Tanner: Phinney hopes 'wild cards' shake up Tour de France

Tanner: Phinney hopes 'wild cards' shake up Tour de France

July 5th, 2014 by Jim Tanner in Sports - Columns

Taylor Phinney looks ahead while competing at the USA Cycling pro time trial championships at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., on Saturday, May 24, 2014. Phinney placed first in the race.

Taylor Phinney looks ahead while competing at the...

Photo by Erin O. Smith /Times Free Press.

Just over 70 years ago, the Allied forces of World War II crossed the English Channel from Britain to liberate France on D-Day, but this year the forces of professional cycling are heading in the opposite direction.

The 101st edition of the Tour de France starts this morning in Northern England with a 119-mile stage from Leeds to Harrogate followed by two more stages in England before the race gets to France (with a short stopover in Belgium) to finish the 2,277-mile route that will end up July 27 with the traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées in Paris.

The race is the pinnacle of the sport of cycling, and watching the start this morning will be bittersweet for one American rider who won't be on the start line because of a bad crash in Chattanooga.

BMC Racing's Taylor Phinney was aiming toward his first Tour de France this year before breaking his leg on a Lookout Mountain descent on Memorial Day while competing in the USA Cycling Professional Road Race Championships.

Instead he's recovering at home in Colorado and learning a hard lesson in how fragile life can be.

"You now realize how lucky you are to be able to do what I do for a living," Phinney said this week, "and you realize that that could be taken away with another accident."

With the cycling career on hold for now, Phinney shared some of his thoughts on how he thinks the 2014 Tour de France could play out.

Britain's Chris Froome is back to defend his title, and his main challenger is expected to be Alberto Contador, but Phinney said the first week likely will produce some surprises that could cause chaos in the peloton.

"I think the general public points at Froome and Contador as the two main guys to look for," he said, "but I think there's a lot of wild cards who could come out of the woodwork.

"There's a lot of interesting stages. You always have interesting stages in the first week that can shake things up, but this Tour more than ever with the cobbled sections on stage five and those stages in England."

Among the "wild cards" who could make some noise early in the race, Phinney likes how BMC teammate and fellow American Tejay van Garderen has been riding leading up to the Tour,

"I know he's really motivated, and he has the potential to do well in a three-week race," Phinney said of van Garderen, who finished fifth and was named Best Young Rider in the 2012 Tour. "So I think you'll see him climbing the ranks."

Another American who recently has made noise as a potential contender is Andrew Talansky. The 25-year-old Garmin-Sharp rider stunned the cycling world when he broke away on the final day of the Critérium du Dauphiné last month to surge past Froome and Contador and win one of the major Tour de France tune-up races.

"He definitely put on a strong, attacking performance on the last stage of the Dauphiné to win," Phinney said. "I think you had Froome and Contador marking each other a little too heavily, which allowed him to go off the front, and he's always been a smart, tactical rider as well as being strong.

"That is not necessarily something you can do in the Tour just because it's so long, but for sure he has the horsepower and the potential to be in the top five if not on the podium."

Other riders Phinney will be watching include 42-year-old American Chris Horner, who won the Tour of Spain last year; Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa; Belgian veteran Jurgen Van Den Broeck; and Italian climber and 2013 Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali. These veterans, along with some of the younger riders, could put the favorites on the defensive early.

"I think there's a lot of the guys who you've seen before like Nibali and Van Den Broeck and Frank Schleck," Phinney said. "But then there's some new guys like Talansky and Tejay.

"You mix the young with some of the older guys, and hopefully they can disrupt the battle that goes on between Contador and Froome."

As for himself, Phinney said he thinks his forced hiatus from cycling because of the accident in Chattanooga will ultimately help his racing career once he is back in competition.

"I think I'll come back and I'll be a lot more focused and will realize that I don't have all this time that I think that I have guaranteed," he said. "I think that's a very important change in my mental philosophy going forward."

But for now, the 24-year-old will be watching the Tour de France on television like the rest of us, determined not to worry about what might have been and just enjoy cycling's grandest spectacle as it winds across the English and French countryside - but hoping he can get a much closer view of the race.

"There's no point in dwelling on it now, so I'm just going to enjoy watching it," Phinney said. "It's a great thing to watch, and this could be the last Tour de France I get to watch on TV for the next 15 years."

Contact Jim Tanner at jtanner@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6478. Follow him at twitter.com/JFTanner.