As the son of The Cannibal, the man generally considered the greatest bike racer of all time, Axel Merckx isn't easily astonished by anything in cycling. But as the director of the LiveStrong team Taylor Phinney rode for in 2010, Merckx says he was often left searching for explanations. "Following him in the car, sometimes I thought, how is that possible?" says Merckx.
Since Phinney took up cycling at age 15, he has defied expectations at every level. At 17, he won the junior world championship time trial. At 18, he competed in the Olympics, finishing seventh in the individual pursuit on the track. A year later, at 19, he won the world championship outright in the same event.
In 2010, he won 13 races, repeating at the under-23 Paris-Roubaix, taking his second individual pursuit world title and, at the under-23 world championships, winning the time trial and a bronze in the road race. To cap it off, at the U.S. pro time-trial championships, Phinney took the stars-and-stripes jersey by outriding the long-established star and odds-on favorite Levi Leipheimer by a tenth of a second. Says Jim Miller, USA Cycling's vice president of athletics: "Over the span of a career, one world title is exceptional. Taylor has five at age 20."
Of course, Phinney might have hit a bigger genetic jackpot than any cyclist in U.S. history: His dad, Davis, was the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France, and his mom, Connie Carpenter,won Olympic cycling gold at the 1984 Olympic road race. But, Merckx says, Phinney's mature (albeit often exuberant) demeanor is what lets him take advantage of his prodigious physical gifts. Phinney quickly understood how, says Merckx, "to be professional on and off the bike."
Visible proof of that came when Phinney decided to leave the developmental LiveStrong program. Instead of making his progression as anticipated, to the RadioShack team founded by his mentor Lance Armstrong, for 2011 Phinney signed with the emerging, more Classics-oriented American ProTour team BMC. He had defied expectations once again.
How do you respond to those who want to anoint you the next Lance?
No one's going to get the next Lance Armstrong. They'll get the next Tejay van Garderen. They'll get the next Andrew Talansky. They'll get the next Taylor Phinney. We're all individual riders and we'll do what we can to succeed and popularize the sport. Given our results, we're already on our way to doing that. It's pretty special, and I'm honored to be part of it.
Was it hard to leave LiveStrong?
I'm proud of how that team has grown. The start of that first year was a little bit questionable. Other than my win at under-23 Roubaix, we didn't have many results. But we were able to grow and learn. Last year, after a slow start, we basically dominated every race we were in.
How do you manage the pressure and expectation that build with each win?
It's not something that weighs me down. It's something that pushes me forward and helps me succeed. The most pressure I feel is from myself. It's also not only about winning. I realize the reason I race is to win, and for that feeling of winning—but if I've done all the work, barring any incident, I can be satisfied with any result.
You are one of the most-hyped cyclists in U.S. history. Is it hard to stay humble?
My family really helps ground me. A lot of people assume that any young athlete who's successful is going to be cocky and overly confident. I try to squash that. I don't want to be that guy. What I accomplished is big—but I wasn't even a pro yet. Besides winning the U.S. pro time trial, I really don't have any pro wins under my belt.