Phinney on his road to recovery, hopes for successful return
Speaking for the first time since his bad crash at the USA Cycling professional road championships in Chattanooga on May 26th, Taylor Phinney has said that he is making steady progress with his recovery and that he hopes to return to walking unaided and riding an exercise bike in four weeks’ time.
The BMC Racing Team rider spoke to the media in an international telephone conference on Tuesday and said that he was hopeful of making a full recovery from a high speed accident which left him with a compound fracture to his lower left leg.
While he said it was impossible to rule out future complications, he said that he was optimistic that he would get through the issues caused by the crash and that he was determined to return to racing and have a strong career.
As to when that would be, Phinney said that he wasn’t certain if he would pin on a number again this season or if it would be 2015 before he was able to compete once more.
“I will reassess once I get off crutches, once I can put weight on my leg and put pressure on my knee,” he said, when asked by CyclingTips if he would be able to ride this year’s world road race championships or if that was out of the question.
“That is a bit far off for me to think about now. Obviously I remain optimistic for the rest of the season but right now, it is about doing the right things. I don’t really have an answer for that question.
“The only thing I can do every day is to do as much rehab as I can every day. Not push it too much, but also not be lazy. Once I get back on the bike there will be a long build back up to where I want to be. That will be throughout the summer. There will be a chance to revisit and look again at goals for later in the season.”
Phinney said that the accident happened due to a race motorbike being in the wrong place on the descent, and was further compounded when the driver of that bike didn’t react appropriately when himself, Lucas Euser and other riders came into sight. He said that rather than accelerating away, the motorbike remained in the way and that his crash was solely caused by that.
Incredibly, two weeks later, he said that he had not had any contact over the matter. “I unbelievably have still not heard from the moto driver or anybody from the local organisation,” he said. “USA Cycling issued an incident report with no mention of the moto driver. He definitely played a pretty significant role in the crash, in the accident.
“I was pretty taken aback, especially in those first couple of days following the accident that he didn’t stop to see if I was okay or check in in the days following. It was more from the humanity standpoint.
“I know they are probably worried on the legal side, but more on a humanity standpoint I was definitely taken aback. I haven’t heard anything from him, and I don’t even know who it is, to be honest.”
He said that he believed such accidents should not happen in the sport, and that riders had enough to worry about in terms of crashes between themselves rather than the race vehicles which are supposed to help rather than hinder those in the peloton.
Currently undergoing treatment as a day patient in the Park City medical centre, Phinney has been cared for by BMC Racing Team’s doctors Max Testa and Erik Heiden. He is due to have his stitches removed this week and should then be cleared to return home to Boulder, Colorado, where he will continue his rehabilitation.
The full transcript of the press conference follows below.
Taylor Phinney: First off I’d like to thank you guys, thank the media for being patient with me over the past couple of weeks. The first week after the surgery was definitely the hardest. It takes a couple of weeks to get situated. So thanks for being patient with me and Sean [Weide, team press officer].
I’d just like to start out by taking in the first responders to my accident, and in particular Lucas Euser, who was a witness to my crash and was able to avoid it. He was there by my side as I was writhing in pain at a difficult moment and he actually gave up the race to be there.
I think he has experienced a bit more post-traumatic stress than I have as he actually looked at my leg and I didn’t want to see it. So a big thank you to Lucas.
There have been a lot of rumours that I have seen, at least from Twitter, about what the extent of my injuries were. I just thought I’d clear that up quickly.
I had a compound fracture to my tibia, just my tibia. It was a clean break. Basically in surgery they just inserted a nail to keep it in place, put it back together. It was a simple procedure. So I have a nail in my tibia and a couple of screws screwing my tibia back to my fibula.
The other thing was that I severed my patellar tendon in the crash, I think on impact with the guardrail. Ironically, in surgery they would have had to sever that tendon in order to put the nail into my tibia anyways.
