Commentary

U.S. cyclist Taylor Phinney's 'final frontier of my own unknown'

Updated: June 23, 2017, 11:10 AM ET
By Bonnie Ford | ESPN.com

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Taylor Phinney turns 27 next week, having lived three-times-nine lives as a rider. He earned his first major title at the junior world championships a decade ago, competed in three summer Olympic Games, wore the 2012 Giro d'Italia leader's pink maglia rosa for three days, and has won multiple world and national championship medals. His presence in the collective cycling consciousness is so entrenched that it seems impossible he has never started the biggest bike race in the world.

Or that he has never been to the heart of Paris, where the Tour de France (July 1-23) finishes every year.

"I always wanted to save that,'' he told me this week after he was informed he'd been named to Cannondale-Drapac's nine-man Tour team.

Phinney will aim to do his first sightseeing on two wheels and on his own terms. At the moment, however, he's focused on the opening time trial on the banks of the Rhine River in Dusseldorf, Germany. July 1 has been circled on his calendar for months now. The flat, 8.7-mile course with its long finishing straightaway suits him, and the winner will wear the overall leader's yellow jersey.

But Phinney has had to adjust his expectations after a spring season interrupted three times by events that sanded down his top form: a fluke fall down the rain-slicked steps of the team bus in February, a concussion in April's Tour of Flanders and a crash in last month's Tour of California. Phinney recovered in time to ride the Tour de Suisse, which, as he noted with some wonder in a Twitter post, was the first "mountainous worldtour stage race" he'd done in four years.

Few riders have had to contend with as many expectations as young as Phinney, the son of two charismatic Olympic medalists, Connie Carpenter-Phinney and Tour stage winner Davis Phinney. At every stop -- as a teen phenom on the road and track, briefly a member of the development team under Lance Armstrong's comeback umbrella, and a star at BMC -- Taylor never had the option to develop under the radar. Instead, he has grown before our eyes.

A catastrophic crash in 2014 cost Phinney a probable Tour start that season. He was fortunate it didn't cost him his career or full use of his left leg, which he referred to this week as "still on its forever road back to what it used to be.'' It took him two years to resume his place among elite contenders. It also left a mark even more profound than the imposing scars on his knee and shin.

Confronted with the blank space of recovery, Phinney filled it by taking up painting, cultivating friendships outside sport, and striving for more mental and emotional balance than is often possible in the privileged but misshapen life of an athlete. He began practicing meditation regularly -- something he said has "rewired my brain" -- and recently came to the conclusion that he may have struggled with undiagnosed depression.

"As athletes, you can feel like you get kind of stuck, you're so focused on your body,'' he said. "I feel like I've been able to evolve physically and mentally at equal rates over the last year.''

But Phinney's drive to get to the Tour -- and to finish it -- remained intact even as everything in and around him shifted. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesOn June 23, Cannondale-Drapac began naming its nine-man team for the Tour de France -- and Taylor Phinney's name was on the roster. "I'm overjoyed, a little bit nervous," Phinney says. "It's the big show."

ESPN: Where do you find yourself, as the French would say?

Taylor Phinney: I'm happy, I'm super excited, genuinely excited. There are so many clichés. [Laughs.] The reason I started bike racing was because I went to the Tour de France, I saw it with my dad in 2004 and 2005, and I was like, 'Yeah, Dad, I want to do this.' That was 12 years ago. I've been a pro for seven years and still haven't done this, still haven't done the Tour de France. I'm overjoyed, a little bit nervous. It's the big show. Everything that's gonna go wrong is gonna go wrong, and it's gonna be beautiful.

ESPN: You've freed yourself of a lot of conventional thinking. What is it that still makes it that much of a pinnacle for you, just to start the race?

Phinney: It's the final frontier of my own unknown. After I do this, I'll have completed -- [or] at least started -- all the things that are available within the highest level of professional cycling. There's a connection, the initial reason I wanted to start racing a bike -- which turned into my entire lifestyle -- had to do with this one event. If I hadn't been able to do this one event, I would have looked back with maybe some regret, but I'm also incredibly accepting of all the things that have transpired in my life, and I think I would have been OK with it as well.

ESPN: What do you remember from that first [Tour de France] experience?

Phinney: A couple images come to mind. We would ride the passes on some of the mountain days. I was just getting into riding, I was starting to ride more and I was starting to get stronger. I had no idea what any of that meant. I would just ride. I was able to do all these huge climbs in the Alps. I would ride around with the white Best Young Rider's jersey. We would ride before the stage. The whole way up was packed with humans who were there to watch this one thing. Occasionally people would cheer for me, because I had the white jersey on. I met Robbie McEwen in the [start] village, met Axel Merckx -- all these guys knew who my dad was, and thought my dad was badass. I think I gained a real appreciation at that moment for my parents' careers as well, because I always viewed cycling as this weird dream world that my parents spent most of their lives in but that I was never gonna be a part of.

ESPN: Given the breaks you've had to take this season, where are your expectations for the first time trial? [Phinney took a total of nearly two months off between February and late May.]

Phinney: Definitely had a bumpy road getting to this point in the season, much bumpier than I had anticipated. But this distance in a time trial is something I've always clicked with, enjoyed, been able to wrap my head around. So I'm still very much looking forward to the first stage in Dusseldorf. I can't say that I've had perfect preparation for it, but you have to be confident and optimistic about going into something that you feel like you're naturally gifted at. There's only so many excuses, as well. I've been able to handle [the injuries] well and just go with the flow and allow my body to recover from the things I put it through. I respect that time clock, the body clock, I think that's really important.

ESPN: It seemed that getting through the Tour de Suisse gave you some confidence that you can go deep into a three-week Grand Tour.

Phinney: For sure. I had some good flashbacks to getting into survival mode. The climbs are so long. I find myself now, I'll be dropped, and I wish I could just look around and hang out up here because it's so beautiful, and I'm just trying to do this thing as fast as I can so I can survive this bike race. That was kind of a funny new thing that happened to me. I wasn't looking around much when I was 22. There's this weird thing that happens [in a three-week race], I don't know if it's something neurological or chemical, if your body doesn't dole out the same amounts of dopamine or whatever, you get to a point where you only physically feel good when you're riding a bike. When you're off the bike, you think, 'Oh, I'm relaxing now,' but you just have this general feeling that you're doing something wrong. Your body reserves the extra willpower for when you're riding your bike. I started to get that feeling at Suisse toward the end of the race. That's the really unique feeling of these long races. I'm ready to tackle that feeling.

ESPN: What do you anticipate contributing to the team at the Tour?

Phinney: I know [Cannondale teammate] Andrew Talansky has a lot of confidence in me as a bike rider and also as a friend. I can be of use anytime the road is flat. Anytime the road is a little bumpy -- the Tour is so much about position battling as well now, as it is about being a good climber. That adds a whole different stressful aspect of the sport. I can help out a lot in that kind of an area.

ESPN: Is it also a goal for you to finish the race?

Phinney: Oh my God, yeah. I was thinking of getting the word "Paris" tattooed on me somewhere before I leave for this race. Finishing is definitely the most important goal of the Tour, a massive accomplishment for everyone who does it. There's a whole aspect of euphoria that's involved with that. It's not your standard euphoria of winning a bike race, but it's a real sense of: 'I did that.' That's something I've been tapping into as well, the greater appreciation and gratefulness of being able to do these amazing things. What I do for a living is push my body as far as it can be physically pushed. Doing it for three weeks -- when you're done with that, you're totally empty but completely full as well.

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