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A look back at Taylor Phinney's crash

David Kenning
1 Jul 2017

Taylor Phinney’s return from career-threatening injury is the stuff of cycling legends

‘I can remember everything clearly,’ says Taylor Phinney. ‘We were coming down this descent in Chattanooga, Tennessee. I was leading. I was going pretty fast – it’s a really fast descent. There was one corner that I had to watch out for but if I took the right line it would be fine…’ 

It was 26th May 2014, the event the USA national road race championships. Still only 23-years-old, the BMC Racing Team pro was rapidly establishing himself as a star of world cycling and his season had got off to a great start, with overall victory at the Dubai Tour and a stage win at the Tour of California.

Having won the time-trial two days earlier, Phinney started the road race as strong favourite. The 102.8-mile course included four gruelling ascents of Lookout Mountain – with a long, twisting descent down the other side where riders could hit speeds approaching 60mph. And it was on the very first of these descents that disaster struck.

‘It just so happens that right before that corner there was a commentary motorcycle driver who wasn’t paying as much attention as maybe he should have,’ he continues. ‘It was really early in the race but, still, I had to go around him and that impeded my set-up. I ended up sliding out and hit a guard rail. I took all of the force on my left leg, on my knee and below my knee, on my tibia.’

Falling off is an everyday hazard for pro cyclists, but Phinney instantly knew that this time it was serious. ‘I was in the most pain that I’ve ever been in, you know, in my life. And I figured based on that sensation that I had done something extremely wrong,’ he says. ‘I sat there slightly stunned and had time to wonder if I’d just ended my career.’ 

Compound fracture

While doctors didn’t openly confirm these fears, they weren’t optimistic, and it’s not hard to see why – Phinney had suffered an open compound fracture of the tibia (shinbone) and severed patellar tendon in his left leg, as well as losing a chunk of his kneecap. ‘The way that they talked about my recovery was definitely in a tone that implied I might not be able to race again,’ Phinney tells  Cyclist. ‘Saying things like, “I want to see a picture of you when you’re able to ride your bike again.” As if the end of the recovery was just me being able to ride my bike.’

But Phinney is a born fighter, as he’d already shown in some memorable moments in his fledgling career. At the London Olympics in 2012, aged just 22, he came within a bike’s length of medal glory in the road race, thumping his handlebars in frustration as he crossed the line in fourth place behind Norway’s Alexander Kristoff. His drive and desire to succeed became even more apparent the following spring, at the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race in Italy.

The 209km sixth stage was littered with short, but brutally steep climbs, including some sections at 30%. Not being a natural climber, Phinney’s best bet was to ride with the gruppetto, those stragglers who stick together in a bunch at the back of the race. But as the weather deteriorated, riders abandoned the race in droves, leaving Phinney to complete the final 120km alone in icy wind and heavy rain. He finished nearly 38 minutes behind stage winner Peter Sagan – and outside the time limit, resulting in elimination from the race. How on earth do you even keep going in those conditions?

‘I dunno,’ Phinney admits. ‘I think a lot of it started from being stubborn, which can be a good thing, and then also being able to find a certain level of inspiration that then turns into ambition. And putting things into the kind of context that’s outside what you’re actually doing. You know, considering other people, considering your family. The main thing in that Tirreno stage is that I was thinking about my dad the whole time, and then I was like, well, I can’t stop now!’

‘I first got outside two months after the crash – it was before I was allowed to, but I just wanted to ride my bike!’

Talented genes

As a star of the 7-Eleven team in the ’80s, Phinney’s dad Davis Phinney was only the second American to win a stage of the Tour de France, and a natural inspiration to his son.

‘My dad was very much a competitor, loved that feeling of winning, was always chasing that feeling and always trying to prove himself as an American in a European sport. So when I came into the sport, I started winning and was thinking, “Yeah, dad, I totally get this!” I want to chase this rush, I want to be that guy.’

Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease aged 40, Phinney Snr established a charitable foundation in 2005 to help and inspire people living with the disease, and his drive to overcome its debilitating effects are a continuing source of motivation for his son. 

‘It’s hard to find that kind of inspiration, but the ability to look inwards… it’s not even related to cycling. It’s something that I did a lot in the year and a half that I was out with the injury, that inward kind of discovery.’ 

Not that Phinney found it easy to cope with his enforced spell out. Any keen cyclist who is kept off the bike for a spell will know just how frustrating it can be, so imagine how hard it must be for a pro.

‘It was toughest in the first couple of months because I was still really fixated on the season,’ Phinney recalls. ‘I was really strong when I crashed and was dreaming of riding my first Tour de France, and so I spent a couple of months still in touch with the cycling world. I realised that was what was causing most of my depression. The 2014 USA Pro Challenge came through Boulder, and [the final stage] started out in front of my apartment. I was like, OK, this makes me sad, I’ve just got to remove myself and stop looking at cycling news websites.’

