond almost everyone.
The Swiss rider is looking for a fourth cobblestone to put with the others in his sauna, but Phinney joked that he would find a somewhat more ostentatious trophy cabinet if he were ever to win the race.
“I’ll probably get a Rolls Royce, take the Rolls Royce sign off the hood, and put the cobble right there,” he joked.