So along with that severed patellar tendon I did cut off about a centimetre of my patella that I am not planning on getting back any time soon.
Doctors are always joking that I have overly large patellas anyway. At least my left one is the normal size now!
I was very lucky in Chattanooga that they have a level one trauma centre in which I had my surgery. I was in great hands. Dr. Eric Heiden, who works with the BMC Racing team, was in contact with the surgeon who did my surgery. He said the guy was definitely very well qualified and did a great job. Dr. Heiden said he wouldn’t do anything different.
I have to give a big thank you to my team for supporting me through this, and especially Dr. Heiden and Dr. Max Testa. Now that I am in Utah, I have been able to see Dr. Heiden almost every day. He has made special time for me, and just been a great resource.
Other than that, I have been doing PT [physical therapy] for a couple of days. I am way ahead of schedule. They are forcing me to chill out every day. There is not much I can do except for rehabilitation at this point. I spend about six to eight hours every day doing my own rehab. Right now that pretty much consists of knee flexion, to make sure that the patellar tendon does not get too sore. But I am kind of limited in that I don’t want to re-damage that tendon that was sutured together in surgery.
Right now I am at about 100 degrees of flexion, which is very good. The only timeframe that I currently have is that since the day of surgery, I will be on crutches for six to eight weeks. So I take that as six weeks. That was two weeks ago. There is a chance four weeks from now that I could be back on a bicycle, probably a stationary bicycle, and then the gym, doing some strengthening of my left leg.
Q: Given the timeframe, you say it will be four weeks at the earliest, do you think it is still possible to do the worlds this year or is it more likely you will be back next season?
Taylor Phinney: I am not really sure. I have been really on a day to day schedule now. I knew with this call I would have some questions about the rest of the season. It really depends…I will reassess once I get off crutches, once I can put weight on my leg and put pressure on my knee.
That is a bit far off for me to think about now. Obviously I remain optimistic for the rest of the season but right now, it is about doing the right things. I don’t really have an answer for that question.
The only thing I can do every day is to do as much rehab as I can every day. Not push it too much, but also not be lazy. Once I get back on the bike there will be a long build back up to where I want to be. That will be throughout the summer. There will be a chance to revisit and look again at goals for later in the season.
Initially when I did have my crash, the couple of days after, they did say I was going to be off the bike for three or four months. But the prognosis has just got better and better since the surgery and since I started the rehab.
I remain optimistic for whatever the rest of the year brings. But I do realise that I need to be patient and I need to be also conservative in a way to protect the rest of my career. To look at that aspect instead of just looking at this season. It is a bit early to say.
Q: How are you holding up mentally? It seems like you were just starting to come into great form so I am wondering what are you doing to keep yourself healthy in the head as well as the body.
TP: I had a week after the crash to really be down. I had a lot of pain, a lot of painkillers in my system. That plus the travel to Utah meant the first week was definitely not very enjoyable, both physically and mentally. Especially considering I was really gee’d up for the nationals, was really excited to go to the Dauphine, really excited to prove myself and to try to make it to the Tour.
I have had my time to have that sink in and deal with the disappointment of the accident itself. Largely now with the rehab, I am used to being out there and active. When you are immobilised like this, all I can do is really sit on a couch, watch TV and read, move from the couch to the chair, do the rehab exercises, which consists of flexing my knee to a tolerable pain level.
So my main mental state is that I am just kind of bored now. I am fortunate that there is a lot of good sporting events on TV. You have got the NBA finals, there is NHO, Family Cup, there was a really cool Formula One race the other day, the French Open, the World Cup is about to start.
I definitely get a lot of TV time in. I am sort of over the point of thinking about what could have been in the next couple of months, and just focussing on getting out of the house a couple of times a day. That’s easy to do with the rehab.
Once I get my stitches out and I am able to go back to Boulder, I think my social life will liven up a bit and I will be able to think about other things. For sure every day I don’t have a lot of things to look forward too, which is abnormal for me.
