- Bonnie D. Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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LONDON -- Taylor Phinney turned 22 years old in June and knows he has a lot of years to win bike races, but he's still willing to burn a box of matches going after one now.
So when Saturday's Olympic road race took a surprising turn in the late going, Phinney -- inspired by the aggressive support provided by U.S. teammates Timmy Duggan and Tejay Van Garderen -- pushed himself "beyond what I thought my body was capable of," he said.
A 155-mile race with nine short but successively wearing climbs over the same hill is not the ideal course for the 6-foot-5, 180-pound Phinney. Yet halfway through those circuits, he became a lucky pawn in a big chess game that pitted Great Britain versus most of the rest of the world.
When a group of about 30 breakaway riders re-entered central London, distancing the main peloton and crushing the chances of favorite Mark Cavendish with every pedal stroke, Phinney figured he had a puncher's chance for a top-three finish in a sprint.
Eventual winner Alexandre Vinokourov of Kazakhstan took off with Colombia's Rigoberto Uran and left the remaining riders in the break to joust for a single medal. Phinney was edged out at the line by Norway's Alexander Kristoff and had to settle for that most forlorn of places -- the one adjacent to, but not on, the podium. He felt his eyes welling up and sat down on the asphalt to collect himself. Moments later, however, he showed that his perspective and dry sense of humor were intact.
"Never give up, never surrender, and you might finish fourth in the Olympics," Phinney said with a wan smile.
Phinney said the effort would make him even hungrier for Wednesday's time trial, in which he will be the U.S. team's lone entry, and didn't waste a second on the road worrying about whether he was depleting himself.
"I'm in the front group at the Olympic Games, 40 kilometers to go, I'm not gonna start thinking about a time trial at that point in time," Phinney said. "Now I have three days to lie in bed and hopefully not watch replays of this race and cry, curled up in a ball."
The five-man U.S. team went in with a plan to send Duggan up the road in an early break and keep Tyler Farrar back in the pack with other bunch sprint specialists such as Cavendish and Germany's Andre Greipel. From there, it was all improvisation.
Duggan and others in a small breakaway helped push the pace to try to take as much out of Team GB's legs as possible. Germany was disinclined to help the home quintet, which included Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins. But after multiple attacks over the nine ascents of Box Hill in Surrey, the time gap between the break and the Team GB-led peloton was still small enough that it looked as if Cavendish's mates had succeeded in controlling the race for him.
That proved to be a premature assessment. Another group -- numbering about 30 and swelled by more contenders this time -- took off after the last descent and pulled away in a decisive move. Phinney, Van Garderen and Duggan were joined by Spanish and Swiss contingents, and this time, it was Van Garderen -- fresh from an impressive Tour de France in which he landed on the final podium as the Best Young (under-25) Rider -- who put himself in the front.
Van Garderen, 23, helped set such a torrid pace that Phinney -- already depleted after having been dropped on the last two climbs up Box Hill, only to be brought back by Duggan -- doubted he could hang on.
"[Van Garderen] threw away his chances for me, sacrificed his ride for me," Phinney said. "I was sitting back there, I was cramping a little bit, didn't feel so great. But when I see him do that, it instills confidence in me. Because I know he would only do that because he thinks that I have a chance. So I was just playing this mind game the last 40 [kilometers], telling myself that I could win, I could medal."
Phinney was so bleary that he barely noticed when Swiss strongman Fabian Cancellara wrecked on a curve. (No word yet on whether he'll be able to defend his 2008 Olympic gold in the time trial.)
"You get to a point in the race in the last half-hour where you're just following the wheel ahead of you, trying not to crash, telling yourself you're gonna be OK," Phinney said. "I was sitting 30th wheel with 30-40K to go, and I was not in a happy place."
Duggan, his face streaked with road grime, said the team played its strongest cards.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "We did our best, did everything right, but at the end of the day this race, with a big, wide-open finish, is kind of a gamble."
The massive crowds along the route were there for a Cavendish coronation, but Duggan said the peloton collectively knew Team GB could be exposed with the right tactics.
"Cav has four guys riding for him on a straight flat run-in," he said. "It doesn't matter how fast they are, four guys aren't going to be faster than 20 guys."
Phinney agreed. "They had one tactic and that tactic was to try to control the race for Cav -- that is a tough ask," he said. "I don't know how they would have played it any differently. I'm sure they were going up the climb as fast as Cav could go every time."
Hours later, Phinney was still absorbing the day's events. He is the son of two cycling Olympians, 1984 gold medalist Connie Carpenter and Tour de France stage winner Davis Phinney, and now a two-time Olympian himself, his bar is set high.
"Not every day you are two meters from inserting yourself in the history books," he said in an email message.
But he's a day closer.
With Team Great Britain favorite Mark Cavendish out of the picture, Taylor Phinney figured he had a shot. But the American just missed making the podium, finishing fourth.