Taylor Phinney brought a lot of pressure into Saturday's race at the Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Time Trial Championships at the Chattanooga Volkswagen plant - literally carrying some of it in a box.
He was the clear favorite Saturday after winning the same event in 2010 in Greenville, S.C., and producing a string of solid performances that included a fourth-place finish at the 2012 Olympic time trial in London and wins this season in the Dubai Tour and stage five of the Amgen Tour of California just over a week ago.
But perhaps the biggest motivating factor was an unopened box in his hotel room -- a box containing a national champion's Stars and Stripes skinsuit he had made.
"You guys might hate me when I say this, but I actually have it already," the BMC Racing rider said when asked about his national champions racing kit after finishing 51 seconds ahead of defending champion Tom Zirbel to win the title. "I didn't trust them to make a cool one, and I have to go straight to France on Tuesday [for a race]. So I was like 'We'll just have this set up for a template for future years if I don't win this year.'"
Phinney's decision proved wise, as he blew through the 19-mile course in 37 minutes and 48 seconds, well ahead of Zirbel in second and 5-Hour Energy rider David Williams in third place.
Zirbel hung tough in the first of two laps on the 9.5-mile course, trailing Phinney by just 13 seconds at the split.
"I felt like I was still in it at that point," the Team Optum rider said. "But for whatever reason I fell apart in the second lap. I didn't realized it until I was going through the corners a lot slower than the first time through.
"My effort was there, but I just didn't have the legs in the second lap."
Phinney said he was feeling the pressure as the race favorite, a position he normally isn't in -- although that is likely to change internationally if he continues to ride like he did Saturday.
"I was confident going into today, but I was actually super nervous," he said. "It's one of the first time trials that I've gone into where I've been an overwhelming favorite. I still can play the underdog card in all the [international] time trials that I do.
"This was the first one where everyone was looking at me, so I was quite happy to pull it off."
For Williams, a continental pro racer whose team only races domestically, the third-place finish was a chance for him to gauge his skills against riders talented enough to compete in Europe on cycling's top level.
"It was a real honor to race guys like Taylor and Tom, and to have them behind me was definitely a huge motivational factor," he said at the postrace news conference. "It's a wonderful thing to have the good guys here [at nationals]."
Now Phinney can finally try on his new skinsuit bearing the Stars and Stripes as the U.S. time trial champion after earning the specially designed uniform that has been waiting for him in his hotel in downtown Chattanooga.
"It is there in my room, but I didn't open the box," he said, laughing. "If I didn't win, I was going to throw the box away or burn it."
Contact Jim Tanner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.