This week, Taylor Phinney announced his retirement from professional cycling. He’ll pin race numbers onto his EF Education First jersey for the last time at the Japan Cup on Sunday after a rollercoaster career – in this instance, the cliché is totally valid!
At just 29 years old, some might consider this decision a touch premature, particularly given the promise that the Colorado native has shown throughout his comparatively short stint in the pros, but this is a choice that has run the whole gamut of rumination, and though he’ll most certainly be missed, we have nothing but respect for him.
Like so many other talented young riders from the US and around the world, Phinney got his start in cycling through Axel Merckx’s now renowned development team, then called Trek-Livestrong. As it happens, Phinney was a founding member, way back in 2009, graduating straight into the WorldTour ranks with BMC Racing Team two years later.
Son of two of America’s top cyclists – 7-Eleven rider David Phinney and 1984 Olympic road race champion Connie Carpenter – Phinney was no stranger to the culture of winning and he quickly found he had a talent for it. What’s more, he found he was able to sustain it outside of the junior and U23 ranks, which cannot be said for everyone. The time trial specialist had a pretty steady stream of victories from his very first season with Merckx, winning not just ITTs but punchy road stages too.
He ends his career with a highly creditable 13 wins, but it’s probably fair to say that he really earned his supporters off the bike. Professional cycling attracts all sorts, some oozing depth and charisma, others content to let their legs alone do the talking. Phinney, artist and self-proclaimed “zen-ass dude”, falls definitively into the first category.
A low point in his career came in 2014, just two days after winning the US National Championships ITT. Hitting the guard rail hard on the descent off Lookout Mountain, Georgia, Phinney pretty much shattered his leg, sustaining a compound fracture to his tibia and a severed patellar tendon. The surgical scars are not pretty and any sort of comeback looked doubtful – despite the overwhelming pain, he remembers lying there and wondering if he’d just ended his career – but come back he did.
After fifteen months of intense recovery, he more than made his mark on the 2015 season taking his one and only Amgen Tour of California stage victory before winning a stage at the USA Pro Challenge in front of a home crowd. That was, as you’d expect, a big day for Phinney, but as far as career highlights are concerned, he sits it alongside seeing friend and EF teammate Alberto Bettiol win the Tour of Flanders 2019. It’s exactly this sort of thing that makes the world love him all the more, a testament to his team spirit, and a passion that transcends bike racing.
Anyone who has ever come across Taylor Phinney on social media will be well aware of his creative talents, and it’s this part of his life that is taking over, at long last. In his team’s press release, he said, “at some point, you don’t want to just be lining up for races to finish them. It’s time to take that energy and put it into something fresh, something new, something unknown. I’m stepping away so that I can be more true to myself, which means to make art, to make music, to create and cultivate.”
He’d come to realize that he wasn’t enjoying what he was doing any more, and the wise head on his shoulders had to face up to a decision. It’s one that we could probably all learn from:
“Talent is nothing without work ethic, and work ethic comes from genuine passion for what you’re doing. And if you are constantly forcing your work ethic because your passion is elsewhere, then potential and talent mean nothing. And if there’s anything that I can take away from the sport of cycling it’s that, you can be as talented as you want, but if you don’t wake up every morning and you don’t want that thing, it doesn’t matter. I think that there’s a lot of power in recognizing that you don’t have the genuine passion for the thing that you’re doing anymore.”
He may have finished in the top 10 at Paris-Roubaix, won a stage at the Amgen Tour of California, led the mountains classification at the Tour de France, won the U23 ITT World Championships, worn the pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia, been an integral element in EF Education First’s alternative racing calendar, but it’s his luminous character that the peloton is going to miss. Not that we should worry too much – he says himself, “I’m not going anywhere…”