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Davis Phinney

By Dan Koeppel - from Bicycling Magazine

Davis Phinney doesn't know how to lose. Neither does his Parkinson's disease.Davis Phinney with Lance Armstrong October 2003

On a crisp, beautiful May morning in Italy, Connie Carpenter was leading a group of cyclists--all attending her European training camp--up the Stelvio, the country's highest pass. At the 9,045-foot summit, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist paused, then asked the cyclists with her to stop, too. She wanted to wait for her husband. "We're waiting for Davis," she said, "because he's coming." Below her, several switchbacks down, far behind the group, a lone rider struggled. Davis Phinney, 46, the winningest bicycle racer in American history--more than 300 victories from 1978 to 1991--moved slowly against the steepening grade. Minutes ticked away. There was snow on the ground, and the waiting riders grew cold as they watched Phinney's pedaling become slower and slower. It took, Carpenter says, "Forever. But he did it." As soon as he crested, shivering and trembling, without pause Phinney aimed himself down the other side of the mountain. "This thing I was witnessing," Carpenter remembers now, "it far surpassed anything he'd done in his athletic career."

Can this be my hero?
It is a damp Tuscan afternoon, and we've got a wind behind us. The breeze pushes the bikes along, even upward into the hills, but even so the rest of the cycling group has long since left Davis Phinney behind again.

He and I are alone, chatting, laughing. The man beside me was the first American to win a road stage of the Tour de France; he was the first American with enough muscle and nerve to snatch 40-mph sprints from European hardguys, and in the mid-'80s led the fabled 7-Eleven team that pioneered this country's way into the Grand Tours and Classics; he once starred in a Super Bowl television commercial and, in an endorsement deal, his face appeared on two million Slurpee cups--all before Greg LeMond won his first Tour, before Lance Armstrong got his driver's license.

We dawdle up a tiny climb. The face is the same. The legs are still muscular. At the top, we lean our bikes against a sandstone wall and step into an empty café. Phinney orders a coffee. He's lived in Italy for nearly three years, and his espresso habit has gone native; he takes it black and sugared thick. He extends his right hand to grip the tiny cup, awkwardly, because Phinney is left-handed. For a second, my eyes sweep downward. Phinney's dominant hand is pressed into his hip. He's trying to keep it still. But the effect of Parkinson's disease is obvious.

He's trembling.
Thousands of miles have been pedaled since a 16-year-old boy--with scientists for parents and an older sister who did far better in school--stood in a Boulder, Colorado, park and discovered what he'd been put on Earth for. It was 1975, the height of America's first post-automobile-age bicycle boom, and in the mountains northwest of Denver, the two-wheeled vogue found its most thrill-rich manifestation: European-style road racing. Davis Phinney was witnessing the premiere Red Zinger Classic. (Later the Coors Classic, this was the first attempt to bring multi-day, Tour de France-style events to the U.S.) Phinney saw the riders, the speed, and, especially, the power of the sprinters as they exploded toward the finish, and knew what he wanted to be.
"I was going to race bikes," he says.

Within weeks, he'd found an oversized Peugeot to ride. Within months, though his bike didn't fit and he wore his father's rock-climbing helmet and a woolen thermal undershirt as a jersey, Phinney was in breakneck competition with Boulder's young cycling stars. There was Ron Kiefel, who would end up becoming one of Phinney's closest friends and, on 7-Eleven, his leadout man in European sprints. There was Alexi Grewal, who would become Phinney's Olympic nemesis.

