Still Riding

Facing the toughest climb of his life, Davis Phinney, the winningest U.S. cyclist, wages a brave battle against Parkinson's disease
September 11, 2005

The evening was billed as a roast of Davis Phinney, the winningest bike racer in U.S. history, but you had to wonder: Would people really zing a guy with Parkinson's disease? Several hundred people gathered at the Italian Athletic Club in San Francisco last Friday night to raise funds for the Davis Phinney Foundation, through which the charity's chairman intends to afflict his affliction. The thought of this once ferocious competitor ravaged by a disease for which there is no cure was sobering and sad. Surely no one would make sport of his condition.

Missing that memo, apparently, was Robin Williams, who strode to the dais and embraced Phinney. Williams proceeded to auction off the sleek Griffen road bike he'd donated. Between impersonations of Paris Hilton, Marlon Brando and James Brown, among others; taking bids on the bike; and sharing his slogan for an imaginary cycling squad called Team Viagra--"Ride hard, ride long!"--Mork noticed that Phinney was sipping coffee.

"What are you doing with Parkinson's drinking coffee?" he shouted, backing away in feigned alarm. "That's a ballsy move!"

No one laughed harder than the 46-year-old Phinney, whose condition was diagnosed five years ago but whose hand, on this night, held steady as he drank--a marked improvement over the night I met him two years ago. He's now on meds that go a long way toward controlling some symptoms of his disease. But they don't attack its source.

When he stood to speak, the man who won 328 races in an 18-year career chose to dwell on a day he finished last. It was in the Alps in 1990, in his final Tour de France. Phinney was fried. Dropped by the peloton on the first major climb, he still had two monster passes to get over, the second being the notorious Alpe d'Huez. He was in danger of missing the time limit. (Stragglers who fail to finish a stage within a certain percentage of the winner's time are tossed from the race.)

Grinding alone up the Col de Glandon, Phinney came close to quitting. Instead, he challenged himself. He thought, Everything I've learned over all the years, I'm going to put into the rest of this ride. I'm going to get to the top of the Alpe, and I'm going to make this time limit.

And what had he learned over all the years? To question authority, for starters. After Phinney failed to finish at the 1976 U.S. Nationals--he got a flat in the first 100 meters--his high school history teacher told him, "You'll never make it as a bike racer."

Wrong. Phinney won a jaw-dropping 32 races in 1982 alone. That was the year he hooked up with the 7-Eleven team. In '86 he became the first American to win a stage in the Tour de France, a feat he repeated the next year. In '88 he won the Tour of the Americas and the Coors Classic--the latter a race he flat-out owned, with 22 stage victories and overall points wins from 1981 through '88--but was also involved in a horrific crash in the Liège-Bastogne-Liège race, plunging face-first through the rear windshield of a team car parked on the course. Though he severed a tendon in one arm and would require 35 stitches and 160 microstiches to repair cuts on his face, Phinney would return to competition 10 days later.

In the latter years of his career, when Phinney felt inexplicably fatigued on the bike, he wondered if that crash was somehow to blame. The answer would come up in 2000, when doctors discovered the Parkinson's. He retired from cycling in '93 but kept a hectic schedule as a TV commentator. In '02 he and his wife, Connie, and their two children moved to Italy for three years. It was there, while slowing the pace of his life and "getting a handle on my situation," he says, that Phinney learned to redefine victory. "When my daughter comes running up to me and jumps into my arms," he says in a video clip shown at the roast, "I note it in my mind as a victory."

Coming in last that day on the Alpe d'Huez: How's that a victory? After taking the final turn, 400 meters from the finish, Phinney tells the audience at the roast, he saw ... workers taking down the bleachers. Crossing the line, he collapsed into the arms of team manager Jim Ochowitz, who Phinney recalls whispering in his ear, "Two minutes. You made it by two minutes."

At this the crowd erupts, but Phinney isn't finished. "Those two minutes are sort of what I'm facing now," he tells the rapt audience. "When you have a neurological disorder that has no known cure, you face continuous degeneration. We can find a solution, but we have a time limit. It's going to be tough; it's going to take everything we have to get from the bottom of the Glandon to the top of the Alpe d'Huez, before we're out of the race. But we can do it."

Living with his condition, this once fierce competitor has learned to REDEFINE VICTORY.

PHOTOCLEMENT/L'EQUIPE STAGESPhinney, riding high in the '87 Tour and (inset) today. PHOTONEIL BROWNE (INSET)    [See caption above.]  

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)