RICHMOND, Va. — A few months ago, Taylor Phinney wasn’t sure when he would be able to race his bicycle again.
His left leg was still swollen from a devastating crash on May 26, 2014, at the national road race championships. He suffered a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula, and ruptured his patella tendon.
But when his country needed him, Phinney stepped in like a superhero. If a U.S. cyclist could finish in the top 10 of the men’s individual time trial at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships on home turf in Virginia, Team USA would secure a quota spot for the event in Rio next summer.
“I didn’t try to think about it during the race, but for sure that weighed heavy on me in the past couple weeks,” Phinney said.
The 25-year-old son of Olympians Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney finished 12th, just over five seconds out of the top 10.
But Italy and Poland each had two riders in the top 12. And only one Olympic spot would go to each country. So Phinney’s 12th place was the 10th-best country in the race — giving Team USA an Olympic spot for Rio 2016.
His time of 1:04:06.44 was 1:36.99 behind winner Vasil Kiryienka from Belarus in the 53.5-kilometer race (33.24 miles). It was the first hour-long time trial that Phinney has done in over two years.
“I know that USA Cycling, they wanted to get a medal in this event,” he said. “It’s a little premature for me, but all we can do is enjoy our time racing in the U.S.”
Also happy to be racing in the U.S., Lawson Craddock — in his first world championships as a pro rider — finished 22nd.
After 14 months of rehabilitation, Phinney began racing again in early August 2015 and had notable finishes, taking third in the first stage of the Tour of Utah, then winning a stage of the U.S. Pro Tour in his home state of Colorado.
He was called to duty after BMC Racing Team member and fellow American Tejay Van Garderen broke his shoulder competing in the Spanish Vuelta in late August. An exceptional time trialist, Van Garderen would have been a medal favorite at worlds.
Since the men’s individual time trial was reintroduced to the Olympic program in 1996, the U.S. has qualified two riders every year except in 2012. At the 2012 London Games, Phinney was the lone competitor in the stars and stripes.
Currently, the U.S. is ranked 18th as a nation in the UCI World Tour with one event remaining, and Olympic time trial spots only go to the top 15 nations. To guarantee a spot in Rio, Phinney had to earn it at worlds.
“I think USA Cycling, and myself, we were kind of hoping that Tejay would have a good Vuelta and would be able to come to the worlds, and he’d be the anchor and I’d be able to do my own ride,” said Phinney, who is still rebuilding from his injury.
“With Tejay breaking his shoulder, I had to step up, and be like I guess I’ll try to do this now,” he added with a laugh.
But in truth, it was Phinney’s idea. Time trials have always been his forte.
“A month ago, I was talking to Jim Miller [USA Cycling vice president], and he was asking me who they should put in the time trial, and I had one of these like, ‘Put me in, coach’ moments,” said the affable cyclist.
But he was realistic about his chances, saying that he hasn’t been “sitting up in the clouds.” He also is relatively relaxed.
“I can put things into perspective,” he said. “The main way that I deal with (stress) is I think what else would I be doing?
“Like the day before the race, you’re stressed out, (saying) ‘Man, I’ve got to race tomorrow, and it’s a big race,’” he continued. “And you think, ‘I wish I was at a coffee shop across the street from my house, just hanging out having a muffin.’
“Then you really think about it, and I wouldn’t really be happy eating a muffin across the street from my house. I’d rather be here getting ready for this race.”
Phinney won’t leave Richmond empty-handed. On Sunday, he helped lead his BMC Racing Team to the team time trial title — adding a world championship gold medal to his collection.
His trophy cabinet already contains a gold from the U23 title in 2010, and two silvers from both the team and individual time trials at the 2012 world championships.
At the 2012 Olympics, he finished fourth in both the time trial and road race, and said it gave him motivation to come back for a medal.
In the weird way that bumps in the road have of changing people’s lives, Phinney’s injury may have helped broaden his cycling future. While he once tolerated self-imposed suffering — a necessity in time trialing, where the only force pushing a cyclist is the clock, not other riders — the thoughtful cyclist said he now approaches suffering and pain differently.
“I find that I’m better at dealing with pain that is inflicted upon me by other people, like other racers,” he explained. “Before, as a time trialist, you’re comfortable with your own levels of pain. I never liked the idea of having to go somebody else’s speed, like on a climb, which made that difficult.
“For whatever reason, I feel like now I can deal with that a little bit better. I don’t know if that’s an ego thing or what that’s about.”
Which could set him up to do well in Sunday’s road race. A top-three finish in the road race will earn him a spot in Rio.
For now, he is not thinking that far.
“I’m just going to go probably have a couple beers now and relax a little bit,” he said, and then I’ll think about Sunday.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered three Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.