LONDON (Reuters) - For the son of an Olympic gold medalist and a Tour de France stage winner it took Taylor Phinney a while to follow in their tire tracks but now he is being hailed as the next big name in American cycling.
Phinney is only 17, still at High School in Boulder, Colorado, and two years ago he had barely ridden a bike competitively. His passion when living in Italy as a boy was Inter Milan rather than watching the Giro.
But, inevitably with the genes he has, something clicked his gears and now he is making up for lost time, already earning comparisons with seven-times Tour winner Lance Armstrong.
Phinney is the son of Connie Carpenter-Phinney, road race gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and Davis Phinney, who in 1986 became the first American to win a road stage of the Tour de France, though for the last eight years he has been bravely battling Parkinson’s disease.
At the recent world track championships in Manchester, young Phinney, still a novice on indoor boards, finished eighth in the individual pursuit to book his place at the Beijing Olympics.
“It didn’t really hit me until recently that I was born to go fast at something,” he told Reuters.
“I knew I had some of it in my genes so a couple of years ago I gave it a try and loved it. It has just snowballed. I love soccer but I think my head was turning towards cycling.”
Already a time trial junior world champion, he would prefer, however, to make his name on the open roads in Europe’s classics and multi-stage Tours.
“That’s where it’s at, the fame and fortune,” he reckons, though coy about the comparison between himself and Armstrong.
“I’m compared to guys like Lance because I have the potential to become an American cycling idol,” he said.
“I’m a big guy. Racing the Tour and winning the Tour you’ve got to be as skinny as a chicken. I don’t want to put any barriers on myself but the Tour is a different thing to what I’m making myself into.
“I’m looking at the classics, yellow jerseys, Tour prologues. In cycling it’s not like you just become the best like (Roger) Federer in tennis or Tiger (Woods) in golf, you become the best of your discipline.
“Eddy Merckx was basically the best cyclist of all time because he did everything.
“Armstrong focused on the Tour. After he got cancer he lost a bunch of weight and then he was just like a twig man. Don’t get me wrong, he is definitely one of the best. There is not a cyclist out there who doesn’t have him as his idol because what he did was so impossible.
“To race year after year and win that race when there’s so many things that can go wrong.”
Six-footer Phinney won a national title in his first track race last October and followed up by coming fourth in a World Cup meeting in Beijing and winning in Los Angeles.
A medal at the Beijing Olympics may be a long shot, but he is not going to China to make up the numbers. “I have high expectations of myself, so even what I have done is not enough.
“Eighth at the worlds was a bit disappointing for me because I go to races to win,” he said, despite setting an unofficial world junior 3-km record.
“Hopefully by the Olympics I will do some more pursuits and try and get everything dialed because I know (Olympic champion Bradley) Wiggins knows what he is doing all the time. He is the best pursuiter.”
Phinney’s love of soccer was honed when the family lived near the Italian Dolomites for two years, running their cycle touring business.
His father Davis had been diagnosed in 2000 with Parkinson’s disease, a bombshell for a tight-knit family used to spending long days cycling and Nordic skiing.
“I see how much that degrades my dad,” Phinney said. “I can see how that’s taken its toll on him.
“That’s why I don’t want to take what I have for granted and want to put it all out there, race as many people as I can. Try to become one of the best.”
His 48-year-old father has recently undergone surgery which it is hoped will alleviate some of the symptoms of the condition.
Both he and Connie are fully behind their son, but refreshingly realistic.
“One of things Davis and I have been able to give him is a good perspective in where this fits into the whole equation,” said Connie, an Olympic speed skater at 14.
“After the nationals last year we sat down and said here’s what’s in front of you if you’re to qualify for Beijing and it seemed a near impossible task.
“He said he wanted to pursue it and from that moment we said we’re on your team and we’ll do what we can to get you there. He’s done all the work. Now he’s going to Beijing. It’s nothing short of meteoric.”