It’s a clear, sunny day in late October and a perfect 65 degrees outside, and I’m thinking about the ride I just did—which will go down as a highlight of my so-called season. I’m sitting in the lobby of the downtown Richmond Marriott in the capital of Virginia. I’m waiting for Taylor Phinney.
Interview by Daniel McMahon // Photos by Ethan Glading
Most of the top U.S. riders are here for a two-day affair—part media event, part Team USA course recon—for next September’s UCI world road championships, a.k.a. Richmond 2015. Earlier today, I got to ride the road course with the team, an offer I couldn’t accept quickly enough. The highlight of the hour-long ride, pedaled at a mostly conversational pace, was seeing Phinney sprint ahead of the group and solo up a spectacular section of the course: the climb of Libby Hill. As I watched him hammer up the narrow, cobbled road, he had his tongue stuck out just like Michael Jordan used to in his prime. I wondered, was this the return of Taylor Phinney?
The man handling interviews for USA Cycling tells me I’ll have just 20 minutes with the 24-year-old Boulder, Colorado, native and Team BMC standout. On my mind, of course, is Phinney’s horrific season-ending crash at U.S. road nationals last May in which he broke the tibia and fibula in his left leg. He looked good out on the bike today, so I’m curious how well his recovery has gone.
Then he shows up, wearing skinny jeans, sneakers, a T-shirt, and a goatee. He doesn’t make a lot of eye contact, at first. He seems nonchalant, aloof even. I’m anxious that this might not go well. But once we start talking he becomes completely engaged and thoughtful. We end up talking for the better part of an hour, about influences, depression, riding buddies, and family. Most of all, we talk about how his injury and recovery have changed not just his career as a bike racer, but also his very outlook on life.
How are you doing these days?
Pretty good, but, you know, I did a lot of damage to myself. For one, I lost some cartilage in my knee, which causes most of the pain. I completely severed my patellar tendon, which they sutured back together. I still limp, and I can’t walk very well, but I can ride a bike almost normally. Things are getting better, and I try to wake up with a purpose. It’s something that helps you grow as a person and as an athlete. I’ve gained perspective.
Just losing complete bodily mobility. When you go through life, you might have some small pains here and there, and you might go to the gym and lift too heavy and you can’t walk too well for a couple days. But when you’re locked to a couch and the only way to move your leg is to physically lift it with your hands, well, all these things we do every day are taken away, and you have to come to grips with yourself and spend a lot of time in your own head. That’s scary for a lot of people—it was definitely scary for me.
I went through some positive times where I was ahead of schedule, and then some really bad times, like struggling with depression. I only came to grips recently that it was okay to be sad and angry about your situation. There’s only so much strength you can throw out into the world. You have to realize you don’t need to be strong for anybody, and that you can be sad and you can be weak and you can cry. That helps you come back out of it and be better the next day. So I have a different appreciation for my mobility and what I envision for myself in life.
My relationship with the bike has changed completely too. I got into riding a bike as a kid and started racing when I was 15, but I really fell in love with winning. I fell in love with being able to cross the line first with my hands up and maybe getting into the paper the next day. In high school, that was the coolest thing, getting all that attention.
When you get something like that taken away—it’s my livelihood, how I make my money, how I do everything. It’s why people like you want to talk to me, because I ride a bike. And when you take that away, you realize how important a part of your life it is, and what an amazing escape it is from your head, from your world, from your surroundings, to be able to go out on a bike ride. There have been times when I go out and my knee feels really good and I don’t have any pain and I can ride hard and then a little bit harder and harder, and I can totally let everything go.
How did you feel climbing Libby Hill today?
Pretty good, even though I taxed myself before I even got to the bottom. In the race it’s going to be more about the turns than anything else. In a big pack it’s going to be interesting with a lot of potential for people stalling out and clipping out. You can throw out a bunch of names of people who win races all the time, but I think we have a great chance. We always show up when it comes to racing in the U.S. There’s something special about it that you can’t really explain. And we have a great young group of guys who all get along really well.
You know, we went out last night and just went out to a bar, and there’s no infighting. There are guys who respect each other, who have grown up racing against each other but are also friends. We have a cool group. I often wish we could race on the same trade team.
Is Richmond 2015 a major objective for you?
I’m trying not to think of too many big goals next year until I get my legs even and I’m able to train and get back on track. You know, we’ve had a lot of fun here. I had probably one of the most fun days out on the bike that I’ve had since before the accident, yesterday in the rain by myself on the time-trial course. I forgot to charge my Di2 battery, so it died and I was stuck in one gear, but I was having a great time.
I realized how grateful I was to be out there, to have the chance to see this course. So I was riding these farm roads, stuck in one gear, but able to keep the leg speed up, and my knee didn’t hurt and I was super, super happy to be out there. I had the police escort and it was just me, and as we got closer to town I felt like it was me off the front by myself in a race, getting low, dreaming a bit.
I’ve never been to Virginia before and I love being on the East Coast, because you get that European sense of really rich history and culture. This is where everything started. And yesterday, just having the boys out and being able to play around a bit. People are always pretty reserved in a group setting like this. But Kiel Reijnen, Alex Howes and I, we train together in Boulder, and all we do is have a great time. A lot of our best rides are where we’re trying to destroy each other, and none of us have an ego about it, even if we’re not winning the town sprint. So we kind of got out there and hit Libby Hill a little bit hard, and I attacked before that, because I knew I wasn’t going to have the acceleration to follow those guys, because my left leg doesn’t wanna sprint yet.