Back then, I was as obsessed with being on two wheels as Phinney was. But I spent most of my time pedaling the back roads around New York City with a set of panniers strapped to my Schwinn. There was a velodrome not far from my grandmother's house in Queens, but the world of bike racing seemed terribly distant. One day a racing fanatic at a snobby Manhattan bike shop told me that the athletes to watch were a young Nevadan named Greg LeMond and a 5-foot-9 Rocky Mountain powerhouse named Phinney. Stuck in the urban East, with little skill for racing and my only idea of what it might be like coming from the 1979 movie Breaking Away, I noted the names, but it was hard to visualize Phinney's brand of cycling.
In his hometown of Boulder, he was as adored as Reggie Jackson, the slugger who helped the Yankees win a pair of late-decade World Series, was in mine. Michael Aisner, who promoted the Red Zinger/Coors Classic race, says the Boulder stages were pandemonium: "You'd never believe it. When those riders came through North Boulder Park, there would be 60,000 people, all screaming for Davis."
I wouldn't have believed it. But soon, the whole country would.

A year before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Phinney married Connie Carpenter. A stunning athlete--nearly 6 feet tall, with flowing, red hair and two years Phinney's senior--she'd competed in the 1972 Winter Olympic Games as a 14-year-old speedskating phenom. In the early '80s, she and Phinney started a passionate romance. (Ron Kiefel says his training partner spent four days off the road when he hooked up with his future wife. "They were locked in a room together," he recalls.)

Phinney had upgraded his undershirt-and-climbing-helmet style to a consciously well-groomed, media-friendly persona and begun racing in Europe for 7-Eleven. ABC Sports fell in love with the medal-contending couple, and began promoting them.
"There were no two athletes with more attention--or expectation," Aisner says.

Phinney told me his Olympic story one day last fall as we drove across Tuscany to one of the Carpenter/Phinney bike camps. In the months leading up to the Games, he says, he became more and more certain that both he and Carpenter could win the gold medals everyone expected. He'd especially convinced Carpenter of her own potential. Three years earlier, she'd finished third by just millimeters at the world championships in Prague. In analyzing her loss, Phinney pointed out that his wife had been the strongest rider but lacked an essential sprinter's skill: the ability to throw the bike forward, at the last instant, pushing it ahead of the body to burst across the finish line and get the edge in a dead heat. It was an art Phinney demonstrated, and Carpenter practiced, day after day, as the Games approached.
Carpenter raced first. I remember watching the women's road race at my friend's house. Like many fans, I didn't know much about the women, though the television hype had made me aware that Carpenter and Phinney were, as a broadcaster put it, "a matched pair." Carpenter and her chief rival (and teammate), Rebecca Twigg, spent the sunny afternoon dicing with each other. After nearly 50 miles of pedaling a circuit around Mission Viejo, neither had put any distance on the other; Twigg approached the finish with a slight lead.

"Maybe a half wheel," Carpenter remembers.
She threw the bike.

I'd never before seen a race with world-class competitors; although what Carpenter did seemed like stuff I'd attempted on my Sting-Ray as a kid, I understood how different and amazing it was, this gigantic redhead with perfect timing and perfect grace accomplishing something that seemed not to surprise her.
"It was," Carpenter says, "a gift from Davis."

A few days later, Phinney wheeled onto the same course (though the length was doubled to 100 miles). "I felt so strong that morning," he remembers. But late in the race, Alexi Grewal took the lead, and on the final climb, Phinney couldn't keep up. Steve Bauer, a Canadian who also rode for 7-Eleven, joined the chase and eventually finished second. Phinney finished fifth.

"I couldn't close the gap," Phinney says. "My legs weren't there."

We'd reached the Mediterranean coast; we were passing Pisa, and I could see the famous crooked tower from the highway. "It was a bitter, bitter blow," Phinney says. "For years, I'd done nothing but win. I'd anticipated nothing but victory."
There was a brief silence. The hardest thing, he said, was learning to take less seriously the pity people heaped on him. They'd recognize him as the half of that famous couple that didn't fulfill destiny, usually with a sad shake of the head and a downcast glance. But Phinney had a ready antidote: racing--and winning. In 1986, he became the first American to win a road stage in the Tour de France (LeMond had won a time trial), and he prevailed again in a hotly contested sprint into Bordeaux the following year. In 1988, in the Liége-Bastogne-Liège Classic, a team car stopped short in front of Phinney; he went through the back windshield, fracturing a vertebra and opening a wound in his face that took 130 stitches to close. He returned to the U.S. and, five months later, entered the Coors Classic, finally standing atop the podium in the race that had inspired him, completing an amazing comeback before hometown fans.

