U.S. CY­CLING’S HEIR AP­PAR­ENT

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Suzanne Hal­libur­ton AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN STAFF

‘Not only does he back up what he says he’s go­ing to do, he does it in style.’

TAL­LOIRES, France — Tay­lor Phin­ney was stretched out on a chair — all 6 feet, 4 inches of his lanky frame — drink­ing a luke­warm orange soda and pick­ing at a plate of sugar candy. He had just watched the end of a Tour de France stage from his ho­tel room, and now was kick­ing back on a res­tau­rant deck, tak­ing in the azure, pas­toral wa­ters of 18,000-year-old Lake An­necy.

Phin­ney, 20, has been in France train­ing and serv­ing as a coun­selor of sorts for the Cham­pi­ons Club, the foun­da­tion and devel­op­ment arm of U.S. Cy­cling.

But Phin­ney’s next move in what could be an­other ca­reerdefin­ing sum­mer is to re­lo­cate to a Tus­can town in Italy, shar­ing a flat with two other cy­clists and serv­ing as an ap­pren­tice for Team Ra­dioShack for the rest of the year. Ear­lier this sum­mer, he trained in Bel­gium, so much ac­tion tak­ing place eight time zones away from where he grew up in Boul­der, Colo.

Things are mov­ing quickly for Phin­ney, the hand-picked suc­ces­sor to Lance Arm­strong as the coun­try’s next cy­cling star.

As the 38-year-old Arm­strong winds down his Tour ca­reer this week in France, Phin­ney seems

DAVIS PHIN­NEY, on son and cy­cling phe­nom Tay­lor Phin­ney

to be on the cusp of some­thing spec­tac­u­lar.

“You can’t set ex­pec­ta­tions too high for him,” said Austin’s Bart Knaggs, the gen­eral man­ager for Phin­ney’s team. “Any time you set ex­pec­ta­tions, he just ex­ceeds them.”

Phin­ney, still half a year away from his con­trac­tual obli­ga­tion to be­come a pro­fes­sional racer, al­ready has four world cham­pi­onships. Given his ge­net­ics and his sup­port sys­tem, he’d be con­sid­ered the best, can’t-miss prodigy imag­in­able for any sport.

Con­sider the ge­net­ics:

His fa­ther, Davis Phin­ney, was the first Amer­i­can cy­clist to win a road stage at the Tour. He won more than 300 ca­reer races and earned a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics.

His mother, Con­nie Car­pen­ter-Phin­ney, won cy­cling gold at the 1984 Olympics. In 1972, she be­came the youngest Amer­i­can ath­lete to earn a spot at the Win­ter Games. Though she made her name as a cy­clist, she tasted her first in­ter­na­tional suc­cess as a speed­skater.

And now con­sider the sup­port sys­tem:

Phin­ney’s team di­rec­tor is Axel Mer­ckx, an Olympic bronze medal­ist and long­time Tour rider. His fa­ther is Bel­gian great Eddy Mer­ckx, thought to be the best cy­clist of all time. Eddy Mer­ckx has raved about the power in young Phin­ney’s legs.

And Phin­ney’s biggest sup­porter — out­side his fam­ily — is Arm­strong him­self, who specif­i­cally cre­ated the Live­Strong Un­der23 team two years ago to groom Phin­ney for in­ter­na­tional cy­cling.

“The past cou­ple of sea­sons, Lance has re­ally taken me un­der his wing,” Phin­ney said. “And that’s a pretty pres­ti­gious place to be.”

When Arm­strong for­mu­lated his come­back plans in sum­mer 2008, he also wanted to cre­ate a young team — akin to a mi­nor-league base­ball squad — so that up-and-com­ing cy­clists could be nur­tured for Euro­pean rac­ing.

He sent a text mes­sage to Davis Phin­ney ask­ing if his son would be in­ter­ested in sign­ing with a new team. Arm­strong then im­me­di­ately lined up a spon­sor (Trek) and asked Davis Phin­ney for rec­om­men­da­tions for a team di­rec­tor. Davis gave Arm­strong the name Axel Mer­ckx.

Davis based that de­ci­sion af­ter re­call­ing an ad­ven­tur­ous July he and Tay­lor spent fol­low­ing the Tour in 2005. They’d watch the stage in the af­ter­noon, ride their bikes, have din­ner in a re­mote vil­lage, then find a ho­tel with an open room.

Davis Phin­ney was blog­ging for a cy­cling web­site, so he had race cre­den­tials. He also had known Arm­strong for years, a re­la­tion­ship that had given him ac­cess to the race few oth­ers en­joyed.

One day in the start vil­lage, the Phin­neys ran into Axel Mer­ckx, who was two years away from re­tir­ing as a pro rider.

