LIFE Cycles

April 07, 2008
April 07, 2008

Table of Contents
April 7, 2008


LIFE Cycles

The son of two of America's most decorated riders, 17-year-old Taylor Phinney has emerged as the next great U.S. prospect—and a source of inspiration to his father, who is battling Parkinson's

GO AHEAD, stare.He's used to it. Davis Phinney has mistimed his meds, and now the poor guy isvibrating as if he were a figurine in an old school electric football game. Oneof the greatest cyclists in American history is slowly being hollowed out by anadversary he has dubbed the Body Snatcher. This once ferocious sprinter, thischarismatic and handsome raconteur now suffers from early-onset Parkinson'sdisease. ¶ The fates are cruel. ¶ Phinney, 48, is pacing and fretting insidethe banked oval track at a velodrome in Carson, Calif. It is Jan. 18. A crowdof several hundred has gathered at this International Cycling Union (UCI) WorldCup track event to see the sport's Next Big Thing, who also goes by thenicknames 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 promisingyoung talent to come onto the U.S. cycling scene in more than a decade.

This is an article from the April 7, 2008 issue

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

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

The fates aregenerous.

In 2006, based onthe kid's pedigree as much as anything, Jonathan Vaughters, director of TeamSlipstream, made a place for Taylor on his under-23 squad. A year later Taylorlaid waste to the field in the time trial at the junior world championships inAguascalientes, 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 futureis on the road, Taylor is in Carson to compete in the individual pursuit, a16-lap, four-kilometer race between two riders who start on opposite sides ofthe oval. He'd never even tried this event until last October, when he enteredit at the U.S. championships. And won. Quite comfortably.

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

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

The fates have asense of humor.

IT'S JUST been apart of our lives, so we accept it," says Taylor of his father'sParkinson's. "He used to be much more energetic than he is now, but he'sstill pretty impressive." Taylor is the older of the two children of Davisand 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 infourth out of 40-odd skiers and be furious to have missed the podium.) Daviswon 328 races in his 18-year career, more than any other American. Connie won12 national championships, on road and track. In her final competition she tookthe gold medal in the road race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

But just becausehe hit a kind of genetic jackpot—Dad's top-end speed, Mom's bottomlessendurance—doesn't mean Taylor was in any hurry to race bikes. Yes, he'd causedjaws to drop at the cycling camps his parents run in Italy. But he wasn'tsmitten by the sport until the summer of 2005, when the family attended theTour de France. Between the pageantry of the Grande Boucle and a privateaudience 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 localand regional amateur races. Then, a year later, he crushed all comers in thetime trial at the junior worlds.

His first seasonon the track ended last week at the UCI world championships in Manchester,England. Trailing former world champ Sergi Escobar of Spain with two laps togo, the Boulder (Colo.) High senior hit warp drive, smoking the Spaniard by twoseconds, setting a new junior world record and lopping two seconds off hispersonal best. While his 4:22.358 time slotted him into eighth place inManchester, Phinney finished the season ranked third in the world, good for aberth 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 fromwithin by a supreme, if quiet, confidence. As he said in Manchester, "I goto races to win."

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

GO, DAVIS! Withthe 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 latera lone rider came into view. Young Davis was standing on his pedals, pumpingfrantically to catch the pack, weeping with frustration and disappointment.

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

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

In the ensuingyears Davis learned to take care of his bike, to pace himself and to hold hisground in the cutthroat world of the peloton. He also learned this: Husbandedproperly and applied judiciously, his greatest gift—unalloyed, explosivespeed—could make him a handsome living.

Cash Register, ashe came to be nicknamed, won four national championships. He won an Olympicbronze 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, thefirst North American team to barnstorm Europe. Here was this motley crew ofarrivistes—Phinney, Andy Hampsten, Alex Stieda, Eric Heiden, Ron Kiefel and agap-toothed bodyguard named Bob Roll, among others—racing in the ancient cradleof high culture and haute cuisine under the banner of that quintessentiallyAmerican invention: the convenience store. The vibe they got from Euro ridersat first, Phinney recalls, was, Who the hell are you, and how did you get intoour race?

But the NorthAmericans more than held their own on the Continent. "I know you're notsupposed to compare eras," says Roll, now a cycling commentator for Versus."But if that team could race in today's Tour of California, Davis wouldnever lose a sprint. He would massacre the field. We would lead him out, andhe'd drop the hammer and just destroy people. He'd have 15 wins in that race.That's how talented he was."

But in thePhinneys' spacious, light- and art-filled house in Boulder, the third-greatestcyclist in his nation's history may not even be the most accomplished athleteunder his own roof. Connie Carpenter made the Olympic speedskating team in1972, at age 14, finishing seventh in the 1,500 meters in Sapporo. A chronicankle injury forced her to abandon that sport shortly before the '76 WinterGames. At the urging of speedskater-cyclist Sheila Young, Connie took a crackat cycling. She would go on to win not just the 12 national titles but alsofour world championship medals.

She met her futurehusband 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 acrowd. He stood out as well. While most road racers have pipe cleaners comingout of their shirtsleeves, Davis always had serious guns. "He didn't looklike an average cyclist," Connie concludes. They were married in 1983.

