Thirty-eight months ago Taylor Phinney had a crash that nearly ended his career. He had been slated to start his first Tour de France that July, five weeks after his accident. Instead he spent July of 2014 recovering from injury.
The long-awaited Tour start came three years later than planned. Phinney opened the three-week Grand Tour with 12th place in the stage one individual time trial. The result put him in a position to chase polka dots on stage two.
Phinney seized the opportunity, snagging the stage two’s only two available mountain points. He pulled on the first red-and-white-spotted jersey at the 104th edition of the Tour de France in Liége on Sunday.
“This was the plan this morning,” said Phinney. “To go out and get the KOM jersey. To have a plan work out on the first day of the race is great for the team. It impacts the general flow of things when we start off on a good note. This is my first year with the team, and I’m happy to be the guy that can remix the ignition as R. Kelley would say.”
The second stage of the Tour de France began in Düsseldorf, Germany and covered 203-kilometers en route to its finish in Liège, Belgium. The route featured two categorized climbs – both category four – at kilometer six and kilometer 183.
“We analyzed the stage, and the way the points were going to work today,” said sport director Tom Southam. “We knew if Taylor won the first climb, even if he didn’t win the second, because he was so high on GC, he would automatically get the jersey. We knew if he went in the break and the break went quickly, even if he was caught before the last climb, there would be a good chance he would still have it, an even better chance if he could make it further and get over the second climb.”
Phinney toed the start line 20 minutes before the neutral start was given to ensure he could positon himself at the front of the peloton.
“When he did that, we knew he took the plan seriously,” said Southam. “He applied himself and really got his head into what we had designed for the day, which is as much as you can ask from a rider really.”
When the flag dropped, Phinney pounced. His attack inspired the creation of a four-rider escape that included Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert), Thomas Boudat (Direct Energie) and Laurent Pichon (Fortuneo-Oscaro). The quartet had a minute over the peloton when it reached the first climb. Phinney sprinted up the Côte de Grafenberg to claim the single point available to the first rider over the top.
“We got out there on the road today and we were running in the breakaway, and it felt like a dream,” said Phinney. “You’re racing a bike race but there are so many people out there. And you’re like – what is this? This is unreal. This is the Tour de France.”
The peloton kept Phinney and his breakmates on a short leash. Their maximum advantage of 3:30 came early.
“The peloton never really gave us more than three minutes,” said Phinney. “I think they were a little afraid of what might happen at the end. I had no reason to think we would make it as far as we did.”
Phinney began to shoulder more than his share of the workload as rain fell more heavily in the second half of the race. A mass crash as the peloton hit traffic islands on a curve played into the escape’s hand. The gap, which had fallen below a minute, began to slowly stretch back out again. Phinney and company would contest the second climb ahead of the peloton.
“Sprinting up these little climbs to try to get the polka dot jersey, I was just flashing back to all these times that I’ve seen people wearing this jersey,” said Phinney. “I never ever thought I’d wear this jersey. Climbing isn’t exactly my specialty, but I’ll take advantage of any opportunities I have.”
Pichot opened up the mountain sprint. Phinney pipped him at the line.
“I had to fight really hard to win that second KOM,” Phinney noted. “Knowing I was going to potentially pull on this jersey was just blowing my mind. I was really focused, really wanted to make it happen. And as it all unfolded, it just kept getting more ridiculous.”
Pichot and Boudat fell off the pace set by Phinney and Offredo following the second categorized climb. Twenty kilometres remained, and Phinney bombed down the descent with Offredo on his wheel. With 10 kilometres remaining, the pair were 47 seconds ahead of the peloton.”
“I thought they would catch us before the second climb,” said Phinney. “They didn’t, and then there were just the two of us, cruising. I didn’t start believing until like 10 kilometers to go. Of course once you start believing, you get your heart broken.”
The peloton caught Phinney and Offredo at the flamme rouge. The stage ended in a bunch sprint won by Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors). Phinney crossed the line alongside Offredo.
“Yohan is a guy that I’ve race with for a while,” said Phinney. “We’ve always been friendly with each other. When we crossed the line, I grabbed him and said: “Dude, we’re friends for life now.’ It’s his first Tour, too. We went through something special together today.”
Phinney is the first American to wear the polka dot jersey since Tejay van Garderen led the KOM classification in the 2011 Tour.
“It feels pretty sweet,” said Phinney. “I was not expecting this at all. I’m a little curious about if we brought some polka dot shorts with us for tomorrow. With that said, if it rains and I’m wearing white polka dot shorts, that might not be great.”
Phinney’s parents, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter, dubbed ‘American cycling royalty’ by The New York Times, were on hand in Liège to see their son climb onto the podium.
“It’s been nice to have the parents around,” said Phinney. “They are so incredibly excited, which is nice to see. I have good parents.”
Following podium, Phinney hit the mixed zone, the NBC studio and the Eurosport studio where he fielded questions about his plans to defend the jersey.
“Man everyone wants to know how long,” Phinney said to NBC. “Just live in the moment man.
“This was a wild day. I’m still trying to figure out what happened.”