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He’s gone from crutches to a cane to standard walking; he’s transitioned from flying on his bike to doing the same in the skies. It’s been a helter-skelter few months for Taylor Phinney since he crashed hard at the USA Cycling professional road championships in Chattanooga on May 26th but, as the end of the 2014 racing year approaches, the young American sees clear signs of progress in his recovery.
The BMC Racing Team rider suffered a compound fracture to his tibia in the fall and also severed his patellar tendon. He is still uncertain as to whether or not he will get to race before the season draws to a close, but he is optimistic that he will be back to a high level for his objectives in 2015.
— Taylor Phinney (@taylorphinney) July 27, 2014
“I don’t have a set return date that I have penned out,” he told CyclingTips during a long phone interview on Monday. “I think most of my goals that I look forward to are next year, early next season. The bigger targets like Paris-Roubaix and going to the Tour and doing that first prologue.
“Right now I am just building up. I am going to see how I feel after I get this screw out of my leg. The only knee pain that I have is related to this screw. If I can continue to build once I get this screw out and I don’t have any more knee pain, I can ramp up the training a bit.”
Phinney crashed hard on a descent during the US Nationals. He and others said afterwards that the fall happened when a race motorbike went down the slopes too slowly and got in the way. In early June he said that he hadn’t been given any explanation or apology by the driver concerned; two months later, that remains the case.
Instead of mulling over that, he said he’s working hard towards his return. A precise date is still some way off but he has his fingers crossed it might be possible to pin on a number before 2014 draws to a close.
“I will definitely be racing early next season. Whether I can get something in before the official off season starts this year is unsure, but I will definitely be back next year.”
In the interview below Phinney talks at length about the various stages of his recovery, opens up about the mental and physical hardships he has experienced, discusses the exciting new hobby he’s picked up while being sidelined and gives his advice to any others who might also find themselves returning from serious injury.
CyclingTips: We last spoke in June…how have things been going for you of late? Are you happy with your progression, given where you are coming from?
Taylor Phinney: I am really happy. It is a slow process and I knew from the start that was going to be the case. But you don’t really realise…three to four months, how long that can actually take.
I have had a really good, a really nice support structure here. I do rehab, PT every day. I am starting to walk completely unassisted now, with no cane and no crutch.
I do like the cane look, so I am going to keep that going for a while yet [laughs]!
I can ride my bike a lot better than I can walk, which is pretty cool. So that is encouraging.
I have got a lot of friends around and a lot of things to kind of bide my time. I am looking forward to the [US Pro Challenge] race coming into Colorado in this next week and having my team-mates around. I will probably go hang out with them for most of the race, just be there and be part of the team again.
It will be nice to feel like you have a sense of purpose by being around the other guys. Okay, yeah, I wish I was there racing, but whatever.
CT: At what point were you able to start walking unassisted – is it relatively recently?
TP: It is recent that I am able to walk with a cane. I got a cane little over a week ago, ten days ago, and so I am completely off the crutches and onto the cane now.
I walk around the house without a cane, but have a pretty heavy limp. I have been pretty slow. But just today I noticed that I didn’t really need that cane so much any more. So I left the house without it.
I am a little bit slower, but I am working on my gait and just trying to ensure that I am not favouring my right side too much over my left side. But yeah, it is nice – little things, little victories.
CT: What were the hardest points mentally, apart from the crash itself? Were there particular stages that were tough, or has there been a continuous improvement from that crash upwards?
TP: The first couple of days after the crash were probably the worst. I had a brief period, a couple of days maybe three or four weeks ago where I was starting to get down. But that only lasted a couple of days. I called my coach Bobby Julich and some other friends, and just talked it out.
It is hard after an accident to accept what has happened to you. Even when you accept it, there comes a time where you are just like, ‘you know what, this really sucks. I accept that this has happened, but it still really sucks.’
I had a moment like that a couple of weeks ago where I just got a little bit down for maybe a 24 hour period. But I have so many good people around me; I got on the phone with Bobby and we crafted a training plan, a phased plan.
As a result, when I go out on my rides now I am doing intervals, bringing it to 200 watts. But it is just nice to have a structure. Bobby is all about that. He loves working with me, he loves looking at my training and so he was really happy to have a sense of purpose back into my riding.
Air miles and recovery tips:
CT: You have had time away from the bike – have you been able to do anything unusual or exciting or interesting that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do?
