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Cafe Chat: Floating Over the Pavé with Taylor Phinney

BMC's Taylor Phinney is a rare breed -- an American cyclist famous before his time. Part lineage, part charisma, but mostly pure power has left Phinney in the spotlight at the tender age of 22. The fact is, he does a lot of things well, ahead of schedule, but there's nothing he does better than pound the pavé of northern France. I spoke with Phinney a few weeks back in anticipation of his next assault on Paris-Roubaix.

Phinney signs in to Paris-Roubaix 2012
Phinney signs in to Paris-Roubaix 2012
Patrick Verhoest

When we caught up, Phinney was two days removed from his effort in Tirreno-Adriatico, when a hard day in miserable weather left him emotionally spent, an effort that sums up all the beauty and misery of this great sport. Phinney was chilling out, his mom in town and his dad on the way, as he steeled himself for the effort of taking a step forward in his ascent as a classics protagonist... maybe even more.

Podium Cafe: Have you recovered from Tirreno?

Taylor Phinney: Yeah, I’ve had a few days to chill out. My mom came over last weekend, she’s taking good care of me. Did a little 3-hour spin today. It’s still cold today, like never-ending winter here.

PdC: Expecting the weather to change?

Phinney: Last year around this time it was really pretty warm, we’d go out and do these long rides with no leg warmers on. Last week it snowed a couple days in Belgium. It’s crazy. I have a sneaking suspicion it’s going to be a wild classics season. Or the weather’s just going to do a complete U turn, we’ll see.

PdC: For Milano-Sanremo, apart from supporting the team is doing this race important to build up for fitness for the season?


Phinney: Yeah for sure, every major classics rider will tell you that getting that one 300k race in is really crucial for going into the classics like Flanders and Roubaix where you’re doing "only" 250k. Good for the head to have been able to get that 300k in , and also good for the legs. It might be the longest race, time and distance wise, but it’s not the most taxing. I think it’s more of a mental thing really. I love Milano Sanremo, I’ve loved watching it on TV, and I’m really happy I get to go race there for a second time. It’s just a great spectacle and you never really know what’s going to happen. [Ed: in a slimmed down edition of la Primavera, Phinney took an excellent 7th place.]

PdC: What's your schedule for Flanders?

Phinney: On the program for Gent Wevelgem, I hope to make the roster for the Tour of Flanders, that’s a big goal this year. It’s also the race that everyone wants to do, which makes it kind of difficult even just to make the roster on our team, but I think I’m in a good position to make it. [Ed: he made it, but then skipped it to deal with some knee discomfort.] And then Paris-Roubaix. Really, right now I’m seeing it as four really important weekends for me.

PdC: How does your Paris-Roubaix ability translate over to de Ronde and the Flemish races?

Phinney: Lot of differences. You need a similar power profile and ability to go above threshold for a couple minutes and then recover quickly, and keep doing that, keep hitting that point every time you’re on a cobbled section or a cobbled climb. The difference between Flanders and Roubaix is that you can get a guy who’s not necessarily a heavy-set classic rider who can win Flanders, or at least just make the front group.

Whereas Roubaix is more for the big men, that’s the best for me because at no point in the race am I at a disadvantage because of my weight. I weigh about 85 kg right now, and that's technically race weight, relatively skinny for me. And every time I go over those cobbles it’s just all about the power, and naturally I can do a lot more power than somebody else. But if we’re on a little climb, that scale kind of tips into a smaller rider’s favor. So for me Roubaix has always been the best race because I’m typically bigger than a lot of my coworkers, and it’s that one race where I get to stick it to them, because they get to stick it to me on every climb (in Flanders).

PdC: For the big guys in Paris-Roubaix, is there a sort of fraternity?

Phinney: You mean like do we get together and hang out? Phinney_pdc_medium

[Ed: if you've heard him do interviews, you probably get why this is so funny. On this day he speaks calmly, mellow, with a very dry wit.]

PdC: Ha! No, like the subject of conversation among certain riders. I’m fishing a bit here!

Phinney: I think there ends up being a certain cameraderie of bigger riders just because maybe you’re riding in a group and you’re suffering and you see a guy who looks bigger than you but is maybe the same size and you think that guy’s suffering as much as I’m suffering. And then you usually find yourself in the gruppetto also, talking and shooting the shit. So yeah, there’s a bit of cameraderie between bigger riders but the only fraternity in cycling that I know of is the Italian Veneto fraternity of cyclists. [Ed: this?]

PdC: What was your relationship to Paris-Roubaix early on? Did you watch it as a kid?

Phinney: My dad rode it a couple times but he never liked it. Paris-roubaix on the scale of cycling importance in America is sort of the next thing we have to the Tour de France, and I think that’s because it’s such a dramatic race, the entertainment value is so high. It’s that race where you can just sit there and for the last two or three hours transfixed by what’s going on on TV because it’s so exciting. From the Forest of Arenberg to the finish, you just never know what’s going to happen. So I think I just I’ve always loved a show. Us humans, we all just want to be entertaining, especially us Americans, we’re all about entertainment. So that was what drew me to it in the first place.

