Phinney can't wait "to impress the king"
NEW YORK -- Life is sweet for Taylor Phinney this autumn morning as he emerges from the elevator of a boutique hotel in Manhattan with a folded newspaper in hand, heading for breakfast: dialed in, nailed down, cool, comfortable and smooth, like a state-of-the-art bike feels when it becomes an extension of his body.
"It's amazing for me to be involved in something like this that's so monumental in the sport," Phinney said of his decision to sign with Trek/Livestrong, the start-up under-23 developmental team conceived by Lance Armstrong as part of his comeback.
"I've learned a lot in the last couple of months about the effect Lance can have on me in getting me to ride and getting me in shape. I don't want to let him down. I have a really good reason now, other than winning races, to want to train a lot -- to impress the king."
Until late this summer, everyone, including Taylor and his parents Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, presumed Taylor would stay with the U-23 team under the umbrella of the Garmin-Chipotle organization, whose argyle jersey he wore as a junior when he wasn't racing for the U.S. national team. Several Pro Tour teams had come calling, but his mother and father -- two of the most distinguished U.S. cyclists in history -- didn't want their son to go to Europe full-time.
Then Armstrong, a longtime family friend, made them an offer they couldn't turn down. Taylor signed a two-year deal, and in late September, when Armstrong held press conferences in New York and Las Vegas to outline his comeback plans, Taylor was at his side. Since then, Trek/Livestrong has hired retired Belgian pro Axel Merckx to direct the team and signed nine other riders between the ages of 18 and 21 from the U.S., Canada and New Zealand.
"It just felt like a destiny moment when I found out that both Lance and Axel were going to be involved," said the 6-foot-4, 180-pound Taylor, who is as relaxed and natural off the bike as he is hungry and intense on it. "To have those two guys team up and tell me how to ride a bike is a match made in heaven."
The Phinneys regard this venture as a brilliant merger of common interests and goals, enhanced by a deep personal connection. They trust Armstrong unwaveringly and are confident he will marshal the right resources to bring Taylor along.
They're also aware that Armstrong will be seen as a dubious mentor by those who view him with suspicion or worse because of the perennial doping allegations against him.
"I'm sure we're going to get a lot of flak," Davis Phinney said. "Connie and I are just going to have to absorb that. Lance is my friend, and I believe in him. I've been around the guy quite a bit lately, and I think there's no better person to usher my son into the sport."
Added Carpenter, who first met Armstrong when he was a teenaged triathlete: "We have broad shoulders."
"This was the opportunity to create something new," Carpenter said. "I think my child will get an incredible civics lesson being under [Armstrong's] wing, as well as lessons in being a great bike racer."
Bubbling underneath these events is the theory that Armstrong took particular pleasure in luring Taylor away from Garmin. He has a long, complex history with several people in the organization, including team director Jonathan Vaughters and team doctor Prentice Steffen, both of whom, under legal pressure, retracted accusatory comments about Armstrong's past several years ago.
During a recent interview in New York, Armstrong denied that any part of his comeback, including building the U-23 team, was designed to "screw over Jonathan Vaughters or Garmin or whoever. Absolutely not true."
"We thought the development thing in partnership with Trek was important," Armstrong said. "I raced with Davis; I've been very close with Davis; I've worked with his [Parkinson's disease] foundation. He is a dear friend of mine and I hope I'm a dear friend of his. That's more the story than anything that has to do with [Garmin].
"Do I think we can develop Taylor Phinney better than somebody else? Absolutely. As do a lot of people. Otherwise he wouldn't be here."
The deal came together quickly. It started with a simple message from Armstrong to Davis Phinney, the best American sprinter of all time and the first U.S. rider to win a road stage in the Tour de France, 22 years ago.
"Is Taylor under contract to anyone for next year?" Armstrong texted from Austin, where he was huddling with advisors to plan his then-undercover comeback to professional cycling.
No, Davis replied from the family's home in Boulder, Colo., where the Phinneys were recuperating after watching Taylor finish seventh in the individual pursuit event at the Beijing Olympics.
Then, Davis' phone rang. Armstrong asked what he and Carpenter thought Taylor would require in the next couple of years to help him bridge the gap between junior and elite racing.
Armstrong listened. "Give me a day," he said when Davis was done.
As promised, Armstrong wasted no time. He lined up Trek as a sponsor. He asked the Phinneys' advice on who might be a good candidate for director. Davis suggested Merckx, the recently retired pro who helped ignite Taylor's interest in racing during a chance meeting when Taylor was 15. "Perfect," said Armstrong, who rode with Merckx at Motorola in the mid-'90s and is close to his famous father, five-time Tour winner Eddy Merckx.
The Phinneys decided to let things settle for a while, but then Armstrong called from Aspen, where he was training, and invited Davis and Taylor to spend a week with him. Armstrong worked out with the teenager and presented him with a brand-new mountain bike. Taylor, a modest type who seems unaffected by the attention he has received over the last year, said he felt flattered but not awestruck.
"I see the way people look at him sometimes, and I don't want to be one of those people," Taylor said of overly reverential fans he has observed. "I joke with him. I make fun of him. We were just buddies, palling around."
His father saw something else: the way his son was absorbing Armstrong's work ethic like a sponge. "When I saw the way they were bonding, I thought to myself that there was no way we were not going to do this," Davis said of the offer.
