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GREENVILLE, S.C. -- What transpired this weekend at the U.S. national road cycling championships wasn't so much a changing of the guard as a non-violent coup d'état.
Trek-Livestrong's Taylor Phinney and Ben King, a combined age 41, overthrew their elders in two extraordinary -- and extraordinarily different -- races that made everyone forget about a field somewhat depleted by end-of-the-season fatigue and indifference.
The time trial won by Phinney had a mere 15 entrants, but everyone knew it boiled down to an even smaller match race between him and RadioShack's Levi Leipheimer. Phinney, starting second-to-last, buzzed by his three-minute man and stopped just past the finish line to watch the digital timer tick down his fate. He wound up winning by the narrowest margin in the event's 25-year history -- 0.14 seconds, a mere push of the pedal.
King's victory was far more unexpected, and made him the first U.S. cyclist to hold the under-23 and senior elite titles simultaneously. On a punishingly hot, humid day that would whittle the peloton down to 44 finishers, King gambled on a small breakaway that went from the gun, never imagining he would solo to the finish. As the gap stretched taffy-like to five, 10, and finally 18 minutes before a lethargic peloton roused itself, King still assumed he'd be reeled in eventually and thought he might try to help Phinney or one of the RadioShack riders "when the selection was made behind me."
Except it never was. King came into the finishing circuits alone as he had been for much of the race, by now "cross-eyed and delirious with pain." He'd been in this position before, having won the U.S. junior championship and the U-23 title -- the latter just last month -- with similar gambits. King managed to push through and his sunburned face split with joy as he crossed the line, soon to be joined by Phinney, who embraced him with a look of equally happy disbelief.
The teammates may get to ride together one more time this season at the upcoming world championships in Australia, although the 20-year-old Phinney has already declared his intention to ride in the U-23 events. "That's been my focus the whole year," he said. King will have the option to ride in either of the road races.
Their paths will almost certainly fork after that. Phinney, one of the most sought-after young riders in the world, said he's still weighing offers (BMC is rumored to be the front-runner). King, 21, announced Sunday he had signed a one-year contract with RadioShack. The fact that his future team is the parent of sorts for the U-23 Trek-Livestrong squad explains why RadioShack didn't invest a lot of energy in chasing King once it was clear he had a shot.
In the absence of actual car-to-rider radios -- which are slowly being phased out of elite racing because of critics who say they make racing too predictable -- King got direct verbal support from the RadioShack team car. "You're making history!" team physiologist Allen Lim shouted when the car pulled within King's earshot. "This is huge!" In fact, the performance by these two burgeoning talents may provide some consolation for RadioShack, which had a decidedly average season for a team organization used to dominating the races it targeted for most of the last 12 years.
Phinney and King will get gypped out of a full year in their new Stars-and-Stripes apparel. The national championships will move back to Memorial Day weekend next year, a more logical slot on the calendar immediately following the Tour of California. If they keep riding as fearlessly as they did this weekend, they -- along with other 20-somethings like Garmin's Tyler Farrar, Andrew Talansky and Peter Stetina, BMC's Brent Bookwalter, Cervelo's Ted King and HTC-Columbia's Tejay Van Garderen -- will increasingly crowd the sport's senior citizens out of the headlines and off their home roads.