American Taylor Phinney will join Cannondale-Drapac next season. The move will mark a homecoming for Boulder, Colorado’s Phinney, who got his start as a cyclist with Slipstream Sports CEO Jonathan Vaughters at Vaughters’ development team, then known as Team 5280 Magazine.
Phinney will focus on the northern classics and time trials. The 26-year-old has worn the maglia rosa and finished fourth at the Olympics in both the road race and time trial (2012). He’s won stages at the Eneco Tour, USA Pro Cycling Challenge and the Tour of Poland, and the overall at the Dubai Tour (2014). Phinney has also finished runner-up at the world championships in the time trial (2012).
“I have some close friends that race for the team. And it just generally seems like the team itself has a good vibe. I also met with [Vaughters] earlier this year and really connected,” Phinney said. “One of the major reasons is to work with Cannondale, as an American bike sponsor. My first bike I got was a blue Cannondale that I got from my parents. My family, we used to have closer ties to Cannondale — when I was a kid, those were the bikes that we rode as a family. So it’s cool to return to that.”
Phinney has been haunted by the effects of a crash at US nationals in 2014, where he braked to avoid a motorbike and badly broke his leg. It has taken him years to recover, and at times he’s thought about leaving cycling. All told, the move to Cannondale-Drapac is a chance to remain in the sport he loves with a fresh start.
“This opportunity presented itself to bring my career into a full circle in one way. It definitely feels like a fresh new start, which I’m excited about,” Phinney said. “The last few years have been pretty trying, though super rewarding. But at the same time, I’ve been putting a lot of energy into recovering from this ultra-broken leg that I had in 2014. And BMC supported me through that whole process, and I’m really grateful to them for that … But I’ve changed the way I see things, the way that I approach things, the way that I appreciate things. Once the idea came into my mind of making a big change in my career, trying something new, trying a different environment, it was just something that felt really right to me.”
Vaughters saw how Phinney responded to his broken leg and decided to pursue his former rider.
“I’ve always believed he was an absolutely unbelievable talent. My concern for him was that it came too easily for him. That he was so talented that he never really had to learn from the school of hard knocks of bike racing. And I always felt like that was going to limit his career,” Vaughters said. “So the crash in 2014, the massive injury that occurred after that, was to me the sort of testing point to see if Taylor really wanted to be a professional cyclist or whether or not he was content with his first glory years in the sport — he could step away from the sport having done more in three or four years than most people do in 15 years … And all of a sudden, it became this question of whether he really wanted it. Whether he truly, really, wanted it. Not, ‘I want to do this because of my family’s heritage,’ or ‘I want to do this because I don’t have anything better to do,’ or ‘I want to do this because I get paid a lot.’”
Ultimately, Vaughters got his answer.
“In speaking with him over the summer, I got the impression that he did want to be a bike racer. His injury was severe and very difficult to come back from. He’s worked incredibly hard to get his leg to function again. At this point, there’s no reason he’s not going to be able to realize his full potential. The last eight months hasn’t been so much being held back by the injury itself, it’s been the two years of not having consistent racing and training because he had to be rehabbing this injury,” Vaughters said. “Little by little, he’s putting that back together. For me, next year, his health should be 100 percent. His motivation should be 100 percent. Now, it’s just a matter of putting that all together. Now he’s got to prove whether all the hype when he was young was valid or not. I hope we’re the team to put our backs into it and prove he was worth the hype.”
Phinney’s addition to the team bolsters the Cannondale-Drapac classics squad. He’ll join new signing Sep Vanmarcke and up-and-comer Dylan van Baarle (sixth at Flanders in 2016) in Belgium and France.
“Taylor brings horsepower. A lot of horsepower,” said sport director Andreas Klier. “Besides that, I think he is a very good team player with nearly unlimited possibilities when we consider the three weeks of northern classics. Taylor has shown plenty of times that he is high value for a real leader, and Sep is definitely one of them. I’m looking forward to working with them. I think if you add Dylan [van Baarle] to the two names we already mentioned, then we have enough people to cover those northern races. And all of them are able to perform outside those three weeks on a high level, we shouldn’t forget that.”
Vaughters said Phinney slots in as a support/wildcard rider at the classics, but pointed toward the Tour de France as an important target.
“As far as the northern classics, Sep is our number one guy,” said Vaughters. “Dylan Van Baarle is the chief lieutenant. So Taylor fits into a little bit more of a support rider, wildcard role in the classics. He’s a little less proven — 260k races, it takes a little longer to fully adapt to those until you’ve done multiple grand tours and have more of a foundation, which he doesn’t really have right now because of his injury. I fully expect him to be in the final 20, 25 rider selection in the classics. Without a doubt. That’s the number goal for the first part of the year.
“And then the big goal for the second part of the season is the 13 kilometer opening time trial in Dusseldorf at the Tour de France,” Vaughters continued. “We’re working with Cannondale on the fastest possible bike for him. We’re working with Mavic on new tires and wheel technology. And we’re trying to develop something that’s super fast for him. He’s going to do his half of the equation, and we’re going to try to pull it all together and see if we can garner a yellow jersey in Dusseldorf.”
Even getting to the point where Phinney can talk about goals again has been a process that’s taken time. He’s gotten here in his own, unique way.
“I just want to win. Because that’s what it’s all about. I feel like I’m to an age where I’m more comfortable with myself and who I am,” said Phinney. “I really feel like recently I’m coming into this vast, general acceptance of exactly who I am. And not feeling self-conscious about embracing who I am. I find that by sharing that and just being true to yourself you can inspire other people and unite a group around a certain cause. I love the idea of being able to step into that role a bit more also and let my personality shine through in a new, fresh way. I’m doing it already, I’ve been doing it my whole career, but I’m more mindful about it now.”
“I feel like I just got back to a point with my body that I’m able to think about goals and not just think about surviving these races. And that’s powerful,” Phinney added. “It’s easy to set goals. Yeah, Roubaix, Tour de France. Because everybody says that. But I want to get that hunger back, that fire, that real commitment to what I’m doing — that fully engaged, intentional, every-second-of-the-race, you’re in it. But if I think about the coolest thing I could do next year it would be to win the opening time trial at the Tour de France. To race the Tour de France. Because I’ve never done it.”
Photo by Kevin Scott Batchelor