Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney — the parents of current cycling phenom Taylor Phinney — were the runaway favorites to win the men’s and women’s Olympic road races in 1984. It was a dream scenario with all the ingredients for a fairy tale ending: a popular American husband-and-wife duo, a first-ever road race for women at the Olympics, and home field advantage with the course set in Mission Viejo, California. Real life isn’t a fairy tale, though, and that dream scenario didn’t end as planned. US tech editor James Huang sat down with Phinney at his home in Boulder, Colorado, to not only take a look at the bike he rode that infamous day, but also recap that fateful day in July.
Electricity in the air
July 28, 1984, was certainly not like any other day for the Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter-Phinney. Although both were already superstars of their sport and well accustomed to being in the limelight, the Olympics were upon them — and not just any Olympic Games, but ones hosted on American soil for the first time in fifty years. Both were highly favored to win their respective events in what was hoped to be a storybook husband-and-wife ending, and to say that both felt the pressure of the day would be quite the understatement.
“Connie and I were staying in private housing, as were the whole road team, because the day the Games opened, the first competition was the women’s road race,” said Phinney. “We skipped the opening ceremony so we didn’t have lead legs from standing up for five hours. Connie’s race was at 9am so she went off early and I stayed in bed, and then got up and turned on the TV. And they were already talking us up, this American married couple, who were both favored to win, and what a historic double that would be. Not that I didn’t sense or accept pressure before, but that was just like, boom!
“What had been remarkable about the whole experience up until that time was how incredibly amazing the crowds had been. One day we were out there training, a week before the games, riding on Highway 1 toward Laguna Beach. All of a sudden, there are all these people on the side of the road, the traffic ceases, and there are more and more people. We were in our USA kit and people were cheering. Finally, we stopped and asked, ‘What’s going on?’ We had inadvertently run into the final leg of the torch relay. To hear all these thousands of people, three or four deep, on Highway 1 — that gave us a taste for the enthusiasm of the Games.
“On the Olympic road race day, we drove on to the course to get to the cabins and get ready, and we just turned up the hill during the women’s race on La Paz Rd. in Mission Viejo. I’ll never forget it. You turn on with this ratty old van that said ‘USA’ on it, and there were twenty and thirty-deep people, spectators all the way around the course. The noise was deafening, and it only got louder. I still get chills thinking about it. That was our introduction to race day. We were going to race in front of what was estimated to be 200,000 people. It really was amazing.”
“We got to the cabins, and got settled, and we were waiting for the women to finish,” Phinney recalled. “There was a very small TV in the back of the van that was just loosely built-in — a little, tiny, old-school black-and-white TV that we plugged into the cigarette lighter and adjusted the antenna to get the reception for ABC. In the last kilometer, Connie was back towards the back of the group of what had been six women, but Jeannie Longo, who was her main competition at that point, something happened to her derailleur and she dropped off the back. So Connie was wondering what happened to Jeannie, and why she was positioned poorly in the back, and I was yelling at the TV, ‘move up, move up! You’re too far back!'”
“Rebecca Twigg jumped with about 200 meters to go, and then Connie comes roaring up the side, and is carrying way more speed. But Rebecca has a couple lengths lead. Right at the line, they both throw their bikes, but Connie just does a masterful bike throw, and I can’t tell if she’s won or not. But we run out into the street because the cabins were located right after the finish line. Connie comes rolling past and she’s surrounded by fifty people, and the hillside on the other side of the cabin was just filled with people and noise. She just mouths, ‘I think I won’.”
Phinney would have loved to relish in that moment but he didn’t have that luxury with his own race start only a few hours later.
“I was so ecstatic for her, but I had to almost immediately put my game face back on and get out for the men’s race.”
The brutality of the men’s road race course was looming as well. Not only was it long at 190.20km, but it was also hilly with roughly 380m of climbing for each of the race’s twelve laps, By the end of the day, racers would have logged more than 4,500m of ascent in total — those that completed the full course, that is.
Of the 135 starters, only 55 finished.
“The men’s race started, and it was a hot day. It was 120 miles, 90 degrees, 80 or 90 percent humidity, which didn’t favor me, historically. I wasn’t a good heat rider, but I’d spent the winter preparing for heat in an old-school wrestling tactic. I would go riding, no matter what the weather here in Colorado, and I would put on layers of wool jerseys. And in between the layers, I’d put a plastic garbage bag so that I was always sweating. That was my heat training! And of course, I was not doing what physiologists would recommend now. I was not drinking enough because, again, the thought was that you’ve got to get used to being dehydrated. That was never so true as in the Olympics because it was so difficult to get a bottle and to get fed, because you had no support from your team car and there was only one place to go to get a bottle or musette. And that was on a very short stretch right past the finish line, where you’re going 30mph.”
That the conditions weren’t entirely favorable was the furthest thing from Phinney’s mind at that point. He wasn’t just capable of winning that day. He was supposed to win. He was destined to win.
The best laid plans
“I was on the best day of my life up to that point. I had calculated my peak perfectly, and I had envisioned nothing but winning the Olympic road race, at least two years going up. I’d spent every day visualizing how the race would unfold, picturing myself in the situation to win so it’d all come together really well.”
The US team went into the race with a clearly defined plan. Phinney was the designated leader, and he had three teammates at his side: Thurlow Rogers, Ron Kiefel, and Alexi Grewal. They were thoroughly drilled, it was a course they knew well, and with the Soviet Union one of 14 nations boycotting that year’s Games, the cards were stacked in the Americans’ favor.
