One year ago, Taylor Phinney was struggling to keep up in the pro peloton. Dogged by knee injuries and oversized expectations, the American media darling was finding that living up to expectations wasn't going to be easy.
Flash forward 12 months, and a refitted and more mature Phinney was standing at the top of the winner's podium at the Giro d'Italia, savoring his first grand tour stage victory Saturday to become just the third American to wear the maglia rosa.
For Phinney, the victory comes after a season of reckoning and confirms that he has the talent to back up the hype.
"The last couple of days, I felt like I was back at my own rhythm and my old self confidence that I had when I was U23," Phinney said. "Some of that confidence was stripped away last year, when I kept getting my butt handed to me in a lot of races."
His high-profile debut season last year was anything but smooth. Dogged by knee problems at the start of the year, he missed a planned start in the spring classics and was posting less-than-stellar results.
That gave the naysayers plenty of fodder, with many wondering if Phinney had what it took to really shine in the punishing brutality of the professional peloton. A Giro stage win is a pretty solid answer.
Mid-season last year, Phinney admitted he needed to buckle down and work harder than he ever realized. He linked up with BMC Racing sport director and ex-pro Max Sciandri, who lives in Tuscany near Phinney's Italian base at Lucca.
Sciandri took Phinney under his wing, and closely monitored his training and race schedule. The pair rode together and talked daily on the phone, with Sciandri nursing Phinney through the demands of what it takes to become a top pro.
Last summer, things started to click. Phinney won the opening time trial at the Eneco Tour for his first pro win last August and temporarily held the race leader's jersey in the WorldTour event to finish fourth overall.
Then he rode 12 stages of what everyone called the most brutal Vuelta a Espa¤a in years - including a fifth-place finish in the long TT - before pulling out early to prepare for the road worlds. He rode to 15th in the TT there and then worked for U.S. teammate Tyler Farrar in the men's road race.
That momentum carried into 2012. After a strong 15th at Paris-Roubaix for the best American debut in the "Hell of the North," Phinney knew he had his mojo back.
"Last year, I realized I had to step up my training - that being a pro, you cannot just get by on natural talent. You have to put in the work," he said. "My confidence started to grow. I had a good showing at Paris-Roubaix and I had a good couple of weeks coming into the Giro. I feel like I am back to the old Taylor Phinney who is nice and confident and happy with his abilities."
The road to this point in Phinney's pro career may have been bumpier than he expected, but that made his pressure-cooker victory in Saturday's 8.7km time trial even sweeter.
Phinney's pink jersey is the fruition of a plan put into motion last year. Phinney and BMC Racing staff targeted the technical, narrow, flat power course in Herning as ideal for the 21-year-old's characteristics.
He arrived in Herning early, riding the course nearly a dozen times over the past few days, before another few passages Saturday afternoon to scope out how the barriers were placed on key sections of the course.
The pressure was piling on, with Phinney openly stating his desire to win the pink jersey and the media stepping in line.
"I've been nervous for a couple of weeks coming into this race, but nervous in a good way; nervous that I could do something really, really big," he said. "When I looked at the course, I made sure in the last 3km I'd have some extra mojo because that would be the most difficult part. I was in a deep zone of pain, which is always a good sign."
He started 17th from last, and after barreling across the line in 10:26 - the only rider to average faster than 50kph - Phinney had to nervously wait to see if a few TT specialists could top his time. None could. Alex Rasmussen (Garmin-Barracuda), Stef Clement (Rabobank) and Gustav Larsson (Vacansoleil-DCM), the most dangerous riders still on the road, all fell short.
Phinney celebrated by calling his father, former pro cyclist Davis Phinney, who is himself a veteran of the Giro, and was back in the States. His mother, legendary cyclist Connie Carpenter, was jumping up and down at the finish line even before it was confirmed that he had won the stage, and Phinney shared in the enthusiasm.
"To have the maglia rosa is a dream. It's an objective that we started working on since last year," he said. "I came here with good legs and a good mentality. I knew this time trial today would be a season-maker and a huge opportunity to showcase myself and my abilities. When I focus on something and put it at the forefront of my mind, I can usually come to that event with a very strong set of legs but also a strong mindset."
Phinney isn't afraid of the spotlight and seems to shine under the media glare.
During the post-stage press conference, he was answering questions with the depth of maturity and ease of presence much older than his 21 years. And he was doing his own translation into Italian, thanks to spending several years growing up in Italy when his parents lived in Veneto in northern Italy.
A Danish journalist asked the obligatory question: Are you the next Lance Armstrong? Phinney admitted he will never have the genetics to win the Tour de France, but he seems ready to carry the baton of American cycling into the future.
"Lance and I are very different bike riders. I am a heck of a lot bigger than he is and not quite the same climber," he said. "I can bring cycling into the forefront of the United States and help push the image of the sport to the American fan base. . I am not going to say I am the next Lance Armstrong, but I am the first Taylor Phinney. We'll see where that takes me."
The ride should certainly be interesting.