Getting away from the sport included his team-mates. ‘I didn’t talk much with a lot of the guys on the team, but I had some really solid support. The first person I heard from after the crash was Samuel Sánchez [Spanish winner of the 2008 Olympic road race], who I hadn’t even met yet, but I thought it was cool that he was offering his kind words.’

Another who was in regular contact was Italian veteran Manuel Quinziato. ‘He was checking in on me a lot, making sure I was OK. He’s since gotten into Buddhism and does a lot of meditating, which is cool, so we connect on that.’ 

But Phinney’s main focus during his recovery was away from the world of pro cycling. ‘I looked more at other aspects of life and less at the sports side of my life because it had been so dominant for so long,’ he explains. ‘Having been around people who push through physical barriers in bike races, that was something I hadn’t considered before and it was hugely inspiring.’

Character forming

Being off the bike brought out another side to Phinney’s character. ‘Through my injury I discovered that I’m a lot more like my mom.’ Connie Carpenter-Phinney was also a successful pro cyclist, taking to the sport after injury curtailed a successful speed-skating career (she competed at the 1972 Winter Olympics aged just 14). ‘She was more physically gifted than my dad and I think that allowed her mental space to want and desire other things out of her life than just be an athlete, so she retired when she was 27, the day after she won an Olympic gold medal at Los Angeles [in 1984], to do something else.’ 

Her example encouraged Phinney to broaden his world view. ‘I just stopped following along and hung out with some friends, got into some other stuff, ended up doing a lot of meditation and exercises that were in essence meditative, much like riding a bike can be. I love cycling for what it does for my brain, and the kind of avenues that you can open up, and I like to look ahead, after my cycling career, to something different,’ he says. ‘I started painting. I started to fly planes. I really got philosophical about a lot of things, started to think about what I would be doing if I wasn’t a professional cyclist, stuff like that.’

Back on the bike

Phinney is in no doubt that the injury and rehabilitation process changed him as a person, but that instinctive desire to win never left him, and incredibly, he was back in the saddle within weeks of the crash. ‘I was on a stationary recumbent a couple of weeks afterwards, with some very small range of motion, no resistance. Then in June, a month afterwards, I was sitting on a stationary bike with a shorter crank in order to restrict the range of motion. But that was inside. The first time I got outside was two months after the crash. It was before I was allowed to, but I just wanted to get out of there and ride my bike.

So, against to medical advice, that’s exactly what he did. ‘A lot of people say they know their body better than a doctor but we, as athletes, are so in tune with ours because we’ve had to obsess over them for so long that I was like, if I can do this kind of power inside, I can do this outside on a flat road. And so long as I’m safe and take the necessary precautions, I can get out there. I wasn’t able to move around much as I was on crutches, but being able to ride my bike was massive.

In those early stages of rehabilitation, Phinney was recommended to keep his power output below 150 watts. ‘Being 80-plus kilos, that’s pretty easy for me to hit,’ he adds. This forced him to look at riding a bike in a completely new way. ‘It felt weird. When I got into cycling I started racing immediately and experiencing success. When I was racing, my driving factor was that I like to win. I saw my training as this vehicle for success rather than as a vehicle for freedom or a transportational device, which is what a bike is.’

Rather than feeling restricted by his physical limitations, Phinney’s philosophical mindset helped him see the positives. ‘I was riding my bike purely for fun. I was riding my bike in a different way than I had ever done before, in more of a freeing than a training way. I was able to process a lot of things.’

All this may sound somewhat strange to non-pros, but there’s still plenty we can take from Phinney’s experience in our own approach to overcoming cycling injury. ‘There’s a heightened mind state that’s involved in being injured and you choose exactly what that state is. It can be sadness, or you can see it as this opportunity to learn, to grow, to be patient with yourself, and build to on everything that you know as a human, really challenge everything that you’ve learned over the course of your life,’ he says. 

‘I strengthened a lot of relationships in my life through the crash, through the recovery. You know, that sense of connectedness, not only with people who I love, people who were really supportive and wanted to help, but also that sense of connectedness with myself.’

‘Mentally, it’s a lot to handle and to put into perspective,’ he adds. ‘But if you’re getting better every day, you’re making forward progress. That’s all you can really ask for in life – even if you’re not injured, you’re trying to be a little bit better every single day. And [getting over] injury is a good way of your body telling you that it’s getting better every single day.’

Despite his positive outlook, getting back into training wasn’t that easy to begin with. Before the crash, winning races seemed almost instinctive for Phinney, as he ably demonstrated with his stage win at the Tour of California in early 2014, breaking away from the pack in the closing stages.

Return to glory 

‘I don’t remember really weighing any options, I kind of just went for it,’ he recalls. ‘And then once I was out there, it was like, OK, well now you can either commit to it or not to and I figured I was out there, so I may as well commit to it, and it worked out. I figured if there was anybody who could do it, I could.’

Returning to training largely involved rediscovering what his recovering body was capable of. ‘I was on an interesting track before I had the accident, I was starting to “figure it out”, how to navigate being a professional athlete, believing in what I could accomplish, and then the crash just amplified that even more over the course of a year and a half of recovery,’ Phinney explains. ‘I was more aware of discrepancies between my legs, but I knew that I was strong enough to be competitive, as I knew that I only set limits on myself as a choice. When I came back, I was more conscious of that choice, whereas before I was maybe more confident in my ability, but not aware that confidence was a choice.’