There was only one problem with the plan: Grewal wasn’t on board with it.
“Alexi Grewal attacked very early, after two or three laps, and he established a breakaway with a lot of principal players: Dag-Otto Lauritzen and Morton Sæther, Steve Bauer, Thurlow Rogers, myself, and a couple of other guys. We just sailed away. Everybody was pulling, and we established a big lead. The problem was, I felt so good, and I wasn’t used to being in this situation where, other than the Coors Classic, there was live TV coverage. Turns out they spent most of the race covering another sport but we assumed it was live! And so you’re going up these roads, which were just crammed with people. The noise the crowd was making was so intense, you couldn’t even hear yourself think hardly, let alone talk. Even though Alexi would be right next to me, I’d say something to him, and I couldn’t even hear myself talk because it was such a thundering noise. So for five hours, we went like that.
“I felt so good that I overcooked myself a little bit. I pulled too hard, and was so confident that if I could take this group to the line, I’d win in a sprint. And then Alexi attacked again [with about 18km to go], and Thurlow and I looked at each other, like, ‘what the fuck?!’ He wasn’t supposed to do that, as per our team plan. But Alexi had been an outlier with Eddie B [Borysewicz, the US team coach], and had not come to any of the team meetings. And Eddie had just had a word with him before the race and said, ‘We are working for Davis, so whatever you can do to help him, you need to do it.’ Alexi was thinking, in the meantime, that whatever I need to do to beat Davis, I’m going to do. Alexi had had his own struggles, and I respect him — now — greatly for how well he rode and how clinically he dismantled me and the other riders in that race.”
A naturally gifted climber, Grewal knew that Phinney likely wouldn’t be able to maintain the blistering pace he was setting on the La Paz Rd. — and as Phinney would come to understand years later, Grewal also knew that there was little glory with merely being the teammate of an Olympic gold medalist.
“I was definitely pissed,” Phinney recounted. “Alexi gained about a minute going through the finish line with one lap to go. I was desperately thirsty at that point, desperately bonked, just because I hadn’t fueled properly and I hadn’t anticipated not being able to get any feeds. I had only had one thing on my mind at that point, which was to get a musette, or get a can of Coke, for this last lap. So I’m there trying to signal to our soigneur to get me a Coke, and then Steve Bauer attacks up the side! So I take the musette, and I look up and see Bauer 50 meters off the front, just launching, and I was like ‘Fuck!’. So I just slammed the musette down and chased Bauer.”
Phinney’s heat-of-the-moment decision to toss that musette — and the precious calories contained within — would ultimately prove costly.
“The situation, with about 8 miles to go, as we turned left on to the steepest climb on the course, is Alexi about to get caught by Steve, with me dangling off the back, chasing and just totally blowing up. And so we hit the bottom of the hill and it was just lights out for me.
“Lauritzen and Sæther roll by, and then I get picked up by Thurlow and what remains of the break, and I just get out in front and pulled the whole way to the finish line but I don’t have enough gas to even catch Dag Otto and Morton. Steve catches Alexi, and Alexi plays his cards perfectly. I don’t think Steve, and certainly I didn’t, expect Alexi to beat him in a head-to-head sprint after a hard road race but Alexi was incredibly smart that day. He had anticipated everything, even down to forcing Steve to the front with 500 meters to go, and making Steve lead it out, and waiting, and waiting. And just like Connie, he comes by at the end, only he comes by with enough speed to win by a length or two.”
Heartbreak and healing — and another shot at Olympic family glory
It’s one thing to lose a bike race when you know you’re capable of winning it. It’s another entirely when you’re supposed to win it, and with so much build-up leading up to the Olympics, Phinney’s disappointment was understandably stinging.
“At the end of the day for America, it was a banner day: two gold medalists. But I was inconsolable. I was happy for Connie on the one hand, but I had the ego of someone who wanted to win and somewhat expected to win, and was so bitterly disappointed that I’d made mistakes. I felt like I’d basically cost myself the win, which didn’t give Alexi, nor Steve, nor Dag Otto, who were one, two, and three, the credit they deserved. But again, when you’re in that world, it’s easy to become so self-absorbed.”
Phinney has now had more than three decades to move past that fateful afternoon. Today, he has not only healed those painful wounds but even manages to look back on that moment with a positive spin. Everything that happens in one’s life leads you to where you are now, after all, and for Phinney clan, there’s a whole new round of Olympic hope. After a devastating crash in 2014 that nearly ended his career, Taylor Phinney is now set to compete in both the road race and time trial in Rio, along with teammate Brent Bookwalter. Neither is a favorite to medal in the former event, but Phinney is certainly a medal contender in the race against the clock.
Davis Phinney is still the winningest road cyclist in American, and he certainly enjoyed crossing the line first, describing it to me as, “plugging into Earth’s core and feeling hot magma shooting out through your hands.” Even so, he says it’s still important to maintain perspective of what competitive cycling is all about.
“That was my Olympic story,” he said, ” and stories make life rich. One thing that Taylor and I talk about, is that what drives you ultimately to race bikes well is your passion for the sport, and if it’s all just training and numbers and race directors and team directors in your ear telling you what to do here and there, it becomes almost robotic. So you can’t lose sight of the passion. I think keeping these stories fresh and relevant is part of that.
“He’s a really good guy — a smart guy, a sensitive guy. It’ll be interesting to see where he goes from here. We shall see.”