April 01, 2008

Go ahead, stare. He's used to it. Davis Phinney has mistimed his meds, and now the poor guy is vibrating as if he were a figurine in an old school electric football game. One of the greatest cyclists in American history is slowly being hollowed out by an adversary he has dubbed the Body Snatcher. This once ferocious sprinter, this charismatic and handsome raconteur now suffers from early-onset Parkinson's disease.

The fates are cruel.

Phinney, 48, is pacing and fretting inside the banked oval track at a velodrome in Carson, Calif. It is Jan. 18. A crowd of several hundred has gathered at this International Cycling Union (UCI) World Cup track event to see the sport's Next Big Thing, who also goes by the nicknames The Future and Mini-Phinney (even though, at 6' 4" and 170 pounds, he has half a foot on his old man). Taylor Phinney, 17, is the most promising young talent to come onto the U.S. cycling scene in more than a decade.

"We saw Greg LeMond when he was on his way," says Roger Young, a legendary coach and the director of the Carson facility. "We saw Lance [Armstrong] when he was on his way. You knew those guys were going to do something great. Taylor is going to do something great."

In his darkest hours, when he can't help but reflect on how the final race of his life is going to end, Davis has this balm, this windfall: He has bequeathed to the cycling world a talent as vast as his own. "Beyond his gifts as an athlete," Davis says of his son, "he's got this poise and intelligence and a way of carrying himself. I'm in awe of the man he's becoming."

The fates are generous.

In 2006, based on the kid's pedigree as much as anything, Jonathan Vaughters, director of Team Slipstream, made a place for Taylor on his under-23 squad. A year later Taylor laid waste to the field in the time trial at the junior world championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It's worth watching the YouTube video of that victory, shot from the follow car, if only to hear Davis, quavering and incredulous, proclaim, "Holy f-----' s---! Taylor's gonna be world champion!"

While his future is on the road, Taylor is in Carson to compete in the individual pursuit, a 16-lap, four-kilometer race between two riders who start on opposite sides of the oval. He'd never even tried this event until last October, when he entered it at the U.S. championships. And won. Quite comfortably.

Now, with his qualifying heat drawing nigh, the time has come for Taylor to remove his iPod earbuds and don his Jetsonian, teardrop-shaped helmet. A teammate has trimmed the straps on the helmet to reduce drag. Problem: The opposing ends of the buckle will not attach under Taylor's chin. Solution: a plastic zip tie. With the helmet safely and firmly on his son's head, Davis procures scissors and attempts, with considerable drama but no success, to trim the end of the zip tie.

"Dad, give me the scissors," says Taylor, intent on averting a Sweeney Todd moment. "You're gonna kill me."

The fates have a sense of humor.

It's just been a part of our lives, so we accept it," says Taylor of his father's Parkinson's. "He used to be much more energetic than he is now, but he's still pretty impressive."

Taylor is the older of the two children of Davis and Connie Carpenter-Phinney, the First Couple of American cycling. (Kelsey, 13, is in Utah this weekend for a cross-country ski race. She will come in fourth out of 40-odd skiers and be furious to have missed the podium.) Davis won 328 races in his 18-year career, more than any other American. Connie won 12 national championships, on road and track. In her final competition she took the gold medal in the road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But just because he hit a kind of genetic jackpot -- Dad's top-end speed, Mom's bottomless endurance -- doesn't mean Taylor was in any hurry to race bikes. Yes, he'd caused jaws to drop at the cycling camps his parents run in Italy. But he wasn't smitten by the sport until the summer of 2005, when the family attended the Tour de France. Between the pageantry of the Grande Boucle and a private audience with an old friend of his father's (a guy by the name of Armstrong) Taylor decided he wanted in. He won 23 times the following year, mostly local and regional amateur races. Then, a year later, he crushed all comers in the time trial at the junior worlds.

His first season on the track ended last week at the UCI world championships in Manchester, England. Trailing former world champ Sergi Escobar of Spain with two laps to go, the Boulder (Colo.) High senior hit warp drive, smoking the Spaniard by two seconds, setting a new junior world record and lopping two seconds off his personal best. While his 4:22.358 time slotted him into eighth place in Manchester, Phinney finished the season ranked third in the world, good for a berth at the Beijing Olympics, where his elders will do well to be wary of him. Newbie though he may be, Phinney's times keep tumbling. And he is lit from within by a supreme, if quiet, confidence. As he said in Manchester, "I go to races to win."

Careful not to be overbearing, Davis wants to make sure his son reaps the benefits of his own experience. Lacking such a mentor early in his career, Phinney the elder was forced to find his own way in a sport that is as brutal as it is beautiful.

GO, DAVIS! With the peloton whooshing past at the 1976 junior national road race in Louisville, Damon Phinney shouted encouragement to his 16-year-old son -- whom, truth be told, he never saw.

