Taylor Phinney on enduring pain and a changed outlook on cycling and life
Lying on the road with your legbones badly cracked changes things. There’s life before the impact, then life afterwards. Taylor Phinney has been through surgeries, therapies, sleepless nights and restless days, and is still trying to get back to where he was before.
Well, to some extent. Because even if he returns to the pro peloton and stands once again on the top step of podiums, he’ll be different to how he was. You can’t go through what he has and not be changed by it.
Or, as he sees it, you can’t go through what he has and not grow.
“I think my relationship with pain is completely different now than it was before,” Phinney told CyclingTips, answering with some pause after being asked if there could be any possible long term benefits to what was an extremely damaging crash.
“I think before I saw pain as a vehicle to success, just part of something I was doing. It was something I had to either deal with or not deal with. And if I didn’t deal with it, then I wasn’t going to be successful.
“Now I realise there is a therapeutic side to pushing yourself to an extreme limit on your bicycle. Endurance athletes are always pushing that envelope.”
Phinney has been through a lot of emotional turmoil in the twelve and a half months since thudding to the ground during the USA Cycling pro road championships. He had won the time trial two days earlier and was trying to double up on that success, but a wayward race motorbike ended that bid in an instant.
He fell on the descent of Lookout Mountain, hit a guardrail, and embarked on a journey that still has an uncertain destination. Will he race again? That question is still to be answered, with his expected return dates shifted back more than once and his BMC Racing Team silent on the matter at present.
CyclingTips spoke to Phinney this spring. At the time he said that he hoped to return for the Tour of California in May. That race has come and gone and he’s still in limbo. Some suggestions from the peloton state that he’s still having intermittent issues connected to his crash.
Whether or not that’s the case, it’s fair to say that this whole process, this whole rebuilding of his leg and his career, has been a far more complicated path than was initially anticipated.
Still, whenever he does return, he said that he believes there will be benefits.
“I know that when I go out now and I want to ride hard, I can just dig a little bit deeper than before,” he said. “Maybe it has something to do with the pain barrier being elevated by what I experienced in breaking my leg.
“Or it is this kind of newfound respect for what pain can do to your mind and how it can clear things, how it can make your mind more simple.
“You can’t focus on anything except this pain that you are feeling. That is kind of a beautiful thing. You are always thinking about so many things at the same time, but a lot of athletes I guess use pain to really live in the moment, which is what we are all trying to do anyway.”
“There are priorities in my life that can be bigger than being just a great bike rider”
Phinney admits to having had some tough times during his rehabilitation. That’s hardly surprising; not only was his upwards trajectory in cycling badly affected by his fall, but also he was forced to take a long break away from the sport.
Research has shown that many athletes have a physical and psychological addiction to exertion. When that pattern of strenuous activity is interrupted, the body and mind can go into withdrawal.
Take away sport, and mood can be affected. Add to that the pain and uncertainty Phinney was experiencing in the months after his fall, and its not surprising he struggled.
However, when he got back on his bike and was able to train hard again, he found that return to exertion helped. As he said, the pain of effort aided in clearing his mind.
Still, even after that, it’s been a rollercoaster at times.
“It is weird with an injury like this because you have times when you are like, ‘okay, I am going to be fine,’ then you start to feel pain or you start to get swollen and you are like, ‘oh shoot, I am never going to be okay,’” he said. “Then a week later you are like, ‘oh, I am better than I was last week.’
“So it is a weird rollercoaster kind of thing. But I have been able to keep my head on straight, pretty much.”
But, back to the future. If and when he returns, he believes the whole experience will stand to him.
“I think I will be able push myself a lot more in general. I think for sure there is a mental component,” he explained. “And then there is also the fact that I have had to evaluate my life and what my life would look like without being able to be a bike racer.
“I have known that I wanted to be a professional bike rider since I was 15 years old. I didn’t think about going to college for more than two seconds. I was sure that I was going to be a cyclist. I went to the Olympics when I was 18. It was just like this fast track to where I wanted to be. I mean, I was under salary when I was 17 years old.
“After the crash, I had to take a step back and say, ‘wait, maybe this is maybe not going to be a thing that is going to work out for me. What else do I want out of life and what makes me happy?’”