Such determination in the face of hardship is, of course, the hallmark of a winning athlete. It brought Lance Armstrong back after cancer, and Greg LeMond back after a gunshot wound forced him to sit out the 1987 season. But this final hardship of Phinney's is different. It's striking after his peak. There are no more races for him to win. Even if there were, his disease wouldn't allow it. Cancer is a killer, but the lucky and determined can get better.

Those with Parkinson's have no such opportunity.

"The other fathers think I'm drunk," Phinney cracks one day at his son Taylor's soccer game. The boy is a star, fluent in Italian and deadly accurate with a corner kick; his teammates (and teammates' sisters) love him. On the sidelines, Phinney shuffles, slurs his speech, and shakes.
His joke actually reflects a common first impression of those with the young-onset version of Parkinson's. (About one in 100 people over age 60 have the disease; under age 50, the ratio is less than one in 1,000.) The symptoms are caused by the destruction of brain cells that produce dopamine, a chemical that helps regulate the body's movement and pleasure functions. (Sex, chocolate and heroin all feel good because they stimulate dopamine receptors.)

Phinney began to notice what he now realizes were early symptoms toward the end of his racing career. After winning the national pro road championship in Philadelphia in 1991, Phinney started to get intense leg cramps, usually during long car or plane rides. By '93, when he retired, he was experiencing fatigue, mysterious aches and tingles. He and Carpenter had begun their bike-touring business, and Phinney says he was too busy to worry about such vague symptoms. Taylor had been born in '90, daughter Kelsey in '94, and Phinney was also an in-demand personality for broadcast television; cycling was finding a place on cable networks and would become increasingly popular as the era of Lance Armstrong dawned. But the aches and pains continued, and the couple found themselves shuttling to doctors and chiropractors and MRI facilities.

One of the problems was that youthful Parkinson's is so rare that it doesn't usually occur to a diagnosing physician; Phinney's fitness might have masked more severe symptoms. The likely culprit, the couple believed, was probably related to the 1988 windshield crash.

"It wasn't blissful denial," Phinney says. "The thing about Parkinson's is that it comes at you like some kind of poison vine, advancing up a wall by just an inch a year. It takes over your system so slowly, and with such subtlety, that you don't notice it until it has a grip around your throat."
There's no single marker for Parkinson's. The presence of the disease is confirmed by its symptoms, along with some basic tests that measure response to dopamine-altering medication. Phinney's diagnosis finally came after his hand began shaking so much that he couldn't hold a microphone on a broadcasting job. On a cold Denver evening in 2000, he and Carpenter sat in a neurologist's office as the doctor explained the disease and what the future might hold.

"It was a strange relief," Phinney says. "But it was also a sobering bucket of cold water, right in the face." They drove silently back toward Boulder. Halfway there, they stopped at a Mexican restaurant. As Carpenter watched, her husband downed shot after shot of tequila. "I just needed to check out," Phinney says.

The 1984 Olympic gold medalist drove her stricken husband home. Neither of them knew what they'd do. "But I knew," Carpenter says, "that we weren't going to do nothing."

I attended my first Carpenter/Phinney camp in 2003. I wanted to spend a week cycling beside one of my heroes. I knew that Phinney had Parkinson's, but as we rolled through the Dolomites, stopping at cafés, his symptoms seemed mild. I didn't notice that he often kept his left hand in his pocket, or that he'd grip something to keep his tremors from becoming apparent.

"I was hiding," Phinney says. "I got good at thinking about everything I'd do, not getting caught off-guard. There were tactics I'd adopt to keep myself from looking overtly disabled."

