May 26th 2014 – that was the day Taylor Phinney’s world stood still. Flung into a guardrail while speeding down a descent at the U.S. road race championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the then-23-year-old’s left leg was shattered in two places after a race motorbike attempted to pass him on the inside of a corner.
It was a potentially career-ending injury, but now he’s back. Seemingly back to his best too, with a stage win at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in his native Colorado, only his second race back.
Now he’s in Britain, racing here for the first time, and looking ahead to the World Championships in the USA at the end of the month.
Phinney was in a positive mood after the first stage of the race, which finished in Wrexham. With BMC’s best finisher being Floris Gerts in eleventh, the Coloradan had a different reason for his upbeat attitude.
“There was sweet scenery on the first climb – that climb was very beautiful. I spent the whole way up just looking around,” he says. “It felt like I was on a very fast guided tour of North Wales, which was fun.”
While Phinney could spend the first stage of the race admiring the scenery, there are more serious matters up ahead, with stage wins on the agenda for the young squad.
“We don’t necessarily have huge GC ambitions, but we want to get a stage or two,” Phinney says. “So we want to do that however we can make that happen – they’d probably come via breakaways or on the harder days I would guess.”
The team has several options, with Dylan Teuns (top ten last year as a stagiaire) returning. Promising Swiss neo-pro Stefan Küng is also racing, and has already shown his ability on similar terrain with an impressive 25km solo victory at the Tour de Romandie.
At 30-years-old, climber Danilo Wyss is the veteran of the squad, while stagiaire Gerts will get his chance to prove why he deserves to move up from the BMC Development Team for good.
Then there’s Phinney, as hungry as ever, but with his eyes ultimately on a bigger prize.
“I would love to win a stage here, and I think my legs will improve towards the end of the race. That’s how they seem to be these days,” he says. “But in terms of personal goals the Worlds is what I’m looking towards. Obviously with them being in Virginia it means a lot to me.”
Phinney has a varied history with the Worlds, winning the U23 time trial in 2010. Two years later in the senior race he missed out on gold to Tony Martin by six seconds, while his crash meant he wasn’t part of BMC’s winning ride in last season’s team time trial.
Indeed, talk soon turns back to that crash, the crash that threatened Phinney’s career but ultimately caused him to miss fifteen months of racing during his prime. Surely there’s some trepidation coming back to the peloton after such a long time out?
“Actually I wasn’t so nervous, partly because I was racing at home in Utah and Colorado – I’ve always been comfortable in those races,” says Phinney. “It was a fun next step, and coming here is the next step beyond that – the smaller roads, the twists and turns – you know. But I’m just trying to have fun with it.”
“I still have to stay on top of my rehab – my left leg is still a work in progress in terms of regaining the strength, but I’ll just keep on trucking.”
There’s much to say about the cause of his crash too – a subject that has reared its head in recent weeks as Jakob Fuglsang, Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho have all been knocked from their bikes by passing race motorbikes.
“I don’t really know how it can be solved you know. It’s been a strange year with all the run-ins with motorcycles,” he says. “Maybe the answer is in the education [of the drivers] or maybe just have less motos on the road.”
“I think the main issue is that we never find out who those people are. It’s like – there’s a human on the moto, it’s not the moto itself. Right now they’re just guys with helmets on and not knowing who they are just kinda dehumanises them.”
So far though, Phinney has stayed out of trouble, and he’s still keen to emphasise the positives of motos in a bike race.
“In races like this we’re really thankful for the motos – with all the road furniture and stuff these guys really help us out and warn us about what’s coming up.”
Face-to-face with a potential early retirement just last year, Phinney is now back in the peloton, back where he belongs. As for this week, well there’s more scenery to take in, but another win would be nice.