It's rare that a cyclist makes the news in this country for anything other than a spectacular win. American pro and future cycling star Taylor Phinney made the news this week for finishing last on Monday's penultimate stage of Italy's Tirreno-Adriatico stage race.
I'm a pretty serious cycling fan, but I don't think I have ever seen a stage like this one. Three circuits, 209 kilometers of punishment, including a 27% climb so steep that at least one rider had to stay in the saddle in order not to spin the rear wheel on the wet, steep incline.
It was a cold and wet day, and the small group at the back of the race, the grupetto, decided to abandon the race. But Phinney wanted to ride the final stage, his specialty, a time trial. So he kept riding, by himself, and that is where the story resides.
Updated March 13, 2013
Taylor Phinney - photo by Stefano Sirotti
Taylor Phinney's solo ride during the Tirreno-Adriatico on Monday.
This is a story about a guy who finished last. Which is technically true. You can look up the results of the race, and you'll see his name, right there, lonely at the bottom. Taylor Phinney. USA. Finishing time of six hours, twenty-two minutes, fifty-four seconds. One hundred-and-ninth place. Last.
But this story is better than that.
First, about Taylor Phinney. Remember that name. You might already know it. Bike racer from Boulder, Colo., 22 years old. The son of two cycling legends, Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter. A big dude on the bike, at 6 feet 5 inches, 180 pounds, Taylor Phinney is one of the most promising young cyclists in the world. He's already been to the Olympics twice. Won a stage of the prestigious Giro d'Italia last year. He is expected to have many great days in the sport.
Monday didn't begin like one of those days. Phinney was competing in Italy's Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, and this penultimate stage was a doozy. Up and down, down and up, 209 kilometers of punishment, including a 27% climb so comically steep that some riders got off their bikes and pushed them uphill. Many riders quit. Later the race organizer would admit that the stage was too difficult, even for elite pros.
Phinney didn't expect to win this stage. He just wanted to hang around, because the next day brought a time trial against the clock, and Phinney had a chance for a good result in that event. But the day soon unraveled. His legs weren't feeling great, and then his bike busted its chain. He had to get a replacement and chase his way back to the pack.
"I just was dangling," Phinney said on the phone, from his home in Tuscany. "We kept going over these really difficult climbs. I'd get back to the group and I would get dropped. I'd get back again, then get dropped."
Bike racing is a sport that fetishizes suffering. Anyone who's done it talks almost mystically about painful days on the bike, about the serenity achieved by pedaling through the agony. But even the best can only take so much. Soon Phinney found himself in a small group of 30 or so riders who had fallen off the main field, with about 130 kilometers, or 80 miles, left. The riders in the group began talking. Phinney said became clear that nobody wanted to finish. Drop out now, get out of the cold. This is no shame. It happens all the time. Fight another day.
But Phinney wanted to fight now. He had to complete the race under the time limit to do the time trial Tuesday. "If I wanted to finish the race, I was going to have to do it by myself," he said.
So that's what he did. As the rest of the group abandoned the race, Phinney put his head down and pedaled. He was suddenly alone. The weather was miserable. It began to rain. And Phinney kept thinking of one thing.
"I would just think of my dad," he said.
Davis Phinney has lived with Parkinson's disease for more than half of Taylor Phinney's life. One of the great American racers of all time, a Tour de France stage winner and Olympian, Davis's day is often met by frustrating physical challenges. Tasks that were once simple take so much longer. Ordinary life requires patience.
That's what kept his son pedaling in the cold Italian rain.
"I knew that if my dad could be in my shoes for one day—if all he had to do was struggle on a bike for six hours, but be healthy and fully functional—he would be me on that day in a heartbeat," Taylor Phinney said. "Every time I wanted to quit, every time I wanted to cry, I just thought about that."
He had so many miles to ride. "It's kind of embarrassing," he said. "The race has gone by, and people aren't really expecting one rider slogging along by himself." Fans on the side of the road offered to push him up hills. But Phinney remembered a story his Dad had told him about one of his old Tour de France teams, making a pact to decline pushes.
Taylor would do the same. No pushes.
"He never lost his motivation," said Fabio Baldato, an assistant director for Phinney's team, BMC Racing, who was driving a car behind Phinney the entire route. "It was unbelievable."
"He wanted so badly to finish the race," said Phinney's teammate, Thor Hushovd, a former world champion.
Hours later, Phinney crossed the line, exhausted. He finished almost 15 minutes after the second-to-last rider, thirty-seven minutes behind the winner. He didn't make the time cut for the day, which meant he couldn't compete in Tuesday's time trial. It was a bummer, but Phinney was too zonked to be devastated. During his post-race massage, he cried like crazy. On Twitter, Phinney wrote about riding for his Dad and called it "probably the most trying day I've had on a bike." When Phinney's saga was reported on the website Velonews, cycling fans went crazy. These have been bleak times for the sport, ripped apart by doping scandals. Phinney's solo effort—and his emotions post-racel—had stirred something soulful. "Emotion is powerful and undeniably human," Phinney's mother, Connie Carpenter, said in an email from Italy.
Back home in Colorado, Davis Phinney was marveling at the whole story. You can still find Davis on his bike, usually on the fancy carbon-fiber city commuter he got from his son. Cycling remains a sanctuary—"easier than walking, in a sense," he said. But the daily routine remains full of hassles. Davis Phinney keeps a sense of humor about it, jokingly referring to himself as "Turtleboy." He began a foundation to give people living with Parkinson's tools for living well—for achieving little victories.
Davis Phinney said he didn't learn about Taylor's ride until after it was over. Friends told him how inspired they were by his son. When he heard that Taylor had been thinking about him the whole time, he was floored.
"I have almost no words for how amazing it makes me feel," Davis Phinney said. He wrote in an email to his son:
You make me so happy and beyond proud—and that is better than any medicine and can defeat any disease.
The results are wrong. This is not a story about a guy who finished last. Taylor Phinney won that race.