Prodigy. Pedigree. Perspective. With decorated Olympic cyclists for parents, Taylor Phinney was destined to be a bike rider, but a career punctuated by painful lows – as well as star-spangled successes – has taught the American rouleur there’s more to life than racing.
If there’s one phase of the race calendar that does capture his imagination, however, it’s Holy Week. Bookended by the devilishly difficult cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix and the brutish bergs of the Tour of Flanders, it’s a back-to-back brace of races that could have been tailor made for Phinney.
He’s been racing in Northern Europe since he was seventeen and showed an early affinity for the cobbles, taking two consecutive victories in the Paris-Roubaix Espoirs. He remains the only double-winner of the junior race, which is contested on the same potholed parcours as the professional event.
“Roubaix is the race that best suits my physical attributes,” he says, pausing briefly to run through the rest of his calendar. “Yep, I spend a lot of time being at a disadvantage or at least thinking about disadvantage,” he chuckles. Life is hard at the top table of cycling, especially if you’re an 85kg time triallist who regularly has to winch himself over entire mountain ranges.
There’s no getting around gravitational pull on a long Alpine climb but, on the relatively flat, windswept courses of the cobbled Classics, Phinney is a different beast. Fresh off the back of the Tour of Flanders, he can still hear the shouts of fans and rivals ringing in his ears.
“It’s like driving in really busy traffic where everyone is trying to cut you off,” he says with a wry smile that betrays the enthusiasm he has for these races. “And when someone does cut you off, they don’t apologise, they’re pleased.”
The pressure-cooker environment at these races is clearly stressful, but for Phinney the chaos on the road and the cacophony of noise beside it gives him energy and opportunity that other races cannot provide.
He has referred to the Tour of Flanders as the ‘Belgian Superbowl’ and likens riding through the crowds there to a rock concert. “The feeling of rushing through the Kwaremont, for example, is pretty intense. It’s not very often you get thousands of people yelling at you, over a section of two kilometres.”
“I got to experience it from the breakaway once, at the front of the race you get the most energy. At the back, you get a little bit more of the golf clap,” he jokes. “You still get some people who’ll yell your name, but it’s more like, we’re all a little disappointed in you,” he continues ironically.
“No, I’m kidding. Even if you get dropped from the race, the fans go wild and there’s a really nice camaraderie that you develop with the guys you’re riding to the finish with. Last year, I was riding with Ryan Mullen [Trek-Segafredo] and just having a good time. It’s an achievement just to finish these races.”
This year, the experience of riding Flanders was all the sweeter for EF Education First as Alberto Bettiol powered to his first ever race victory. Taylor regularly rooms with the Italian and his solo win in Oudenaarde has stoked the fire for Phinney ahead of Roubaix. Eighth in 2018, and who knows what Sunday could hold.
In typical Phinney fashion, there’s no getting carried away. It’s just a bike race after all. That said, the American is unequivocal in stating the importance of Roubaix. So, how does he feel for this year?
“You get nervous because you know you’re going into something big,” and then he exhales as if to signal that, by switching topics to Roubaix, our talk has really got going. “You’re going to fight some sort of a demon on that day.”
“Maybe you won’t even finish, you might be involved in a crash 100km out,” he continues, considering a small fraction of the possible outcomes. “You’re nervous about not being a part of it and you’re nervous to be a part of it too.”
Being part of the race for Taylor is less about taking the startline and more about making it to the final shakedown on the run into Roubaix itself. After his result last year, Taylor knows what it takes to make the lead group and sees the race as a contest of two distinct halves.
Before the cobbles commence, there may seem to be little going on. But for the riders, the experience is quite different: “The first part of the race requires so much patience but so much attentiveness at the same time, you have to be switched on and fully focussed for several hours,” says Taylor.
“You can’t switch off and start looking at the clouds at any point in time, which is something I am prone to doing,” he admits. The American is aware of his reputation as one of the peloton’s more offbeat members but – detractors take note – his eccentricity off the bike belies a sharp, unstinting focus on race day.
“Most people struggle to stay focussed for that long but at Roubaix I have absolutely no problem,” he says firmly. “Anyway, before you know it, if you’re in the front, you’ve made it and the race switches into a fight for survival.”
This transition is often brought about by the toughest cobbled sector on the route, the fearsome Arenberg Trench. Over two kilometres in length and paved so unevenly as to be deliberately dysfunctional as a road surface, the sector rips the race apart year after year.
“From Arenberg, you’re just hanging on,” Taylor says, speaking slightly quicker now as if fighting for position ahead of the next cobbled sector. “You know you’re going to finish, but now you’re actually starting to think about what position you might enter the velodrome in.”
It’s at this point in proceedings that Roubaix becomes more than just a race. It’s a bout between heavyweight boxers, a marathon and chess match all in one.
“The thing is,” Taylor smiles, “It’s not always the strongest rider who wins. Tactics in the Tour matter greatly but, at the end of the day, you do so many climbs that the strongest always rise to the top.”
“At Flanders and Roubaix, it’s different,” he pauses. “There are places where you need to be in the front, sure, but there are also places where you don’t need to be there and you can save energy.” If a rider can approach the last hour of Roubaix tactically, they stand a chance of beating far stronger riders to the finish.
The second of Taylor’s take-aways from last year’s race will come as a surprise to many fans. At the most prestigious single day of racing all year, in the front group, with the fittest riders, you’d imagine the pace is unbearable.
“The race is well over 250km long so the speed is not actually that high because everyone is absolutely torqued,” he says. “No one is throwing ‘long dogs’ in that last hour,” he continues, imparting not only insight but a new turn of phrase for a long range attack. “It looks crazy fast on TV but in reality, even the best can only raise the speed a little bit.”
So what’s the difference between the top ten and the podium, between eighth place and the ecstasy of winning? According to Taylor, it’s all in the mind: “You might be at the front of the race but you’re hanging on. If you can convince yourself that you’re not hanging on,” he says, “Then you can win.”
He pauses, perhaps imagining himself in the Roubaix Velodrome, arms aloft, before gathering his thoughts. Back to the present and it’s getting late on a memorable Sunday in Flanders for EF Education First. With the light fading and the temperature falling, Taylor is yet to sit down for a well-earned evening meal after his exertions.
Before he heads inside though, there’s time for a final Phinney quip. While his next meal is prepared, he’s worried about his nutrition after the race on Sunday: “Bring me some beers for the finish, will you?”
Typical Taylor, always thinking beyond the bike race.
The next episode of EF Gone Racing will be filmed at Paris–Roubaix and released shortly afterwards. Catch up on the series so far and subscribe below.
From Flanders in April to France in July, follow the team and stand out on the roadside with the EF collection. Ride in kit that’s identical to the team’s and cheer them on in the Long Sleeve T-shirt.Shop now