It is an interesting comedown, I guess.
Q: Have anyone communicated with you at all about the motorcycle?
TP: I unbelievably have still not heard from the moto driver or anybody from the local organisation. USA Cycling issued an incident report with no mention of the moto driver. He definitely played a pretty significant role in the crash, in the accident. I was pretty taken aback, especially in those first couple of days following the accident that he didn’t stop to see if I was okay or check in in the days following. It was more from the humanity standpoint.
I know they are probably worried on the side, but more on a humanity standpoint I was definitely taken aback. I haven’t heard anything from him, and I don’t even know who it is, to be honest.
Q: Do you expect to hear from USA Cycling at all, or will you follow up with that later on?
TP: I am not really sure how to proceed with that. I have heard from Steve Johnson and Jim Miller of USA Cycling, but it is more checking up on how I am doing. But the whole issue of the moto is an ongoing thing. I know my mom is looking into it from the legal side.
For me it is more the personal, human side of things, causing an incident and then not taking any sort of action to apologise or even make any connection with me. That is a bit strange.
Q: Had you been good friends with Lucas Euser before, or did this incident bring you together?
TP: Yeah, Lucas and I have been close friends for a while. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, where I live. He is an integral member of our little quote-unquote Wolf Pack that we have in Boulder. It is a group of various guys from domestic professionals to WorldTour riders. We all get together when we are in town and go for rides or we go out.
Lucas is definitely a sensitive guy and he is somebody who is very caring. He has had a traumatic accident to his knee before, so I think he just realised the gravity of the situation. Also because we were close friends, he wanted to be there for me because I think he had wished when he had his accident – he had his accident with a car – I think at that time he wished he had somebody at his side to calm him down.
I am eternally grateful to him for what he did that for me. I would like to think if the roles were reversed, that I would have done something similar for him.
We have known each other for a while and we have been quite close friends for a while, but this definitely goes above and beyond friendship. It takes it to a whole other level. So I am very grateful to him for that.
Q: You struck me as nervous before the road race. Does that sound right, or were you just focussed?
TP: I was definitely focussed on the race. I was nervous before the race. It is always an interesting race that always unfolds in a strange way. You have the breakaway and then you have a different mix with riders with domestic professionals and the WorldTour pros, and just different teams.
I was really focussed on the race, I wanted to win the race. So whenever I get focussed on an objective like that I definitely get a bit nervous. But that seems to be a normal thing for me before a big event that I am really focussed on. I definitely was a bit nervous.
Q: I know the crash was really bad and the road back is long. When something like this happens, a major crash, a major injury, did you ever think of quitting, that maybe you could or should walk away?
TP: I never thought of quitting, for sure, when I was lying on the side of the road and I was just in tremendous pain. Every time I could peek at my leg, I could see it is was in contorted position, to where it was definitely not in its natural line or state.
For sure I had some time to think about whether or not…for the first couple of days, it was definitely a question as to whether or not I was going to be able to fully recover. The doctors didn’t know the full extent of my injuries, so there was that question in the voice of the doctors that were talking to me.
That was pretty freaky and something no athlete wants to experience or think about. I never thought about quitting, just based on a risk side of things, but for sure an accident like this gives you a perspective that you cannot have unless you have something like this happen to you.
I see a lot of things more clearly. I realise that this career that I have is not a given and it is something that can be taken away at any point in time. You know, I work very hard and I was really on a good track after Roubaix, getting into the California nationals and really focussed on the Tour de France. I was almost most focussed than I had ever been before.
So I know that when I come back I am going to take that same focus and maybe even more to the next races that I do. If that’s in the end of this season or if that is next season, I am going to have a lot more focus. I am going to be a lot more present with the races that I am doing. Maybe a little bit more conservative as well, a little bit smarter in the races.