TP: Yes, now that I am on a rehab schedule, I do rehab Monday through Friday and then I experience the weekends like a normal person does. It is kind of interesting too, going out on the weekends. Then you get back into your weekly regime and are back into doing work.
I am actually working getting my pilot’s licence. I enrolled in flight school.
I got inspired when I went to San Diego, flying up to LA with one of my best friends from high school. He is already certified. He is trying to become a commercial pilot and he flies every day.
I was like, ‘this is super, super cool…I would love to be able to do this.’ I have the time now that I can ride my bike, I can do my rehab, and I can also put some time into going to flight school and trying to get my private pilot’s certificate. So that is pretty exciting and a really fun, freeing outlet.
CT: What would you recommend to others who are in a similar position, who have had bad crashes? Is there anything in terms of nutrition, exercises, sleep or something else that can speed recovery?
TP: Yes, just being patient with it has been a big thing for me. I sort of think that my conservative approach to rehab and stuff is probably a normal person’s aggressive approach. I have to always keep toning it down. But for sure you are reconstructing bone inside your body. You are not doing it consciously, but that is something big that your body is doing.
It takes a lot out of you, man; you definitely need to get the sleep and you definitely need to be eating right in order for that to happen. It is just a case of dedicating that time every day, whether it is to rehab or after rehab. Just simple things like regaining range of motion. It is easy to get to a certain level where you are a functioning human, but you are just not really back to where you were before.
You always have to keep pushing until you get back to that original state. Just using the people around you to keep you motivated, to keep you sane. Taking advantage of some of the time that you have is pretty important, because hopefully I won’t have anything like this happen to me again.
It is interesting. There are a lot of positives that you can take from it. Of course it sucks, it really sucks, but it is something that you build from, whether you like it or not.
CT: How has your training progressed, in terms of the hours building up and the watts you are hitting?
TP: Well, when I first got back on the bike I was on a recumbent. I actually got back on a bike really, really fast – I got onto a recumbent maybe two and a half, three weeks after the accident. It was mind-boggling thinking about it now.
But that was five minutes, ten minutes. Once I was able to sit on an upright body inside with no resistance, it went from fifteen minutes, twenty minutes, thirty minutes.
Then I got up to an hour by my birthday at the end of June. That was my birthday present to myself, no-resistance bike riding for an hour. Then you start to be able to put the watts down and then you do the same kind of build-up. You do that the same fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes.
I got outside a little bit prematurely, just because I was going a little stir crazy. I could walk alright, I could ride alright and I was pretty confident that I would be okay.
I was just an hour, 45 minutes, hour, hour and 15, hour and half. Now I do two hours pretty much every day. I don’t really have a restriction on duration at this point. I could go out and do three, four hours, but they would just be really slow.
I am balancing everything out with the rehab and flight school. I just take it pretty conservatively from my standards. If anything starts to hurt I dial it back immediately and then we try to figure out what is going on.
I am getting a screw out actually on Wednesday, a really big screw that is kind of heating a little bit of motion. So I am excited about any bit of metal I can take out of my body.
Returning to racing:
CT: What is your schedule, in terms of when you envisage being back to competition? Will it be this year or next year, and what are the targets you have laid out for yourself?
TP: I am not really sure. We haven’t been able to put a firm comeback date on anything yet. Obviously it is hard with something like this. You have got to take a couple of weeks at a time. The main thing that you are trying not to do is you are trying not to do too much and set yourself back. But you need to do enough to continue to progress.
I don’t have a set return date that I have penned out. I think most of my goals that I look forward to are next year, early next season. The bigger targets like Paris-Roubaix and going to the Tour and that first prologue.
Right now I am just building up. I am going to see how I feel after I get this screw out. The only knee pain that I have is related to this screw. If I can continue to build and once I get this screw out and I don’t have any more knee pain, I can ramp up the training a bit.
As regards the tendon itself, on a biological healing clock it should be just about healed in the next couple of weeks, according to science. So it is just being careful and there is no rush. My team hasn’t rushed me. The only kind of rush that I feel is when I get impatient. That comes from myself. I just have got to watch that and be careful.
But I don’t really have any concrete answers to the question about the first race. I will definitely be racing early next season. Whether I can get something in before the official off season starts this year is unsure, but I will definitely be back next year.