The choice Phinney made was to believe in himself. ‘Before the crash, the only thing I was worried about was if I was overweight or if I wasn’t fit enough. But when you move past that and you’re dealing with one of your legs not working as well as the other, then you get deep on that in your mind, and you’re like, hold on, I can do anything if I really want to.’

That belief paid off in style when Phinney finally made his return to racing in August 2015, taking third place in the opening stage of the Tour of Utah. As if that weren’t impressive enough, the fairytale comeback got its happy ending less than two weeks later when Phinney returned to his home state of Colorado for the USA Pro Challenge. 

On the uphill closing straight of the opening stage, an explosive sprint saw him power away from the pack to victory, celebrating arms aloft with a roar that revealed deep emotions. He was back.

Talking to Cyclist from the BMC pre-season training camp in Spain, Phinney reflects on the win. ‘It meant a lot to me to see how excited my family was and all of the people who helped in my rehabilitation. Obviously, the sensation of winning again was incredible, but the afterglow is how everybody else feels about it. The best part is right when you cross the line. That moment is fleeting, but it lives on in the eyes of others.’

Going for gold

So while his fans may enjoy revisiting his win on YouTube, the man himself is focused on his targets for 2016. ‘I might end up doing the Giro this year, so I would miss the national championships. I love racing in the US and I’d love to be able to win that road race and race the whole year with the national champion’s jersey. Right now I’m looking at the Olympics and trying to win an Olympic medal.’

As our preview in last month’s Cyclist showed, it’s going to be a tough race in Rio this August. ‘It’s definitely gonna be hard,’ Phinney agrees, ‘but the Olympics is a strange race. It works for a guy like myself who can adapt better than some of the Europeans for the Olympics – because you take the Euros out of Europe and it’s a game changer, as they’re far out of their comfort zone.’

Still only 25, the wild highs and lows of Phinney’s short career have shown that he’s a man who doesn’t need the luxury of a comfort zone to win races, and less than two years after the crash that nearly ended his career, who would bet against him taking gold?

Taylor Phinney timeline

  •   March 2009: Takes USA’s only gold at the UCI Track World Championship, winning the individual pursuit. It’s a feat he repeats the following year. 
  •   September 2010: Wins the individual time trial at the USA National Championships. Ten days later, he adds the U23 time trial title at the UCI Road World Championships.
  •   August 2011: Now with BMC Racing Team, he starts his first Grand Tour, the Vuelta, taking fifth spot in the time trial.
  •   May 2012: Wins the opening stage of the Giro d’Italia, and holds onto the maglia rosa for the next two stages.
  •   July 2012: Finishes fourth in both individual time trial and road race at the London Summer Olympics.
  •   May 2013: Stubbornly finishes stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico outside the time limit, riding the final 120km solo after the gruppetto of 55 riders abandon the race in appalling conditions.
  •   May 2014: Wins the individual time trial at the USA national championships, crashing out of the road race two days later.
  •   August 2015: After 15 months out, he returns to racing at the Tour of Utah, taking third place on the 212km opening stage. Then two weeks later,  he wins stage one of the USA Pro Challenge.
  •   September 2015: Is part of the six-man, BMC Racing Team squad that wins the team time trial at the UCI Road World Championships, and is back to his best!

Bouncing back

Taylor Phinney’s tips for returning from injury:

Find other things to do

Use your enforced time off your bike to explore other opportunities and to broaden your horizons. ‘I got into some very different things,’ Phinney revealed to Cyclist. ‘I started to paint, I started flying planes, all sorts of stuff.’ You can see some of his artworks online. We’re no art critics, but we rather like them!

Keep your sense of humour

‘Humour’s another thing that’s entirely your choice,’ Phinney says. ‘You can either take yourself way too seriously and really be emotionally invested in your situation, or you can continue to poke fun at it.’ Phinney, posted a revealing picture online of a kids’ Frankenstein transfer on his scarred leg (see picture in top left).

Learn from the experience

Rather than focussing on the pain of injury, Phinney suggests using it as a learning experience. ‘You start to use your brain and question why something hurts, and what makes it hurt,’ he explains. ‘It’s a sort of experiment – you’re kind of trying to see how you can overcome this puzzle, put all these pieces back together.’ 

Get back on the bike …and soon

Follow Phinney’s great example and look into the space for reflection cycling creates. ‘One aspect that I really liked about the bike, when I was coming back, was that you get out and parts of your brain light up more than if you’re just sitting around trying to think about things, so it sort of directly facilitates that kind of introspection.’

Break the pain barrier

‘Once I was able to start going hard, I really experienced the mental freedom of the harder I go, the less I can process anything. There’s something  beautiful about being more in the moment of what you’re doing, but using pain as a way to do that.’ In other words, ride so hard you can’t think about how much it hurts!

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