Rob Griffith/Associated Press file photo
Rob Griffith/Associated Press file photo
DORKING, England – Taylor Phinney relaxes on a low stone wall behind an idyllic countryside hotel south of London, looking perfectly at ease even as the tension begins to mount.
Phinney’s been focusing on this week all summer.
While his counterparts in the European peloton were grinding through the three-week odyssey of the Tour de France, the 22-year-old Phinney was in the high mountains of Colorado, training with a singular focus: earning an Olympic medal, just like mom and dad.
That would be Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who won gold at the 1984 Summer Games, and Davis Phinney, one of the pioneers of American cycling and a bronze medalist at the Los Angeles Olympics.
Together, they represent the first family of American cycling.
“I understand a little more profoundly the meaning of a gold medal versus anything else we can achieve in our sport, just having the parents I have,” the younger Phinney said this week.
Much like soccer and its World Cup, cycling is one of the few sports where the Olympics are not necessarily the most prestigious competition. The Tour de France is where legacies are cemented, and some riders would just as soon win one of the spring classics such as Paris-Roubaix.
But coming from a family of Olympians and from a nation that lauds its Olympic stars, Phinney is quick to acknowledge that wearing the U.S. jersey carries a little more importance to him.
“There’s a lot of times I talk about my parents, and the only result I list off from my dad, who won two stages of the Tour de France, is that he’s a bronze medalist,” Phinney said. “That could have happened in taekwondo, but it’s just that he won a bronze medal in the Olympics, and that’s something I’ve realized over time resonates all over the world, whether you’re in Cambodia or New York City.”
That became especially apparent early this year, when Phinney won the opening time trial at the Giro d’Italia, one of the marquee races on the cycling calendar. He endeared himself to many of the most ardent fans by doggedly hanging onto the leader’s pink jersey for several days.
The success barely made headlines in the U.S.
“Any other result we achieve, like a world championship or even a Tour de France victory, you know, that’s something that resonates with a lot of people but not necessarily 97 percent of the human population,” Phinney said.
Quite naturally, the Olympics have brought together the entire Phinney family this week.
Taylor has been toiling away on Box Hill in the Surrey countryside, squeezing in his last few training rides. Davis has been hiking up the hill on foot, refusing to let the Parkinson’s disease that set in years ago prevent him from his own athletic endeavors.
Connie has been rushing all around London, while Phinney’s sister Kelsey is working for one of the Olympic sponsors before she heads off to college this fall.
At first glance, it seems it would be easy for Phinney to be distracted, but the truth is he’s in his element surrounded by his family. He often drops in on his parents when he’s training back home in Colorado, and he calls them on a regular basis even when he’s racing in Europe.
“You want your kids to experience their own lives and see things through their own eyes,” said Carpenter-Phinney, who like Davis has tried to stay out of the spotlight this week.
“I’m trying to stay out of his head as a tactician because that’s not my role. He’s been well-advised up to this point, and now it’s up to the coaches to play to his strengths,” Davis Phinney said. “He’s got enough people filling his head with information.”
Phinney knows he’s a long shot to win Saturday’s road race.
The course is geared toward success for a sprinter, such as heavily favored British star Mark Cavendish, and most expect a bunched ending. If that’s the case, Phinney will be serving in the role of domestique, helping the five-member U.S. team pace Tyler Farrar over the punchy climb of Box Hill nine times and then deliver him to the finish line outside Buckingham Palace.
Phinney’s best shot at a medal will come next week with the time trial, where the former track star – a world champion in the individual pursuit – best can put his immense power to work.
Either way, Phinney knows better than just about anybody the price of Olympic success and the tremendous dividends it could pay for the rest of his life.
“I’ve put a lot of emphasis on this, but at the same time I respect the Olympics a great deal and know how seldom these opportunities come up,” he said. “It can be a completely life-changing event.”
Daniele Badolato/Associated Press file photo