Yesterday in Steamboat Springs, Colorado the BMC Racing Team rider won Stage 1 of the USA Pro Challenge out of a bunch sprint. He went early with over 300 metres to go, launching from a slight downhill and counting on wearing out the others. It was only the eighth day back at it.
“It was a really emotional crossing of the finish line,” Phinney said. “Those long extended periods of struggle and suffering, you release them in that moment and that’s why we race the bike and love to win.”
He stunned even himself. The Colorado native had described his goals for the seven-day event as testing his recovery and helping the team. Rohan Dennis and Brent Bookwalter are considered candidates for the overall.
Phinney leaned on lessons in perseverance to grab this first victory since the injury. After dropping off on the final climb, he hitched back on. Later referencing his father, who wore a yellow jersey in the state 27 years ago at the conclusion of the Coors International Bicycle Classic, Phinney called his performance a “Davis Phinney special:” get dropped, come back, win.
In May 2014 Phinney crashed heavily into a roadside guardrail in the US road national championships. Extensive injury to his left leg - a broken tibia and patella and ruptured tendon, kept him on crutches for eight weeks. Muscles atrophied. Just before the Pro Challenge began he said a pretty significant strength difference still exists between left and right legs; regaining strength in the affected large muscle groups can require up to two years.
Hobbling along on crutches marked one of the lowest points of the healing process. About that time he visited teammates who were racing the 2014 Pro Challenge. “I wanted to see everybody, but then being around the whole atmosphere and limping around, it didn’t make me feel good,” he recalled. He skipped spectating at the next day’s stage.
At that juncture he stepped away from a sport that awarded him with national and world championships. “I think removing cycling from my mind for most of the time was probably the healthiest thing I could have done. I didn’t really follow the races. I rode my bike because I wanted to ride my bike. I did my rehab, but I didn’t feel like I was a professional cyclist.”
He looked for other ways to define himself, for expressions of passion and speed. He discovered the first in painting and the second at flight school where he soars in a Cessna.
Dozens of canvases bear his colour mark. But he doesn’t paint to sell. “It’s the only thing that I have in my life that is really personal and for me,” Phinney said. “So I make it for myself and then I give a lot of pieces away to family members or people in my life that I love, like friends.”
Those same friends, he said after the race in Steamboat Springs, propelled him forward at the finale by “blowing on my wings.”
During the long months of rehab the possibility of an early career ending stole into his thoughts. But as a rider at age 25 who’s pedaled professionally for seven years, he believes facing that eventuality is wise.
“In the middle of your career you take a lot of things for granted,” he said. “So I feel fortunate that I had to evaluate where I stood in life if wasn’t going to be able to race the bike again.”
His recovery efforts led to a return to competition at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah earlier this month. The decision to take the Utah start rested with him up to several days prior to the event.
“I’d been training. I just wanted to make sure that I was having minimal pain and felt comfortable with where I was (in recovery). A lot of people close to me were very excited, but I still thought of it more as a step forward.” He placed third on the opening day.
Phinney doesn’t expect to hold onto the USA Pro Challenge yellow jersey through Stage 2, given the uphill finish at Arapahoe Basin ski resort. But he is targeting the individual time trial later in the week. On the day before the Steamboat Springs stage he piloted his time trial bike on the team’s morning ride.
His recent comments on chances for success in the race against the clock reveal another unchanged characteristic: his humour.
“I can’t give you a definitive, ‘Yes I’m going to win.’ Rohan (Dennis) is here, much to my dismay…I’ll try to give him as much of a run for his money as I can. He’s not used to doing time trials at 2700 metres. Neither am I for that matter, but I’ll give it my best crack.”