Looking for a Gorgon

U.S. cycling after Lance has a flat tire. Can Taylor Phinney fix it?
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illustration by Patrick Truby

The soul of professional cycling has been so warped and decayed by the doping culture of the past decade that there are serious questions about the sport’s potential to survive in the long term, particularly in America. After the bottom of the Austin Witch Trials, cycling will need a hero badly to start what will be a grueling reformation process. Luckily for US cycling fans, a native son is poised to lead the sport out of recent dark times—22-year-old prodigy Taylor Phinney.

The word “prodigy” is overused and queasily defined but I mince nothing: Taylor Phinney is a cycling prodigy. The son of legendary American cyclists Connie and Davis Phinney, Taylor already owns a pair of world track cycling championships and narrowly missed out on Olympic glory, pulling a double fourth in time trial/road race. At the World Championships in September, he eventually finished five seconds behind eventual champion/human automobile Tony Martin in the Time Trial event. To put this into perspective, the field was at least 1:30 behind, and Martin is 28 and has won multiple world titles.

Phinney’s narrative and identity run parallel to the Greek hero Perseus. Both were born of the gods. The Oracle of Delphi prophesized that Perseus would one day kill his grandfather Acrisius, the King of Argos, so he and his mother were banished. The dark stain left by the doping culture of the United States Postal Service team on cycling and cyclists in America is Phinney’s “banishment.” If anyone can restore the soul of American bike racing, it is he, Taylor son of Davis. Perseus’ greatest triumph was slaying the Gorgon Medusa. It remains to be seen if Phinney can find a Gorgon of his own and slay it. But winning one of cycling’s Monuments, as the most revered and challenging one-day races are known, might just be the snake-haired lady he’s looking for. Phinney has surpassed expectations thus far, killing plenty of minor demons. The sheer volume of near-misses makes it very easy to suspect he’ll break through soon.

And all this at the age of your average college graduate. His precociousness is all the more impressive considering that road cycling is distinctly not a young man’s game. The best evidence of this comes in Alexander Vinokourov (a personal favorite for his tactical genius and lovable narcissism—dude wore a jersey with his own damn face on it after returning from a doping suspension). Vino was a fun outsider for most of his twenties, but achieved his greatest success in his final season, punking the living shit out of a stronger, younger Rigoberto Urán Urán to win Olympic gold in London, at age 38. Thomas Voeckler is 33 now, but has only shown his ability to be an elite racer in the last two seasons.

Winning a bike race requires strength, considerable tactical acumen, and a healthy dose of luck. But the best riders characteristically find ways to succeed. Taylor Phinney has a knack for emerging victorious already, which indicates that he is young and powerful, but he needs to develop a true grasp of the intricacies of racing to find consistent wins on the road.

You’re unlikely to hear much about it in US sports media, the most thrilling bike racing of the year is happening right now in the form of the Spring Classics. These are long (~250-300 km) one-day races, sometimes on grody cobbled roads, on courses thick with attacks that give the races a cagey, unpredictable feel. An analogy to a playoff-series Game 7 isn’t quite accurate but the stakes are similar, only if everyone in the whole sport made it to Game 7, and it’s in the Belgian countryside, and hey it’s snowing. The aforementioned Monuments are the biggest of the Classics and they represent the most sought after prizes in road racing outside of Grand Tour Victories. Lance Armstrong tended to devote his early seasons to racking miles on his legs instead of racing. He never tried, not even for a year, to see what he could do on the cobbles. He wasn’t alone in ignoring the Spring Classics. The non-rabid cycling fan is typically unaware of the beautiful racing happening before the Tour de France. Success for an American pro-cyclist is often blunted to a single objective: winning the Tour de France is the thing that matters. Remember all those Lance Armstrong wins that apparently never happened? Our new hero isn’t chasing Lance.

Phinney’s accomplishments best illustrate his style. At last year’s Giro D’Italia, Phinney won the prologue time trial and the right to wear the pink leader’s jersey until an unfortunate crash on Stage 3. Grand Tour prologue wins are a serious feather in the cycling cap of time trial specialists and Classics racers, as they grant winners a chance to show off and achieve in long races where climbers typically earn the glory. The company Phinney has in the recent prologue winners club is very exclusive. Phillipe Gilbert (Tour de France 2011) is the reigning world champion, Fabian Cancellara (Tour 2009, 2010, 2012) is former a world champ and one of the greatest time trial racers of all time, and 2010 Giro prologue winner Bradley Wiggins’ 2012 alone featured Olympic Gold, a Tour de France win and great/terrible sideburns. Prologue time trials are pure power races, a concerted ten-minute leg blast with nowhere to hide, no time to stop the churn. Phinney is as powerful as they come in modern cycling. He stands 6’6”, about a foot taller than general classification contenders. He was the best individual pursuit track cyclist in the world as a teenager, winning two world championships. That event is cycling stripped of all strategy, rationalization and thinking. It’s a primal spectacle, two men chasing each other, leaving no reserve of energy untapped. The move from the track to the road isn’t an easy transition, but Phinney has not compromised his insistent style in the name of conformity. Time trialing is the closest road event to the track, but Phinney has raced fearlessly in large road races too.

In last month’s snow-covered Milan-San Remo, Phinney made a bold and ultimately unsuccessful move to break from the lead group and chase down six riders in the final kilometers of the race alone (Skip to around 13:30 in that video. Phinney is the guy in black and red who comes out of nowhere). Solo attacks don’t work in cycling. You usually need your bros with you to A) hold off the charging pack of teams desperate to get into the Top 10 behind you, and B) make sure you don’t have to chase down a group of people all sharing the workload up front. It’s a testament to his vast skill that Phinney not only held off the peloton behind but actually caught the lead group, eventually ending with the same time as the leaders, meaning he actually finished within one second of the last of the six-man break, trailing the sprint finish by a few bike lengths.

Phinney recently missed out on adding a Paris-Roubaix crown to his U23 title, but there is a definite sense when watching him race that a breakthrough is coming. He was off the front of the Paris-Roubaix race, initiating moves, but missed out on the right one. Phinney’s team, BMC Racing, features a stable of former world champions, the other Great American hope (Tejay Van Garderen, a climber and not as bombastic as Phinney) and two other world-class classics riders (Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan). The fact that his elite team isn’t using him exclusively to set up wins for its horses hints at the potential Phinney holds.

If Phinney can break through, he might redeem the perception of professional bike racing in America. This sort of statement is typically followed by a caveat that you can’t know 100% whether or not a dude is doping. Such is the paranoid state of the cycling world. However, Phinney requires no such hedging. He is vocally anti-doping to the point that he has spoken out against the use of legal supplements in the peloton. Along with a few other ride, he is leading a group in the next generation of elite racers working to ensure clean racing throughout the peloton. His racing for Lance’s U23 team and with busted ex-BMC teammate George Hincapie may make some suspicious, and simply denouncing doping holds no weight—but Phinney looks to be as clean as they come. He seems unconcerned with fluff and pomp. He just wants to race in the most purely human way possible.

Perhaps he alone can’t make cycling—or yellow rubber wristbands—popular in America the way Lance did, but that’s not really the point. His quest isn’t to grow his sport a la soccer promoters neurotically seeking to make their game truly explode in the USA. Taylor Phinney doesn’t need to be a hustler; he doesn’t even need to be a Messiah. If Phinney keeps his winning form up, he can turn Medusa to stone with her own reflection and battle a nearly-universal cynicism with his bicycle. In every iteration of the myth, Perseus kills his grandfather by accident. Taylor Phinney may be able erase a shitty legacy of scandal simply as a byproduct of his genius.


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