I just know that any race we do…in a way, cycling in itself is an extreme sport. There are not a lot of other sports where you can end your career with the crash. I have that perspective now and I have that wisdom of not taking anything for granted. It is kind of a cliché or whatever, but it is really something that you have to experience before you can put it to work.
For sure I am going to approach things differently now, mentally. I think anybody would after an accident like this. Hopefully that is a blessing in disguise and can result in some positive results and big things along the way.
For sure this is something I don’t want to experience again and limiting the risk of that is definitely going to be something I am going to implement somehow.
I never thought about quitting, I never thought about anything else. I just mainly thought about the fact that I do need a back up plan just in case, that nothing is given, nothing is set in stone with regards the future of a professional cyclist.
I am very fortunately to have a backer like the BMC Racing team and Andy Rihs to support me through this. I am not in a contract year and I am going to be able to be stress-free on that side of things and come back when I need to come back, when it is healthy for me to come back.
I think it is definitely going to be a turning point for me, mentally, maturity-wise in my career, for sure.
Q: You said that you consider the moto be responsible for the accident. Would you like to see rule changes or perhaps set requirements for bikes on races, that they need to have a set standard to handle races? Also, in terms of medical costs for a rider like yourself, are you fully covered by insurance?
TP: I think I am all covered on insurance. Definitely those surgeries were expensive. It is pretty amazing how expensive surgeries can be. But I think we are largely covered.
As far as the moto, from my point of view…because I remember the accident completely, I never lost consciousness. Because I don’t know who it is, I don’t know how long the person has been on a moto.
But for sure there was negligence on his part. He just wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t aware of the speed at which we were travelling behind him.
Then the way that he reacted when he realised we were coming up on him, that myself and Lucas and the rest of pack were coming up on him, definitely demonstrated that he was not equipped in the sense that he didn’t react properly, in my mind. He braked instead of accelerating away. It’s what you would do if you were on a motorcycle rather than a bike because they can accelerate so much faster than we can.
I don’t know if it is a question of training, I don’t know if it is a question of licencing those guys. Like I said, I don’t know him and if he has been a commissaire for 20 years. But for sure you can’t have accidents like this happen.
Accidents are going to happen, crashes are going to happen, but when it is on us, when it is on the athlete, it is on the athlete. But you should never, never have a crash that involves the commissaire moto or involving someone from the caravan, from one of the cars, anyone in front or behind the race.
Even before I was telling some people about the crash and how it unfolded with the moto, there were a lot of complaints in the caravan about the commissaire motos in that race in particular, just the way they were controlling the race and the way they seemed to get in the way of the race.
That is what I heard from people. Obviously I was only in the race for a couple of hours, but there were definitely complaints about the commissaires.
You put that on top of the fact that basically one of the motos was heavily involved in my crash. I don’t know what that is, I don’t know the experience level of the commissaires, but I would say it is something that has to be regulated and something that just can’t be a factor in any race.
I understand that the national championships is only 90 riders. It is not the Tour of California, it is not the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. But it is just any race you have, you can’t have that. You just can’t.
We have enough to worry about with ourselves, you can’t have people riding on vehicles that are under-trained or ill equipped mentally to handle the race.
I don’t know for sure what needs to be changed but for sure I would appreciate USA Cycling looking into these guys and trying to make this event as safe as possible, outside of the peloton in general. The things they can actually control.
Q: You said you have been watching some sports. Have you been able to bring yourself to watch any cycling, or is that something you are going to avoid for a while?
TP: I watched replays from the Dauphine. I am invested in the Dauphine because Tejay is riding there and the team is riding there. But I usually wake up late enough that I miss it. I am not sitting here thinking I can’t watch…I have no problem watching bike racing. But I usually end up just catching a replay or some highlights on YouTube or whatever. I am eight hours behind or whatever, so I usually miss it when I wake up.
But I think once we get into some bigger stages in the Dauphine, there is a chance I will try to wake up a little bit earlier and try to see how Tejay is doing.
