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Finish line hardly the end for Taylor Phinney, a genuine star

At 29 years old, Taylor Phinney is saying goodbye to professional cycling. Luc Claessen/Getty Image

Taylor Phinney will start his last road cycling race over the weekend in Japan. His retirement announcement, released by the EF-Education First team Wednesday, has been coming for a while. He's been spending less and less time on skinny tires and asphalt, and craving more freedom to create art and mess about with freestyle skiing. I won't worry about him the way I've fretted about some other athletes who start the first day of the rest of their lives with blind confidence that they can bend things to their will, the same way they did in competition. Taylor has accumulated a fair bit of insight about both the propulsion and limits of passion, and that's one of the big reasons why he's moving on at age 29.

We first met when he visited the Tour de France press room with his father as a 15-year-old in 2005. I chatted with him again a couple of years later at a party in Boulder, Colorado, where his family moved after a few years in Italy. He was lanky and sociable, and an old-soul depth glimmered through his teenager's adrenaline.

I was already acquainted with his parents, Tour stage winner Davis Phinney and Olympic champion Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who are inevitably referred to as cycling "royalty.'' That automatically conferred a princely status on Taylor, but I soon learned that he resisted any notion of entitlement.

As a kid living in Marostica, near Venice, he tagged along on the bike camps Connie and Davis led, but threw himself into soccer. He reserved judgment on his apparent destiny even after he started entering and excelling in local bike races around Boulder. His genetic gifts were tapping him on the shoulder, but Taylor needed space to pick bike racing rather than the other way around.

"I don't want to be the guy who peaks in high school, so I'm hoping that I can keep pushing after this,'' he told me in 2008, a track cycling Olympian at age 18.

That didn't turn out to be a problem. But even though his career had dramatic spikes and dips, Taylor was consistent in one sense. He refused to be circumscribed by any preconceived narrative, by anyone or anything, whether it was his parents' legacy, the sometimes confining lifestyle dictated by sport, the close margins that twice cost him an Olympic medal at London 2012, the gruesome 2014 crash that splintered his left leg like a matchstick, or the alt-rock-star aura that ballooned after his return to racing.

That magnetism was obvious at the 2015 world championships in Richmond, Virginia. Back in the saddle after a wickedly difficult rehab process, Taylor was mobbed everywhere, before and after his then-team, BMC, won the team time trial. His talent drew people to him, but he inspired real affection among fans and fellow riders because he was so obviously un-self-serious -- an accessible giant.

Yet the word "comeback" chafed Taylor, who preferred to think in terms of continuums rather than stories tied up with neat bows. "It'll stop being a comeback when I don't have any more pain on my left side, but I don't know if that's gonna happen any time soon,'' he told me when I interviewed him for this 2016 story. As always, he spoke deliberately, eschewing the conventional answer.

That same month, he appeared to have restored order by winning the U.S. time trial championship. But it wasn't just Taylor's leg that was never quite the same after that fateful descent two years before -- it was the horizon in his mind, which expanded with possibility when he picked up a paintbrush in between physical therapy sessions and started to think of himself as an artist. I think that would have happened in the natural course of things anyway, but the layoff hastened the process.

Taylor's achievements, or "palmares" in the French term adopted by cycling, include the pink leader's jersey in the Giro d'Italia and multiple world championship medals and national titles. That list could have been even longer but for injuries and a few random flaps of a butterfly's wings. The track cycling event he was cut out to conquer, the individual pursuit, was dropped from the Olympic program. His size and strength seemed so well-suited to the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix, a race he won twice as an under-23 rider and started six times at the top level. After his best showing, an eighth-place finish in 2018, his grime-streaked face was a study in mixed satisfaction and thwarted ambition.

Taylor has been visualizing what lies beyond the finish line for some time now. He understands better than most how to manage expectations. He also knows, though he never made a big deal out of it, what not to presume. Life can change in an instant with a bike wreck, or in a gradual time-lapse sequence, as it has with his father's Parkinson's Disease.

I've appreciated the thrills, the laughs, the interesting conversations over the years. But the best part of covering Taylor was something that's very hard to come by in cycling, or any other sport where stars learn early to dissemble and deflect, or any high-pressure field of endeavor, for that matter: I believed what he had to say.