Over at CN, Daniel Benson has a scoop about BMC's Taylor Phinney contemplating dropping track to focus fully on the classics, and whatever else his new squad BMC has in store for him. Now, personally I have no knowledge of (or interest in) track, so when he says that the fitness peaks for track and the classics are hard to line up, I'm not entirely sure why. What makes a ton of sense, however, is that the decorated prodigy of two famous cycling parents is looking at BMC's plans for his spring program and thinking he would rather, at the tender age of 20, throw himself fully into his new venture. Rainbow stripes are cool and Olympic medals cooler, but road racing is what's gonna pay the bills. No final decision, and the 2012 Games may tempt Phinney back to the track, as seemed to be the understanding when Phinney signed with BMC. Stay tuned.
As to what this means in 2011, this is pure fan goodness. Phinney will be playing with house money for 2-3 years, thanks to Americans being so clueless about cycling and what a cobbled monument win would mean. Sure, we at the Cafe will team up with CyclingNews, VeloNation, VeloNews, and so on to raise expectations worldwide, but once BMC disembarks for Europe, our voices will be easy to drown out in a flood of Dutch and French. So Phinney gets a free shot at the monuments with nothing more than some instructions from his DS holding him back. If he's in a break with teammates Alessandro Ballan and/or George Hincapie, the strongest guy will be in charge.
But it almost certainly won't be Phinney. Unless he's one of the greatest phenoms in cycling history, chances are he'll find the grown-up speed and 260km distance a pretty serious challenge in his first Elite Pro foray(s). As he himself points out, the U23 version of Paris-Roubaix, which he's won twice, is only 180km or so. A realistic expectation is that Phinney's raw power and cobbles experience (such as it is) make him an asset into the later stages of the race, potentially a valuable ally to Ballan and Hincapie, but lacking the fitness to duel with Boonen, Cancellara or the Garmin Armada in the last hour. That kind of strength isn't acquired overnight. Same goes for Flanders.
Still, my reason for being excited about this, apart from the selfish disinterest in track, is that concentrating on the classics now probably does hasten his rise to the level of a contender. There's no better preparation for riding the hardest races in the world than... riding them more. A few grand tours should also help harden those young legs into fitness for the big battles. And every day spent on the track is a day not doing things on the road. So when do the expectations arrive? Every rider has his own path, but staying on Paris-Roubaix, Boonen held his first cobble aloft at 24. Merckx won just shy of 23, abeit in another era. There are several modern riders who won somewhere around age 25: Marc Madiot, Eric Vanderaerden and Fabian Cancellara, for starters. There are plenty more guys winning in Roubaix in their thirties, but real greatness on the cobbles can only be hidden for so long.
And one last reason: George Hincapie is 37. The time to ride with and learn at the proverbial right hand of America's greatest classics rider is now.
Photo by Chris See, used with permission