Mer­ckx, like Tay­lor Phin­ney, was a for­mer soc­cer player. And like Axel, Tay­lor had grown up in a cy­cling-rich home. Axel was a tod­dler when his dad won the last of his then-record five Tours. Tay­lor is the son of Davis Phin­ney, right, the first Amer­i­can cy­clist to win a road stage at the Tour de France. He won more than 300 ca­reer races, plus a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics.

The two also hap­pened to be the same gan­gly height. Few in the pelo­ton top out at 6-foot-4 — most are Arm­strong’s height of 5-foot-10 or Davis Phin­ney’s 5-foot-9. De­fend­ing Tour cham­pion Al­berto Con­ta­dor, con­sid­ered the sport’s top climber, is 5-foot-7.

Tay­lor Phin­ney, while on the trip to France, struck up an im­me­di­ate friend­ship with Arm­strong, who was win­ning his fi­nal Tour. The two since have be­come like big brother/ kid brother. When Phin­ney comes to Austin to train, he stays in Arm­strong’s guest house.

On Wed­nes­day, Arm­strong de­scribed Phin­ney as “def­i­nitely the best tal­ent who has come along in quite some time. Good kid, good genes, good per­son­al­ity.

“Like any young pro, he’ll go through some peaks and val­leys,” Arm­strong said. “But at the end of it all, he will win some se­ri­ous races. There isn’t a clas­sic he can’t win.”

Arm­strong was re­fer­ring to the clas­sic, one-day races that dom­i­nate cy­cling’s spring sea­son. Phin­ney al­ready has won the un­der-23 Paris-Roubaix race, which takes rid­ers over the dusty, rough cob­ble­stones of north­ern France.

Phin­ney also is an ex­cel­lent time tri­al­ist, an abil­ity that al­lows him to sprint long dis­tances against the clock. He honed those skills on the track, where he’s won two world pur­suit cham­pi­onships. He was sev­enth at the 2008 Olympics in the pur­suit.

Cy­cling ex­perts be­lieve Phin­ney is headed to­ward a ca­reer sim­i­lar to what Arm­strong was build­ing be­fore he was di­ag­nosed with can­cer. And they com­pare Phin­ney to Switzer­land’s Fabian Can­cel­lara, an Olympic gold medal­ist and three-time world time­trial cham­pion.

Can­cel­lara, who has been nick­named Spar­ta­cus, won two spring clas­sics this sea- son and has worn yel­low at four dif­fer­ent Tours, in­clud­ing much of the first third of this year’s race.

Phin­ney may never be the type of racer who can excel at three-week Tours, be­cause his lanky body type isn’t a good aero­dy­namic fit for the moun­tains. How­ever, he could be like a Miguel In­durain, who won a then-record five straight Tours thanks to his dom­i­nat­ing time trial skills and his abil­ity to at least keep up with most of the climbers.

Phin­ney is work­ing on his moun­tain legs. While in Tal­loires, he had ac­cess to all the Alpine passes the Tour in­cludes each July. He be­lieves his body will be ma­ture enough phys­i­cally to ride a grand tour by 2012, when he’s 22.

“Tay­lor has al­most stopped sur­pris­ing me,” Davis Phin­ney said. “Not only does he back up what he says he’s go­ing to do, he does it in style.”

Phin­ney last saw Arm­strong about 10 days ago.

Decked out in Ra­dioShack red, Phin­ney drove from Tal­loires to nearby Chambery for the start of stage 10. He spent time on the team bus and breathed in the daily chaos that is the Tour de France.

He then left for his calmer town, where Euro­pean tourists come to swim, hike, sun­bathe, hang glide and ride their bikes on the nar­row, twist­ing roads.

As he was sit­ting be­side Lake An­necy, drink­ing his orange soda and eat­ing candy, Phin­ney talked about how the one ear­lier brush with the Tour this month had mo­ti­vated him for the rest of the sea­son.

“It’s the big show,” he said, al­though he still doesn’t know if he can make the tran­si­tion to grand cham­pion.

“It’s a long ways off, but you never know,” he said. “I have al­ways been able to sur­prise even my­self.”

Jake Schoel­lkopf

20-year-old cy­clist Tay­lor Phin­ney talks with Lance Arm­strong prior to the start of a race in May. Arm­strong specif­i­cally cre­ated the Live­Strong Un­der23 team two years ago to groom Phin­ney for in­ter­na­tional cy­cling.

Alastair Grant

Tay­lor Phin­ney com­petes in the men’s in­di­vid­ual pur­suit at the World Track Cy­cling Cham­pi­onships in Den­mark in March. He’s half a year away from his con­trac­tual obli­ga­tion to be­come a pro­fes­sional racer.

Con­nie Car­pen­ter-Phin­ney

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