Five minutes later a lone rider came into view. Young Davis was standing on his pedals, pumping frantically to catch the pack, weeping with frustration and disappointment.

He'd flatted a hundred meters into the race. No one had told him that it wasn't a good idea to race on the same tubes and tires he'd been training on for the last three months. By the time he'd scared up a spare and gotten back on the road, his race, for all practical purposes, was over.

"It was going to be this great bonding experience with my father," recalls Davis, still pained by the memory. (Damon died in 2001 of prostate cancer.) "He said about five words during the thousand-mile drive back to Colorado."

In the ensuing years Davis learned to take care of his bike, to pace himself and to hold his ground in the cutthroat world of the peloton. He also learned this: Husbanded properly and applied judiciously, his greatest gift -- unalloyed, explosive speed -- could make him a handsome living.

Cash Register, as he came to be nicknamed, won four national championships. He won an Olympic bronze medal and 22 stages of a seminal American race called the Coors Classic. In his prime he rode for the pioneering, gate-crashing 7-Eleven squad, the first North American team to barnstorm Europe. Here was this motley crew of arrivistes -- Phinney, Andy Hampsten, Alex Stieda, Eric Heiden, Ron Kiefel and a gap-toothed bodyguard named Bob Roll, among others -- racing in the ancient cradle of high culture and haute cuisine under the banner of that quintessentially American invention: the convenience store. The vibe they got from Euro riders at first, Phinney recalls, was, Who the hell are you, and how did you get into our race?

But the North Americans more than held their own on the Continent. "I know you're not supposed to compare eras," says Roll, now a cycling commentator for Versus. "But if that team could race in today's Tour of California, Davis would never lose a sprint. He would massacre the field. We would lead him out, and he'd drop the hammer and just destroy people. He'd have 15 wins in that race. That's how talented he was."

But in the Phinneys' spacious, light- and art-filled house in Boulder, the third-greatest cyclist in his nation's history may not even be the most accomplished athlete under his own roof. Connie Carpenter made the Olympic speedskating team in 1972, at age 14, finishing seventh in the 1,500 meters in Sapporo. A chronic ankle injury forced her to abandon that sport shortly before the '76 Winter Games. At the urging of speedskater-cyclist Sheila Young, Connie took a crack at cycling. She would go on to win not just the 12 national titles but also four world championship medals.

She met her future husband on a training ride in Tucson in 1978. Just under 6-feet tall, she was (and is) svelte, regal and -- with that corona of ginger hair -- easy to spot in a crowd. He stood out as well. While most road racers have pipe cleaners coming out of their shirtsleeves, Davis always had serious guns. "He didn't look like an average cyclist," Connie concludes. They were married in 1983.

Connie had taken a break from cycling in 1980 and enrolled at Cal, where she rowed on the Bears' national champion four oars with cox. But upon learning that women's road cycling had been added to the Olympics for the '84 Games, she came out of retirement -- spurred largely by Davis. "He told me I hadn't really ever lived up to my potential in the sport. I didn't slap him," she says. "It turned out he was right."

She placed third in the road race at the 1981 world championships in Prague, losing by inches because she lacked one of the basic tools of a sprinter: She didn't know how to properly "throw" her bike across the line -- thrusting it forward at the last instant, head down, arms fully extended. So for an entire year Davis and Connie practiced throwing their bikes every time they passed a city limits sign on training rides. Trailing fellow American Rebecca Twigg by three bike lengths 50 meters from the finish in the road race at the '84 Olympics, Connie accelerated, threw her bike across the line and won by three inches.

Davis, meanwhile, was tearing a swath through the U.S. men's peloton. Between 1982 and '84 he won in the neighborhood of 75 races. No American had ever won a road stage of the Tour de France until the afternoon in July '86 when Phinney outsprinted a group of breakaway riders to the finish in Liévin. Phinney won another stage on the '87 Tour, and he was in superb form the following year -- until he nearly bled to death at a one-day race in Belgium called Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Hammering a descent, he pitched through the rear windshield of a team car that had stopped, inexcusably, on the course. It took some 160 stitches to close the lacerations on his face; he also severed a tendon in his left arm and fractured a vertebra in his neck. Astoundingly, he returned to competition 10 days later.

But in the years that followed, Phinney wondered if that crash had served as a triggering event. (Doctors say it is not likely that a single incident could be a significant factor.) Even before he retired, in 1993, he had experienced a host of mystery symptoms: leg cramps, aches, tingling, unexplained fatigue. "He was tripping all the time," Connie recalls. In 2000, doctors finally determined that Phinney had Parkinson's.

