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The Never Boring Career of Taylor Phinney

Phinney Bows
Phinney takes a bow in Pismo Beach, 2014

By now, if you perused the internet in the last 12 hours, you’ve heard that American cyclist Taylor Phinney is about to retire from the sport at the age of 29. Phinney, the son of two cycling stars and a charismatic figure on the sport’s landscape for over a decade, will complete his last race in Saitama, Japan and hang up his bike for good, as they say.

Phinney’s career tracked my own time writing stories here, immersing myself in the classics, and at least sometimes hoping for an American to come along and take the place of the toxic Armstrong era in the eye of the cycling world. Not literally, of course, but Phinney was part of a coterie of Americans who could change the conversation at the classics, not the Tour, and threatened to win something really awesome. George Hincapie was on the tail end of this best years when Phinney joined BMC in 2011 but still a cobbles hound. Tyler Farrar was coming off a spring season where he’d won an actual classic, the Scheldeprijs, and taken fifth at the Tour of Flanders. But Phinney’s pedigree was on a whole other level.

I remember both of his parents’ cycling careers, having witnessed their racing days. His dad Davis appeared on the world scene as a fun, smiling Coloradan on the happy-go-lucky 7-Eleven team who had a knack for shocking the European establishment, not the least of which was Davis’ Tour de France stage win in the legendary 1986 race. Davis holds some sort of quasi-official record for most road race victories by an American, an incredible 328 wins.

But before I knew who he was, I remember his mom’s crowning achievement, the 1984 Olympic road race victory of Connie Carpenter in Los Angeles, taken in a dramatic sprint over her teammate Rebecca Twigg, just ahead of a small group. It was pretty cool, but the fact that I was just hearing her name said more about sports at the time. Connie was an Olympian beginning in the 1972 winter games in her original sport, speedskating, and she had won more titles in both skating and cycling before 1984 than I even knew existed. She should have been a recognizable American sports hero before her sprint in Mission Viejo, and certainly was in cycling/skating circles at least. [Shout-out to Madison, WI and a speedskating world that morphed into the first big generation of American pro cyclists, male and female.] Check out this video and imagine being a young American cycling fan then. It was all very new, and completely cool. With Taylor’s parents front and center.

Taylor’s decision to follow in his parents’ footsteps sounds simple enough, undoubtedly wasn’t, but in the end his talent presented him with a glittering option that was too good to pass up. He was a world champion by age 17 (time trial), and again four more times on the track. He was the first American winner of the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs race at age 18, and the first rider ever to win the race two consecutive years. He turned pro on July 29, 2010, at age 20, riding the Tour of Denmark for the Trek-Livestrong team. The launching of his career was already a big deal.

Then he did what he did. His best effort at Paris-Roubaix was 8th, just last year, because the Classics are bloody hard and not very fair, and also the U23 version isn’t really a predictor for the main race. His time trialling prowess seemed magical in 2012, as Taylor came within six seconds of a world championship and got to wear the maglia rosa for three days after a prologue win at the Giro. Then another successful season in 2013 which ended with a career-damaging crash at the US nationals. He wouldn’t return until the following summer, where once more, with drama, he won a stage of the USAPCC in his home state, as if he’d never left.

Taylor Phinney Richmond ITT
Phinney in Richmond

But he had, and his career was not quite the same from then on. Significantly, he took up painting in his time off the bike, experiencing personal growth in a way that is rarely afforded pro cyclists. The life of a pro cyclist is: drop out of school, train, race, train, race, train, race, etc etc then suddenly retire and start your life at age 35 or so. Phinney could be a cyclist, lord knows he was gifted enough, but he figured out that he didn’t have to be, and in his farewell on Instagram he declared that in the battle of cycling versus art, art won.

Maybe that’s the tagline for his cycling turn: art won. The backstory, the dramatic moments, the raw emotions such as we saw in his most memorable effort, his forced retirement from the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico based on the time cut... all of this feels like art. To me, that sequence of events was unforgettable. With his eyes on a final-stage ITT win, Phinney refused to join the masses being cut from the race on a wet, miserable day that included numerous laps over the Porto Sant’Elpidio. Phinney soloed for 120km trying to remain in contention. He talked of how he was motivated by thoughts of his dad, who struggled through every day with Parkinson’s disease, a condition that makes even simple actions difficult. He shed a few tears along the way, digging deep into the emotions of an emotional sport. A week later, on a course scarcely better and shortened by some snowfall on the Turchino Pass, Phinney soldiered his way into the star-studded leading group at Milano-Sanremo, eventually taking seventh behind Gerald Ciolek, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara and others. He triumphed by digging well beyond his pedigree, into the depth of his soul, and it was pretty cool.

Cycling : 104Th Milan - Sanremo 2013
Phinney arrives in Sanremo
Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

Phinney experienced tremendous highs and lows, promise and disappointment, drudgery and thrills, and both sides of the luck coin. In other words, he had a cycling career. As unique as he is, and was on the bike, his experience maybe didn’t make him so different from his many friends and colleagues in the sport, but rather more like one of them.

Phinney PdC

Aw, thanks dude! [He seems to have been liked or even loved by the press who knew him well, and was a fun person to talk to on the few occasions he spoke with the Cafe. So even though I don’t know him, I’m comfortable saying he’s a good dude and I wish him well in his new life.]