Of your victories, one that stands out was your solo win this year in the Tour of California at Santa Barbara.
Oh, that was huge. And I see it completely differently now than I did then. Then, it was so spur of the moment. I almost immediately regretted going off the front. I was like, “You’re an idiot. You’re definitely not going to make this.” But you kind of tune that part of your brain out and you start to think positive, like, “Well, I’m committed now. Just do it.” The main thing I like about that win is that a lot of people remember it, and a lot of people were emotionally affected by it, you know? That’s why we watch sports. It’s entertainment. We want to feel something that’s sort of outside ourselves. There are a couple rides I can think of when I was watching the sport as a kid that I remember because of the emotions that I felt watching them, even though I maybe didn’t know those people at all.
Which of those stands out?
When Cancellara was in the yellow jersey and he did that last K kind of crazy, like, it was windy but there was also a sprint lining up, and he took off by himself and kind of past everybody and held them off to the finish. [Editor: Stage 3 into Compiègne at the 2007 Tour de France.] It was like, “How did that person just do that?” You wanted him to win so badly, and then it was just getting so close and it was like—boom!—you could finally put your hands up.
Not unlike your solo stage win at the Tour of Poland last year. You nearly got caught on the line.
Yeah, totally. It’s even stressful for me now to watch that. You know, it gets me thinking. We kind of have an obligation as athletes. We do this for our sponsors, for our sport, but we’d be nothing without the fan base. We have a responsibility to entertain. I’ve always thought of what I’m doing as entertainment. I’ve always loved being kind of loud and funny and making people laugh at the dinner table or in a team setting. So when I can do that on a bike, that’s what makes me the most happy. Just being able to inspire people and affect people I don’t even know. Even if I don’t know who that person is, I feel like I can feel their energy. I really live for race wins like that, where people are holding their breath. And a lot of it is instinct. I say, “Go!” and something inside me says, “Go!” And then I go, and then I’m like, “What the hell am I doing?”
Is there a rider racing today who you look up to?
I feel like I’ve been chasing Wiggins my whole career. When I came on the track, he was really dominant, and then he kind of left the track, and I started to go almost as fast as he used to go, then he moved to the road, and then I moved to the road. I feel like I’ve been steps—many steps—but steps behind him in my career. I’ve always looked up to him, because he’s taller and the track connection and the time-trial connection. And he’s a guy who does what he wants, really. He’s someone who can commit to a goal and put everything into it. He’s not afraid to put his flaws out there and make mistakes and put photos of him up on Instagram, like of him drinking with his gold medal after worlds.
I’ve spent a lot my career basing my trajectory off of Tony Martin or Cancellara or Wiggo, but having been removed from everything these past couple months, I almost got a taste of what it’d be like to not be a bike racer. It was hard. There were times when the USA Pro Challenge came through my hometown and my team came and hung out with me at my apartment. I was so upset I couldn’t race. But I stayed true to my mission and got better every day and gained basic mobility. I realized that sports are not the end of the world, and what’s important to me is that I lead a fulfilling life. I’m not afraid to let go anymore.
If you talked to me five or six months ago, I would have had a lot of fearful thoughts of ending a career and moving on to something else. There are still boxes I want to check and goals I want to achieve, but I’m comfortable moving on after I achieve those goals. It’s not to say I’m not motivated to get back and to race, but for me to be a good human, someone who contributes to his sport and community and country, that’s a lot more important to me than putting my name up on a bunch of palmarès.
Your appreciation of cycling has changed profoundly, hasn’t it?
You know, we all live for that moment to win that huge race, but that’s all it is: that moment. You have to understand that that one moment is fleeting and that moment goes away. You have to respect that moment and you have to cherish that moment, and you have to keep that moment for yourself. That’s all we’re in this for, for that feeling, being able to win that race, whether it’s the Olympics, Paris-Roubaix, or the Tour de France. Working so hard for something, and then being able to put your hands up at the end of that race—that’s what we live for. That’s why people can’t let it go. They get that and they wanna get it again, and then they wanna get it again. Most athletes have addictive personalities. That’s what brings us into the sport, that attention, that rush of being able to win that race. But you gotta be able to move on and let it go. I think having this thing that’s happened to me, I have such a different perspective of sports and life.
I do what I do, I work really hard, I race my bike, and I want to entertain people and inspire people. I want to talk about the sport candidly and be approachable. I don’t have a direction that I think I need to take the sport, but I have a direction for myself, and that’s all we really ever have. And you want to be able to help those around you. I like to promote my dad’s foundation for Parkinson’s, the Davis Phinney Foundation, and to help my family. I put my sister through college, because I get paid enough money, and I help my parents.
The sport is always going to survive, and the athletes; there are going to be so many of them, and people are going to remember you or they won’t. But in the end you do your sport because you love your sport and because you want to experience the highest levels of that rush of success in those races you’re able to win. And then hopefully that inspires some kid on his couch to get on a bike and think of you while he’s riding his bike. You know, you get all these things in life, and if you don’t try to enhance the people’s lives around you, then what are you doing?
This interview originally appeared in issue 36 of peloton magazine.