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.
Thor and Mini-Phinney get back from their ride as Connie pulls some muffins out of the oven. Perfect timing, as always. "These have nuts," she says, placing them on the breakfast bar, "and these don't." Davis pulls up a stool and grabs a muffin.
He's a dedicated photographer, and it isn't long before the photo albums come out. One of the first shots is Davis and Connie at the top of a mountain pass in Italy, with an almost unrecognizably scrawny, goofy little kid next to them, riding what looks like a gigantic bike. "Here's Taylor when he was 12, and he would ride with our Bike Camps," Davis says. As Dad flips through the pages, Taylor grows up before our eyes, week by week and month by month, sprouting into a skinny teenager and then into a bona fide athlete, which makes his father no end of proud. "And here, you see his legs develop a little more," Davis says. "This is a good one, him and Lance. You start to see how he's sculpting now, how he's looking more like a real road rider."
Within months of entering his first bike race, in the spring of 2006, Taylor was good enough to jump up to Category 2, one notch below the elite level of the sport, but his parents decided to hold him back for a year. In June the Phinneys asked Neal Henderson, sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, to help coach their son. One of the first things Henderson did was put Taylor through a battery of physiological testing, to try and quantify his generous genetic gifts. He was surprised, but not in the way he expected.
"His lab results are very good, but they're not this remarkable thing we've never seen," Henderson says. "He's got his mother's and his dad's genes, but I've seen other people with similar ability, laboratory-wise, who have nowhere near the [race] results."
What set Phinney apart was his hunger to win races, a characteristic he shares with his dad, whose teammates nicknamed him "Cash Register" for his reliable winning sprint. But this past August, it became clear that Taylor had inherited not only his father's will to win, but also his mother's gritty endurance. Taylor went to the Junior World Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to ride the individual time trial. He rode all out and blew away his competition by more than 20 seconds.
Around then, Davis had a crazy idea: Why not enter Taylor in the pursuit, on the track? It was a perfect event for him, blending endurance and speed. Connie became his unofficial manager, fielding calls from interested sponsors and pro teams, and the family brought on more coaches. Garmin-Chipotle's Allen Lim fed Taylor's scribbled training logs and lab-test results into a spreadsheet, while Coach Henderson tested and monitored Taylor's progress. Taylor also headed to Fort Collins to work on aerodynamics in the wind tunnel. "It became kind of like Project Taylor," Lim says.
In October, with hardly any training on the track, Project Taylor entered the U.S. national track-cycling championships, where he rode the individual pursuit for the first time. By the time it was over his parents and coaches had started to think about Beijing.
Accelerating out of a standing start, Taylor brings his bike up to speed with a few powerful pedal strokes, then settles into an aerodynamic tuck, flying around the banked oval track like a runaway roulette ball.
The fans are screaming for him, pounding the trackside boards as he blurs past, his carbon-fiber rear wheel practically snarling as it flies over the smooth wooden planks. It's sort of a hometown crowd: Taylor has been coming to Los Angeles to train for the World Cup for the past six months, taking four-day weekends here and there with the tacit approval of his Boulder High teachers—most of them, at least.
Despite its name, the individual pursuit is not a strictly solo race: Two riders start on opposite sides of the track, and basically try to catch each other. That's why it's called a "pursuit," but it's really more like a duel. Since Taylor had the second-fastest qualifying time, which got him into the final round, the worst he could do was win the silver medal. His opponent, Dutch national champion Jenning Huizenga, would be tough to beat. While resting in a borrowed motor home before the final, Taylor mused on his prospects.
"He said, 'Wow, second place is really good,'" Lim remembers. "Then he said: 'What the hell am I thinking? I'm here to win a bike race.'"
Which he is not on the way to doing, halfway into this race. After eight laps out of 16, he has fallen a solid half-second down on Huizenga. But then the time gap starts dropping, lap by lap. "I kicked it up a gear," Taylor told me. "It hurt, but it was now or never, so you might as well give it everything. It was painful, but I don't remember it as painful."
What he remembers is the crowd, the announcer screaming, his USA Cycling coach yelling time splits at him until finally he was in the lead. He always finishes faster than he started, while most of his competitors slow down toward the end of the race. He crosses the line a half-second ahead of Huizenga to win his first World Cup race—and to become, in four and a half minutes, an Olympic medal contender.
"Yeah!" shouts Davis as he bounds back down to the track infield. "There's a new sheriff in town!"