Carpenter and Phinney moved to Italy in 2002 so he could get away from the pressure, from the fast-paced lifestyle, from things that would cause him stress and aggravate his disease. But their bike camps aren't the typically lazy, catered vacations offered by many companies. In handouts Carpenter gives to her guests, she instructs them to both vai tranquillo--take it easy--and go hard. "Give," she says. "Give your all."
Before those Olympics, back in '84, Carpenter told everyone she'd win, then quit the sport immediately. She kept her word. More than 25 years after her last race, she still possesses a steely intensity that I've seen in only one other athlete I've met up close: Lance Armstrong. You never get the sense that Carpenter became an athlete for the glory. It feels more like she simply held herself to a deeply personal and ferociously high set of internal standards. Her perfectionism makes her an ideal host in Italy. She will get you up that hill. She will make sure you learn how to make impeccable tiramisu. She will ensure that you have no choice but to adore your bike, adore your wine, adore your life--that you live and relax with passion.

Carpenter, says Max Testa, a close family friend who was Phinney's doctor for much of his career, "is taking almost as big a hit as Davis. But she's the one who has to keep everything under control."

Last autumn, I rode with Carpenter and Phinney again.

During a dinner at a Tuscany hotel, Phinney dispensed with the silverware and ate with his fingers--it's easier that way--while joking to his companions to "watch out for flying food." He told me he's practicing making eye contact with people who notice his shaking. "It's time," he said, "to bring this bad self out into the open."
I'm too much of a fan to be able to get very deep inside that bad self. I know that my filter of admiration keeps me from understanding how Phinney and his family, and his oldest friends, can cope. I won't pretend that I can portray how they manage to believe in the future as they watch a man who once epitomized the gorgeous physicality and aggression of professional bike racing struggle with a disease that is degenerative, disabling and slithering in its malice. I don't imagine that I can climb inside Phinney's head as his thoughts drift from the person he calls Shaky Davis to his old self. I don't know if his heart is overwhelmed by sorrow and admiration, one twisted against the other, as mine is when our tours into the hills of Tuscany end and he quietly returns to his quarters to sleep, his exhaustion hidden behind closed doors, while Carpenter shoos guests away.

Seeing the disease in plain sight--the same thing that, at first, made me heartsick--inspires hope. Neither Phinney nor Carpenter sugarcoats. "I know the normal course of the disease," Carpenter told me one night. Phinney says, "I know things down the line look pretty grim for me."

But over and over you see the two of them throw themselves, with a perfectly timed instinct, past the dark moments. At the Tuscany camp, Phinney was trying to adjust his seatpost, dropped the hex wrench and couldn't pick it up. He began laughing and said, "I hope everybody's amused."

One evening in Bassano del Grappa, the walled medieval city just east of their Italian home, I shared a pizza with Carpenter. "It is hard to wake up every day, and know that the person you live with is getting beaten up," she told me. "But what I also see is Davis trying to live the best way he can. There are so many of us who don't have the specter of disease haunting us who can't manage doing that."
I don't think either Phinney or Carpenter is hiding from the truth, or denying the future. They're returning to the U.S., partially because soon Phinney will need more-aggressive treatment, possibly brain surgery. They've started a foundation to help fund Parkinson's research; last year an inaugural charity bike ride raised more than $170,000, enough to help launch several projects in Cincinnati. (The Davis Phinney Foundation is affiliated with The Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cincinnati and University Hospital.)

I think they're simply people who don't know how to lose. It is the key to Phinney's bravery, to Carpenter's strength, and to whatever the future holds. It is an idea that is utterly alien to most of us--those of us who are mortally ungifted, who come apart merely from witnessing the suffering of our heroes. But it is the idea that keeps them going, that makes every day feel like a triumph.

Please click here for the Davis Phinney Foundation
Supporting Parkinson's Disease Research and Wellness

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