Aside from fame and fortune, Armstrong offered an intangible that Garmin couldn't -- he has been close to the Phinneys for many years. When Davis' father, Damon, was in the final stages of terminal cancer, Armstrong stayed in regular contact with him. Whenever Davis called on Armstrong for moral or other support during his ongoing battle with Parkinson's disease, Armstrong was there.
Garmin-Chipotle owner Doug Ellis admits he was shocked when the Phinneys first told him they were considering another option, but came to the conclusion it was not a reflection on his team.
"The way it was presented to me was that this was not something they had planned for, but Lance is such an important figure to them, and this seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity they couldn't pass up," Ellis said. "It's not what I wanted to hear, but I believe that to be the case."
Under-23 riding is, literally, no man's land, where promising junior riders build up the base endurance and refine the tactical savvy they need to compete at the elite level. Riders in the category sometimes race alongside the pros, but they also have their own records and events, including a separate world championship. Rarely do riders younger than 23 compete in a three-week Grand Tour. (One exception is Armstrong, who won a stage of the 1993 Tour de France at 22, but dropped out halfway through that race.)
The longest stages in junior road races are about 60 or 70 miles, compared to double that in the pros. U-23 riders focus on training as much as on racing while they mature physically. The Trek/Livestrong team will have Continental status (two rungs below the elite Pro Tour), enabling entry to a wide variety of races in the U.S. and Europe.
Phinney rode an ad-libbed schedule in 2007-08, investing more time in track cycling than he initially expected, after it became clear he had a shot at making the Olympic team. He intends to continue juggling road and track with an eye on the 2012 Olympics.
"I definitely want to make my presence known," he said. "I'll pick a couple of select [road] races that are pretty well known and try to do well in them, and I'll potentially go to the world championships for track again."
Henderson, who will continue to work with Phinney, said the biggest goal will be "to increase his ability to train as a road cyclist. The fitness gained there will carry over to the track and enable him to be successful there.
"In some ways, he's probably a little bit behind older juniors in terms of total training volume because of the Olympics," Henderson added. "But on the flip side, he gained experience traveling around the world, facing phenomenal pressure. Now I'd like him to just be able to ride and be an 18-year-old."
Merckx seconded that notion. The 36-year-old, who retired after the 2007 season, was the 2004 Olympic road-race bronze medalist, and rode in support of Floyd Landis' 2006 Tour de France win but saw that effort go for naught when Landis' title was stripped after a doping conviction. Married to a former Canadian triathlete, Merckx was living in British Columbia and leading bike tours, pondering his next step, when Armstrong reached out to him.
"Taylor's only been riding 2½ years, and for him to go to the Olympics and do the times he's done is amazing," said Merckx. "He's a diamond in the rough. He still needs some polishing."
Most elite European teams have some kind of feeder program. However, Trek/Livestrong is not a farm team for Astana, for which Armstrong will ride alongside triple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador and veteran American Levi Leipheimer next season under former U.S. Postal and Discovery Channel director Johan Bruyneel.
"This was Lance's brainchild," said Knaggs. "We thought, we can all do this and really enjoy it and put our skills to work here. Our mission is to take guys like Taylor and develop them. We see it as college without school -- the life skills involved are not insubstantial."
Armstrong's one-on-one time with Phinney is apt to be limited from here on out. He has a full plate next year between an ambitious race schedule and his cancer awareness campaign. The one-time teenage phenom cautioned against weighing this 18-year-old down with too many short-term expectations, precocious though he may be.
"Could be field sprints and classics, could be weeklong stage races," Armstrong said of Phinney's future strengths. "We don't know. It's too early to even say. And it's also too soon to make him the centerpiece of the team. He's obviously a protégé, a big up-and-coming talent, but you've got to keep both feet on the ground when you're 18. We all have to come through and pay our dues."
The team will gather for its first training camp in Austin in early January. Kevin Livingston -- who is a former top support rider for Armstrong and operates a training center and coaching clinic in the basement of Armstrong's upscale bike shop, Mellow Johnny's -- will work with the riders. Taylor recently went to Austin for another stint with Armstrong, and was with him for wind-tunnel testing in San Diego in late October.
Aside from Trek/Livestrong and USA Cycling's own national development team, Garmin-Chipotle will operate the only other privately owned, full-fledged U-23 team in the U.S. in 2009, with an expanded roster that includes Danny Summerhill, a multiple junior national champion and world-class cyclocross rider. American riders from both the Garmin and Trek organizations also will ride for the national U-23 team in certain international competitions.
"It's an unfortunate thing to lose Taylor, but the fact that another group is putting a lot of money into another development team is a big win in the big picture," said Garmin rider Will Frischkorn, a former U.S. U-23 champion who rode in his first Tour de France this year.
Taylor said he felt conflicted about leaving Garmin. "I love to make people happy, and I hate to make them sad," he said in typical matter-of-fact fashion. "I don't like burning bridges, and by no means have we burned a bridge."
Ellis certainly hopes that's the case. "It's disappointing for us to lose someone who was in the family, but I think we'll have as good a shot as everyone else of getting him on the pro team when he's ready," he said.
Whatever results Taylor Phinney notches in races for the next couple of years, it looks as if he'll add another milestone to his already substantial list of achievements. He could be the first American cyclist to inspire a bidding war in a long, long time.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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