Phinney believes his crash has taught him some perspective. He’s been forced out of the tunnel vision of thinking about the next hill, the next race, the next goal. He’s had to look around rather than just straight ahead. He’s been forced to ask, ‘what if?’
His conclusion is that if he can, he wants to achieve more. But, paradoxically, while he wants success, he’s also accepting that he can walk away once he does that.
“There is a lot to it. But basically I have realised that there are a couple of things that are important to me in the sport of cycling. It is not necessarily something that I want to cling on to. I look at my mom as a great example. I always try to pattern a lot of what I do in my career after my mom. She is just a go-getter. She is always doing something.
“She [former top US rider Connie Carpenter Phinney] won the Olympic gold medal in 1984 and then she retired the next day and went back to school. She just dove into all these different things.
“She is also an artist. She picked that up, and I picked up painting just from her. If I am able to accomplish what I want to accomplish, I am not going to have a serious issue with hanging up my wheels maybe earlier than I would have expected.”
He admits he had a very different perspective before his crash. In that regard, too, he has changed.
“People just try to hang on to stuff for too long. I am happy with what I achieved already, because I had to think about that and I had to be okay with that.
“If there are things that I can achieve in the future, I am going to be equally happy with those if not more happy. Happier. And then I think I will be able to move on. There are priorities in my life that can be bigger than being just a great bike rider.
“A lot of that involves the community and your family and your friends and really supporting other people while chasing your own dreams.”
Phinney’s bucket list of achievements to complete
In an indirect way there is a parallel with the Morton brothers Lachlan and Gus. Both were seen as very talented young riders, both were predicted as being set for big futures, yet both have also taken time away from cycling.
In the case of the two Australians, their backing off from the sport [an alternative career for Gus, a stuttering 2014 season and a step down to Continental level for Lachlan] have led to a different appreciation for cycling.
The duo are reunited with the Jelly Belly team this season and are determined to work hard but also take time away from racing with their Thereabouts projects.
Phinney’s time away has been less voluntary, but has also given him a different appreciation of the bike and of racing than he had before. He recently joined the Mortons and fellow pro Cam Wuft in Thereabouts 2, which took the riders approximately 500 miles from Boulder to Moab.
The trips are a step away from the rigidity of regular training rides, with the participants deliberate eschewing standard cycling kit for a more laid back wardrobe. That’s just one change; the overall philosophy is also different, with a greater emphasis on discovery, exploration and – let’s be frank – enjoyment.
Phinney will hope to go on other tours in the future; by that we mean long stage races and Grand Tours. He’s still got a way to go to reach those points, with a return to competition necessary and several months of trouble-free racing before any three week event could be considered.
Given that, it seems that it will be 2016 at the earliest before he could be in line for a Grand Tour. If he gets to that point, though, it should help him get back a strong foundation and to build towards bigger goals.
He has a clear idea of what he would like to do.
“If I had a bucket list of achievements that I wanted to complete in my career, one of them is a monument Classic,” he said. “Another one is wearing the yellow jersey at the Tour de France. Another one is winning a medal in the Olympics, and then a fourth one would be going for the hour record and holding the hour record for a substantial length of time.
“Those are all things that I feel like are definitely very much in my capabilities.”
Phinney was speaking weeks before Bradley Wiggins broke the hour record, and said then that he wanted to see what the Briton could achieve.
He now knows the distance, 54.526 kilometres, and has a target to work towards. However he believes that he’ll need to go deep beforehand in order to have the resilience and condition necessary for the hour.
“I think if you were really going to go for it and really try to smash it…for me at least, I think that I would want to be coming off some sort of Grand Tour fitness. I need to get to that point first, then think about the hour.”
Providing he gets to that point, his new approach to pain and ability to suffer could stand to him greatly. Riding flat out on a track for 60 minutes has been described by many as the hardest single thing that a rider can face on the bike; in that light, being able to go much deeper than before will definitely be an asset.
Paradoxically, though, he believes he will be able to work harder for success, but also to keep things in perspective.
“This has been a whole mental journey but it has been all for the best. I am actually really thankful that I had to go through this whole process,” he said.
“It has been difficult but it has also opened my eyes to what my life is really all about. Bike racing plays a role in that but it is not everything.”