Is Daniel Holloway a greater bike racer than Davis Phinney?
I know that some of you are going to roll your eyes, some will furrow your brows, and others will say “Davis who?”
At first glance, the two riders aren’t comparable. Phinney has an unmatched career, with three stage wins in the Tour de France, 2nd in the points classification in the 1988 Tour, a GC win in the Coors Classic, and the most ever wins by an American at 328. Holloway has never ridden, let alone won a stage in the Tour, and his biggest wins are domestic, including back-to-back national road titles and four national crit championships, all as an amateur.
So on paper it’s easy to say that Phinney’s career handily eclipses Holloway’s.
But in reality the comparison has a lot more substance than it does in the statistics. First of all, Phinney rode as the star for two teams that comprised the greatest assemblage of bike talent in U.S. history. Team 7-11 boasted riders like Andy Hampsten, Alexi Grewal, Tom Schuler, Ron Kiefel, Doug Shapiro, Alex Stieda, and Jeff Pierce. In every single domestic race Phinney could count on two things: The other teams would have to chase the entire race, and if the race came back together at the end, Phinney would have the best and most experienced riders in the peloton working for him.
Contrast that with Holloway, who has scored every single victory either riding solo at the end or having the limited help of only one or two teammates. Moreover, those teammates have changed virtually every season. Whereas Phinney could count on loyal lieutenants with whom he had hundreds of races to learn their every idiosyncrasy and to perfect his team tactics, Holloway has had to retrain and learn to work with new teammates virtually every year.
Moreover, the tactic of “riding against Davis” never worked. If you targeted Phinney, then Kiefel, Hampsten, Grewal, or Pierce would ride up the road. Riding against Holloway is pretty much all that many US pro/am riders do nowadays, and despite that he still beats them. In addition to having to make his own luck, Holloway can never count on two or three teammates who will go up the road and pose a credible threat every single race, let alone a finishing leadout train. That Holloway has been able to beat so many riders in so many races with such incredible consistency over a period of years when everyone knows how he races and what to expect is as remarkable a feat as I’ve seen in U.S. racing.
The only rider with that level of individual skill, the ability to beat an entire field again and again while basically freestyling, is Australian Robbie McEwen. Holloway’s back-to-back national crit and road championships were jaw-dropping; his second road victory this year proves that the guy who is “just a sprinter” is anything but.
Another factor that adds to the impressiveness of Holloway’s accomplishments is that he’s not really a sprinter, at least not in the sense that Phinney was. Phinney was simply faster than anyone else in the last 200 meters. He had a finishing sprint that proved itself to be world class time after time on a global stage against the fastest sprinters in the world.
Holloway’s sprint is something that he has had to groom. In any given race there are at least a couple of riders who are as fast, and one or two who may even be faster. But Holloway’s racing intellect is so superior to his competition that what he lacks in kick — and his kick is vicious — he makes up for with smarts. You may be able to outsprint him, but you will never be able to outsmart him, and the victory never goes to the strongest rider, it goes to the strongest smart rider.
Like Phinney, Holloway has proven himself versatile as a road racer and a crit racer. Like Phinney, he has nerves of steel. And like Phinney, he is a closer. Is Phinney still the greatest?
But Holloway’s Me-Against-The-World style of racing is way more fun to watch, and his wins, without exception, are torn from the jaws of the beast every single time.
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