Also having George Hincapie, an American dude to cheer for, who was a good friend of my parents, that was another reason to watch it and get excited for it. And then I realized because I was so much bigger than everyone else I wasn’t as bothered by the cobbles as everyone else, it didn’t bang me up so much, I could float over them easily, if that makes sense.

PdC: When did you realize that, in junior training camps or not til actually competing in the U23 Paris-Roubaix?

Phinney: Racing in the US there were a fair amount of local races with dirt roads, and I always loved racing on dirt roads, just a bit different. And then racing in Europe, you don’t do so many cobbled races as an under 23 or a junior. I did do the junior Paris-Roubaix and I crashed three times, broke my bike, got a flat and ended up in a ditch somewhere. My first experience with Roubaix and I just fell in love with it ever since. [laughs]

No but I just kind of think back in 2009, the first year with Trek, it’s just something that came naturally to me. It’s more than just being about the cobbles, it’s about being in the right position going into the cobbles, and I was always in the top five, always in the front, the crashes are happening behind me, the race is whittling down behind me. Then I was on a velodrome, which was like my number one home, and I said whoa, this is the perfect race for me. And I was able to win it as an under 23 and go back and win it again. But at the same time I knew that winning it as an under-23 really didn’t mean much as an indicator that I could do well as a pro. So now it’s on to the real thing.

PdC: How’s the pro positioning battle compared to the U23 version?

Phinney: As a pro you have more teams that are together, which makes it harder because you have more full teams battling each other whereas as an under 23 you’re not so unified as a group, teams are all over the place a bit. Of course it’s easier as an under 23, but as long as you know where the secteurs are and you know you have to be in the front, you can be in the front.

PdC: What are your favorite secteurs?

Phinney: Heh, well, my favorite is the last one because it doesn’t feel like cobbles at all.

OK, my favorite secteur is the Carrefour de l’Arbe, because it’s where the race always hits the fan, so to speak. And its in the middle of two other really nasty sections. It’s always the big climax of the race... well, the first big explosion is at the arenberg forest, but when it really really happens, when the race is made, it’s on the Carrefour de l’Arbe. Last year was the first time I rode the Arenberg actually, because you don’t do it in the under-23. And, you just gotta love the history of it.

PdC: What was the sensation of hitting the Arenberg Trench for the first time in battle?

Phinney: Well, everybody knows you have to be in front and they know where it is. So with other secteurs you might be able to have an advantage knowledge-wise of where you’re going, and when you need to be in the front. Everybody knows that secteur and it’s a wild, mad dash, it’s much like getting ready for a final sprint in a flat stage. It’s just... difficult.

And when you get on the cobbles it’s not easy either. When I get on to the cobbles it’s tunnel vision. You don’t feel your legs so much and you just feel the bumoing and the bike’s going crazy and the fans are going crazy. It’s so loud and you just get into the zone that every sportsman talks about and dreams about, it’s like that zone where you’re just really focused on the task at hand. I’m able to do that more than others on the cobbles and that’s why cobbles work for me.

PdC: Obviously your job is to be part of the team, and Thor is a favorite, but can you compete for the win this year or keep building for another year or so?

Phinney: Well we’ll go into the race with Thor as our leader, he’s enjoying a lot better form than the last couple years. He’s not only a very strong rider but also a great guy and a really good friend of mine. So we go there for him and I think my role will be to be the wild card. It’s only my second time doing it as a pro, the first year I had some knee problems, so we’ll see. We’ll go in there guns blazing and see how that works out for us.

PdC: Thor looks back to health, but now the team has lost HIncapie and Ballan, so who steps up?

Phinney: We have two incredibly strong domestique riders, super domestiques, Manuel Quinziato and Michael Schär. They’re the kind of guys who have the physiological capabilities of doing a Johan Van Summeren and winning the race. but they’re always doing such a good job taking care of the leaders of the team. So those two names come to mind. They do all the classics, have a lot of experience. The kind of guys that if you gave them the go-ahead and told them you believed in them they would go out and do some good things. So that’s another card.

PdC: Schär has been phenomenal year so far.

Phinney: Yeah, he’s the strongest bike rider that I’ve ever met in my entire life. So he’s just always taking care of everyone, that’s what he loves to do and what he does best. These past couple years I’ve been on the team I’ve tried to build him up a bit and build his confidence in himself, and i think you can see that it’s coming. Now he’s getting more comfortable with accepting that he’s this very strong, tall, skinny man who can do some cool things if he’s let off the leash every once in a while. He’s one of those guys who if he won a big race the whole team would be even happier than if anyone else won. I’m not saying that he’s going to go out and win a bunch of classics, I’m just saying that’s how we feel about our Mickey.

PdC: Yeah, and you guys could make some money playing pickup hoops.

Phinney: He’s actually taller than I am, if you can get him to stand up straight.


Phinney takes the start in Paris-Roubaix this Sunday in Compiegne, France. Photos by Patrick Verhoest for the Podium Cafe.