U.S. CYCLING’S HEIR APPARENT
‘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.”
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.
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.