He's got the genes and the killer instinct, and at age 18 cyclist Taylor Phinney is a good bet to medal in Beijing. But more important than any Olympic hardware for the prodigy is that, after radical brain surgery, his dad—the legendary Davis Phinney—is back in the saddle.
Even from the cheap seats, you can hear the thing whine. Taylor Phinney is pedaling his bike on a stationary trainer on the infield of the velodrome at Los Angeles' Home Depot Center, and he's got it absolutely redlined. His long legs pump up and down, his cheeks flare in and out, and the blade-spoked rear wheel whips around so fast that if you were anywhere in the vicinity you might count your fingers just to make sure they were still attached.
The arena is practically full, with more than a thousand spectators in the stands. Hundreds of other riders, coaches, and officials crowd the infield—but Taylor is the only one with a battery of cameras pointed at him. A Sports Illustrated reporter skulks around, while a trainer stands by with a water bottle. One of his coaches, Neal Henderson, holds a stopwatch; a mechanic holds his racing wheels; and another coach stands ready to paste a number onto his back.
"It takes a village," quips Jonathan Vaughters, who had the bright idea to sign Phinney to his Garmin-Chipotle junior team before he'd competed in a single race. (5280 is a sponsor of Garmin-Chipotle.)
The next four and a half minutes—preferably less—will be the most important of Phinney's sporting life so far: It's the qualifying round of the individual pursuit at the U.C.I. Track World Cup, an event at which Phinney is ranked among the best in the world—having raced it exactly three times before tonight. If he does well, he will be one step closer to qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. If not, he might as well forget it.
It's mid-January, and in the past six months Phinney has gone from being a relative unknown—albeit with a famous name—to cycling's Next Big Thing. It started last August, when he won the Junior World Championship title in the time trial. Two months later, he went to the U.S. track cycling championships, never having raced in a velodrome before, and won the individual pursuit title, blowing the padded shorts off seasoned professional racers. Then he hit the World Cup circuit, and in his first two outings, against top international fields, he finished ninth and fourth.
Yet in spite of the pressure, and in spite of his age, Taylor seems an island of calm in the sea of frantic activity. It's not just an effect of his mirrored Oakley shades or his white iPod earbuds, either. "See how relaxed he is, how calm?" marvels Allen Lim, Garmin-Chipotle's sports physiologist. "Most teenagers would get incredibly impatient. I joke about dumping buckets of water on him during his workouts and hiring go-go dancers. He's immune to distraction."
This year, Taylor's been featured in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, and hailed as his generation's Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong. The yellow Livestrong bracelet on one arm came straight off the wrist of Armstrong himself, while the red "WristStrong" band on his other arm came from comedian Stephen Colbert. Whether or not he adds to his family's collection of Olympic hardware—his mom won a gold medal in 1984, while his dad took home a bronze the same year, which makes Taylor a sort of crown prince of Boulder's athletic aristocracy—sponsors are already lining up to throw lucrative contracts at him.
It seems safe to say, then, that it's a pretty good time to be Taylor Phinney. While he was technically still in high school this past spring, he was taking just two classes, one of which was Literature of Film. He finished up at 12:30 each afternoon, which left plenty of time for training and playing Burnout Paradise, his favorite video game. And then there's his girlfriend, Sophie Allen, a Boulder High junior, all-state swimmer, and six-foot-tall model. As Lim puts it, "He's on the ride of his life right now."
Back at the Home Depot Center, someone hands Taylor a smooth, white helmet that's shaped like a spaceship to reduce drag as he flies around the track. But the helmet doesn't fit; it belongs to another rider, who evidently has a smaller head, and the straps are too short. Now Davis steps up, limping and slightly stooped, his head bobbing and left hand quaking like an animated figure in a video game. Carefully, he tries to will his trembling hands to do their job, which is to thread a green zip-tie through the helmet loops and thus lengthen the strap. The job is not made easier by the green cast on his wrist, a souvenir from his fall a few weeks earlier. Taylor stands patiently while his dad manages to join the ends of the tie and pulls it snug. Then Davis reaches in with a pair of pliers, ever so slowly and carefully, to snip off the excess length of the tie, rolling and bobbing until—snip!—mission accomplished. Taylor gives his dad a grateful hug and rolls off to the start.