Connie had taken abreak 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 roadcycling had been added to the Olympics for the '84 Games, she came out ofretirement—spurred largely by Davis. "He told me I hadn't really ever livedup to my potential in the sport. I didn't slap him," she says. "Itturned out he was right."

She placed thirdin the road race at the 1981 world championships in Prague, losing by inchesbecause she lacked one of the basic tools of a sprinter: She didn't know how toproperly "throw" her bike across the line—thrusting it forward at thelast instant, head down, arms fully extended. So for an entire year Davis andConnie practiced throwing their bikes every time they passed a CITY LIMITS signon training rides. Trailing fellow American Rebecca Twigg by three bike lengths50 meters from the finish in the road race at the '84 Olympics, Connieaccelerated, 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 wonin the neighborhood of 75 races. No American had ever won a road stage of theTour de France until the afternoon in July '86 when Phinney outsprinted a groupof 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 todeath at a one-day race in Belgium called Li√®ge-Bastogne-Li√®ge. Hammering adescent, 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 lacerationson his face; he also severed a tendon in his left arm and fractured a vertebrain his neck. Astoundingly, he returned to competition 10 days later.

But in the yearsthat 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 significantfactor.) Even before he retired, in 1993, he had experienced a host of mysterysymptoms: leg cramps, aches, tingling, unexplained fatigue. "He wastripping all the time," Connie recalls. In 2000, doctors finally determinedthat Phinney had Parkinson's.

TWO YEARS later,the family moved to Italy. For three years they lived in the small town ofMarostica, near Verona and Venice. While Davis came to terms with hiscondition, the family received what Connie describes as one of the "quietgifts" of Parkinson's—they drew together as never before. The instant he'dgotten out of racing, it seemed, Davis had dived into what he calls "alunatic binge" of TV gigs, speaking engagements, clinics and camps."Before Dad got Parkinson's," says Kelsey, "we never sawhim."

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

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

His retooledmessage: Work for a cure, raise money for research for a cure, hope like hellfor a cure, but in the meantime, Get out! Exercise. Meet some friends. Ifyou're experiencing a bit of tremoring or gyrating, and passersby feel inclinedto stare, whose problem is that?

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

"[DBS] canturn the clock back about five years," says Henderson. Which would be abrilliant result for Phinney, who's slowly but surely losing ground in hisbattle.

"I still havea decent amount of mental acuity left," he says, "but my speech is morehalting than it used to be." On occasion, he stutters. So insistent is thetremoring on his left side that it awakens him roughly a dozen times pernight.

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

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

AFTER CONFISCATINGthose scissors from his father at the Carson velodrome, Taylor takes to thetrack for his qualifier, in which he destroys Ireland's David O'Loughlin bymore than five seconds.

Watching tracksideis Vaughters, the extravagantly sideburned Slipstream director. "Two yearsago," he marvels, "this kid wasn't even racing."

A former prodigyhimself, Vaughters isn't sure how Taylor's talent will ultimately manifestitself. He suspects the kid may end up too big to be an elite climber, whichcould dampen his prospects for winning one of the grand tours. (Taylor rejectsthat speculation—his training for pursuit, he says, has given him moreconfidence in his climbing. In both, he points out, "you're going all outas hard as you can. There's not really any place to hide.")

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

In that night'sfinal, Taylor promptly falls a half-second behind Jenning Huizenga, a Dutchmanwho finished fifth at the 2007 worlds. No biggie. Halfway through the raceTaylor finds an extra gear, closes the gap, then pulls away as if his Felt TK1track bike were equipped with a twist-grip accelerator.

On the podiumTaylor leans over to accept a bouquet from a flower girl, then thrusts his armsup into a giant V. It is a galvanizing moment. That upper-case V was Davis'ssignature gesture during his career.

Busting that move,to hear Davis tell it, is a thrill that falls somewhere between sex and foundmoney. "One of the beautiful things about being a bike racer," Davistells audiences, "is that when you cross the line first, you get to throwyour 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 hestood before close to 500 people at a Stanford symposium on exercise and thebrain. After reminding his audience to get off the couch, go for walks andcelebrate small victories, he delivered these instructions: "On the countof three, let's all close our eyes and win our own personal bike race. One ...two ... three!"

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

Even with his illness, Davis says, "life is PRETTYDAMN RICH."
Parkinson's DREW THE FAMILY TOGETHER as neverbefore.
Taylor rides as if his bike has a TWIST-GRIPACCELERATOR.




SI China's Mary Nicole Nazzaro keeps tabs on everythinggoing on in China leading up to the Summer Games.


PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckCLOUD NINE At home in Boulder, where he's finishing high school, Taylor trains at altitude for the Beijing Games and a chance to someday match his father's Tour de France feats.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckA NATURAL TAYLOR (with Dad, right) won his Olympic berth as a track novice.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert Beck[See caption above]PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckTANDEM RIDE Davis wants to ensure that Taylor reaps the benefits from his father's decades of cycling experience.PHOTOPhotograph by Robert BeckMIGHTY MOM Taylor got his speed from Davis and his endurance from Connie, a champion skater, rower and cyclist.