Two years later, the family moved to Italy. For three years they lived in the small town of Marostica, near Verona and Venice. While Davis came to terms with his condition, the family received what Connie describes as one of the "quiet gifts" of Parkinson's -- they drew together as never before. The instant he'd gotten out of racing, it seemed, Davis had dived into what he calls "a lunatic binge" of TV gigs, speaking engagements, clinics and camps. "Before Dad got Parkinson's," says Kelsey, "we never saw him."

They returned to Boulder in 2005, a year after Davis started the Davis Phinney Foundation. Early on, its main thrust was, not surprisingly, to find a cure for Parkinson's. As the years went by and no cure was forthcoming, he tweaked his tactics. Waiting around for good news proved too passive an approach for a sprinter who found his greatest pleasure in attacking.

"By focusing on a cure," he explains, "what you're really doing is waiting for somebody to do something for you."

His retooled message: Work for a cure, raise money for research for a cure, hope like hell for a cure, but in the meantime, Get out! Exercise. Meet some friends. If you're experiencing a bit of tremoring or gyrating, and passersby feel inclined to stare, whose problem is that?

While Parkinson's is relentlessly progressive, advances in treatment are slowing the onslaught. On Friday, Phinney will undergo a cutting-edge procedure that he hopes will ease some of the symptoms. Deep brain stimulation is "just what it sounds like," explains Jaimie Henderson, the Stanford-based neurosurgeon who will perform the 4 1/2-hour operation. Through a dime-sized opening in the skull, a tiny electrode is inserted into a lima bean-sized region of the brain called the subthalamic nucleus. There, ideally, it carries electrical impulses that block the abnormal nerve signals that cause tremors.

"[DBS] can turn the clock back about five years," says Henderson. Which would be a brilliant result for Phinney, who's slowly but surely losing ground in his battle.

"I still have a decent amount of mental acuity left," he says, "but my speech is more halting than it used to be." On occasion, he stutters. So insistent is the tremoring on his left side that it awakens him roughly a dozen times per night.

What allowances Phinney has made Parkinson's, he has made damned grudgingly. He still travels frequently, rides his bike, attends fund-raisers, makes speeches. "He gives a lot of people a lot of courage with his example," says John Tew, head of the Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cincinnati. Tew treasures the memory of Phinney striding toward the podium to give an address at the institute in the fall of '07. Rather than climb the steps, Phinney vaulted onto the stage. The crowd went wild.

"Let's live as well as we can today," he implores the members of his tribe. The lack of a cure can't stop them from enjoying what he calls "curative moments -- small victories when we're not thinking about PD [Parkinson's disease] because we're purely happy right now." Even with the Body Snatcher lurking, he insists, "life is pretty damn rich."

After confiscating those scissors from his father at the Carson velodrome, Taylor takes to the track for his qualifier, in which he destroys Ireland's David O'Loughlin by more than five seconds.

Watching trackside is Vaughters, the extravagantly sideburned Slipstream director. "Two years ago," he marvels, "this kid wasn't even racing."

A former prodigy himself, Vaughters isn't sure how Taylor's talent will ultimately manifest itself. He suspects the kid may end up too big to be an elite climber, which could dampen his prospects for winning one of the grand tours. (Taylor rejects that speculation -- his training for pursuit, he says, has given him more confidence in his climbing. In both, he points out, "you're going all out as hard as you can. There's not really any place to hide.")

Asked to hazard a guess, Vaughters predicts a career for Taylor similar to that of Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, the reigning time-trial world champion, who is also scary strong in one-day classics like Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, both of which he has won. For the foreseeable future, Taylor will continue to ride for Slipstream, whose depth and talent is sometimes overshadowed by its commitment to drug-free performance, which has put the Argyle Armada out front in the battle to clean up the sport.

In that night's final, Taylor promptly falls a half-second behind Jenning Huizenga, a Dutchman who finished fifth at the 2007 worlds. No biggie. Halfway through the race Taylor finds an extra gear, closes the gap, then pulls away as if his Felt TK1 track bike were equipped with a twist-grip accelerator.

On the podium Taylor leans over to accept a bouquet from a flower girl, then thrusts his arms up into a giant V. It is a galvanizing moment. That upper-case V was Davis's signature gesture during his career.

Busting that move, to hear Davis tell it, is a thrill that falls somewhere between sex and found money. "One of the beautiful things about being a bike racer," Davis tells audiences, "is that when you cross the line first, you get to throw your arms up." For a few electrifying, life-affirming seconds, he says, "it's like you're tapping into the current of the earth itself."

In February he stood before close to 500 people at a Stanford symposium on exercise and the brain. After reminding his audience to get off the couch, go for walks and celebrate small victories, he delivered these instructions: "On the count of three, let's all close our eyes and win our own personal bike race. One . . . two . . . three!"

Up shot nearly a thousand arms, a vast field of V's, many of them palsied and tremoring and imperfect, all perfectly defiant.

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