The curious 26-year-old had all the markings of a commercial champion in the making when he turned pro with BMC Racing for a reportedly healthy sum in 2011.
If anyone could be forgiven for a blinkered mentality - seen as a pro and con to those in the industry - it’s the eldest son of 1980s cycling legends Davis and Connie, who irrespective of pedigree forged his own name quickly on the track and road, across three Olympic Games.
Such an outlook was perhaps once enough for the time-trial specialist, who has a shot at taking the first yellow jersey of the Tour de France in July should he be selected in new team Cannondale-Drapac’s squad.
But a life outside of the sport seems to have become equally important to Phinney, who has previously admitted he toyed with the idea of premature retirement in the aftermath of a well-documented high-speed crash at the 2014 U.S. national road championships, which wiped him from competition for more than a year.
“The crash itself didn’t push me outside of the bubble but the recovery from the crash, the way that I recovered, I definitely had to remove myself ... from this cycling bubble that I’ve been connected to my entire adult life,” he told Cycling Central.
“I feel lucky that I was able to step outside and see the world in a new, fresh light without always living within the grid system of training, or racing, or off-season. I feel like as I come back I’ve been able to implement that same appreciation and gratitude towards just being alive.”
The actual crash is long behind and Phinney has been back racing since August 2015. But creative pursuits like painting, music and now meditation, once perhaps perceived as mere distraction during recovery, have instead inspired though also deeply challenged a now perceivably smarter young man.
“As far as motivation is concerned it’s been a little bit difficult over the last couple of years to wrap my head around what I’m doing, what sort of service I’m providing to humanity by just racing my bike, thinking about myself and my body all the time,” he said.
“I’ve been able to frame that more in this concept of the inspiration we can provide to people that watch bike racing and follow us on social media. Getting people active and moving is paramount I think to everyone. It’s something we take for granted because we’re just training all the time, but you realise most people out there, they ride their bike only on occasion.
"We can take it so seriously to the point where it becomes a chore a lot of the time. I think if you can race and train at the highest level, and allow it not to be a chore, share your passion and joy for what you’re doing, people respond to that and they appreciate that.”
Phinney has competed exclusively for American-registered road teams as a professional and under-23. His start with Cannondale-Drapac has been modest in terms of results, but smooth in transition he said while driving with teammates to get a burrito during the recent Tour of California, which he crashed out of on the final stage, suffering minor injuries.
“It’s totally different,” Phinney observed. “I’d been on the same team for five years and always in the one WorldTour environment. You think all the teams are the same, but after changing teams you realise every single team has its own unique vibe and I think being on Cannondale suits me more - at least where I am now.
“As far as a bike racing standpoint, it’s been from the outside a little bit disappointing that I haven’t been able to race as much as I wanted to.
"I missed pretty much all the classics, crashed in Flanders, but mentally and emotionally I feel much better about what I’m doing in my life. I’m more stable and able to enjoy a lot of these races much more than I have been in the past.
“I think that’s a little bit to do with changing teams and feeling pretty comfortable with the group of people - both the riders and the staff on Cannondale-Drapac - and just my own understanding of myself. The continued meditation that I’ve gotten into has really allowed me to be a bit calmer and patient with myself and this crazy sport. I am able to have more fun within almost everything, which is nice.”
Phinney has marked just 17 race days this season. The lowly number has been a recurrent theme since his official return from injury in 2015, with 24 days that year and 54 in 2016 comparative to, for example, 60 in 2013 and 71 in 2012.
The Giro d’Italia stage winner seems to have struck more of a balance between old and new occupations, which should serve him well in the immediate future that is slated to include the Tour de Suisse and, pending selection, Tour de France.
“We’re all super lucky to be able to do what we do - race our bikes and get paid to travel all over the world,” he said. “All these things provide you with a lot of skills that I think are not really recognised and a little bit forgotten by most of the people inside of our bubble because it is consuming. But I think that’s the case for really any professional environment, especially when you throw money into it.
“I definitely have a different sense of motivation now.”