Q: Are you angry about the situation, are you mad at the moto driver, are you bitter at all or do you not feel that way?
TP: Well, I try to be forgiving. I know people make mistakes, people are human. Humans make mistakes. And it is what it is. So I am not bitter about anything, but I definitely get frustrated when I am hobbling around. I can crutch myself 20 metres and then I have to take a breather, sit down and then I can keep going.
So for sure I get frustrated with my current state, but I am not constantly thinking about one person or an organisation. I am not angry, I am not bitter, I had my time to really think through the accident and to have those couple of days of being angry.
My main issue is from a humanity standpoint. The best thing about being human is when you make a mistake, you can apologise and you can sort of make things right in that sense by showing remorse. But since I haven’t heard from the commissiare moto who was involved in the crash, for sure it is more confusion from my standpoint.
I think of any time that I made a mistake, the first thing that I wanted to do was to clear it up, apologise and make it right with the people involved.
I don’t really think about the accident as much any more. That was a big piece of advice I was given, to not dwell on it or think what I could have done differently. It has happened, all I can do is look forward now.
So I have kind of put that behind me and accepted everything the way that it has gone.
Obviously I need to talk about the accident today with you guys, but as far as anger and resentment and bitterness goes, I am quite strong mentally and I am able to focus on the future and any positives which might come out of this.
It is a lot of maturity, a lot of mental fortitude. An accident like this, a trauma like this definitely changes you and changes your approach to things, kind of like I was speaking about before.
That is a positive. I just move forward and try not to think about what happened a couple of weeks ago, try not to think about where I could be in my season now if the accident hadn’t happened.
I just think about the things I can control, which is the next four weeks…I am really looking forward to getting off the crutches and really putting weight on my left leg. I feel like I have the chance to rebuild my body again from scratch. It is not something that anybody would look forward to. But it is something with an injury like this you have that time to be able to just wipe the slate clean and just rebuild again.
The process of rebuilding and the process of training and reaching a goal is so much more rewarding than that goal in general. So this is just a whole other process that I am engaged in and committed to. I am excited for the change that can result from something like this. I will continue to look forward.
Q: Can you talk about whether or not you have had breaks before? Also, once you get over this, do doctors believe that there will be no long-term complications, that it won’t affect your career longterm?
TP: I have never had any broken bones before. This was the first broken bone I had. I have quite a high bone density, so for me to break a bone it usually has to be quite a large impact, which it was.
It is early to say that I will or I won’t have complications from this. For sure I have to be very vigilant with taking care of this left knee for the next year, year and a half. When you have an accident like this, you realise that a lot of people come forward to offer support who have had similar if not worse injuries.
There have been people who I have met who have completely shattered their kneecap, which can be a lot worse. I met a guy who severed his patellar tendon with a chainsaw and completely destroyed his patella, yet he made a full recovery.
So you kind of start to hear all these stories from these people that you either know or you were kind of acquaintances with who made full recoveries. From that side, I know that I have a really great team around me, in terms of how physical therapy is concerned.
I have had a lot of joint issues in the past, just because I have grown a lot. I have been trying to fortify my joints and stopping growing and getting into this real intensive sport, when it comes to just taking care of your body. But I do have a really good team around me. Not only do I have the support of my team doctors, like Erik Heiden who specialises is a surgery like the one I went through. But I also have my soigneur I hired for the year, Reid Calvin. He did a lot of PT work on the side when he was working for teams in the past.
I have all the pieces in place to make a full recovery. I know it is going to require extra energy of me, but it is already energy that I have already been using and expending over the course of the year, just to make sure that I have been healthy and injury free the whole year.
This is a lot more extreme, obviously, but I do have the necessary tools at my disposal to come back from this and I am quite confident that I will be able to.
I can’t say for certain, but a lot of it is mental, pushing through, dealing with pain, dealing with the right kind of pain. Having had a lot of knee issues in the past, I have a good sense of what is right and what is wrong. I am quite confident in general.