Phinney hasn’t seen the footage of a concussed Skujins dangerously stumbling over the road following a high-speed crash on a descent in stage two but can relate after his own recent experience.
The 26-year-old himself was concussed in a collision at the Tour of Flanders, which wiped the remainder of his spring classics campaign and had a lasting impact past Cannondale-Drapac’s mandated rest period.
Speaking from the Tour of California, Phinney was sympathetic to Skujins’s experience and supportive of his team’s concussion program, which he suggested could even be extended from the current minimum requirement of six days off racing.
“…I was trying to give him as much advice as I could as far as taking it easy because I personally had to take weeks of restrained activity until I started to feel better,” Phinney said.
“My concussion was on a milder side in that I didn’t lose consciousness, and I didn’t get back up and fall back down. But I had a couple weeks where if I over exerted myself during the day it felt like a pretty strong hangover the next. My brain was kind of fragile in respect to activity that I could put it through, and its ability to recover was a little bit diminished.”
Cannondale-Drapac’s concussion program includes a “baseline” computer test its athletes, including Skujins, can profile against.
“I definitely agree with any kind of protocol,” Phinney said. “We have a baseline test that Toms actually took earlier this year so he’ll be able to touch back on that, and that’s a pretty simple thing just on the computer that you can do.
“I don’t know how many other teams have implemented a concussion protocol. I think concussions seem to be getting a lot more attention over the last couple of years, which is a good thing because the mentality of an athlete is different. The demands go up as the sport progresses and we really need people to sit us down and tell us, you’ve got to chill out, this is what you have to do and take X amount of time [off]. If it’s forced upon you it’s definitely better.”
Phinney believes concussions in pro cycling specifically can be exacerbated by athlete lifestyles, which can seem to be wholly based around the sport. The Giro d’Italia stage winner has fervently pursued interests outside of the cycling “bubble” since a well-documented and elongated recovery from a crash at the 2014 U.S. national road championships that dominated his final seasons at BMC Racing.
“My attention span was definitely not what it normally would be, and then my emotional state was also fluctuating a lot more than usual, especially considering I wasn’t really riding,” Phinney observed of his own recovery from concussion.
“You get frustrated easily over nothing or things you wouldn’t be frustrated with otherwise. It’s a very fragile state, especially as a professional athlete when most of us only do one thing, which is ride a bike. For the rest of the time, most people just sit on their phones or computer for the rest of the day. I also felt fortunate that I have a creative outlet.”
Phinney is currently racing at the Tour of California in support of captain Andrew Talansky, who sits eighth overall.
He transferred to Cannondale-Drapac this season following a long tenure at BMC, and has an eye to returning to the Tour de France this year. The Grand Depart – a flat, 13km time trial – is added incentive to make the squad of his new stable.
“The ideal plan is to do the Tour de France because of that first stage in Dusseldorf, but it’s a hard team to make so I’m going to do all I can to try and be on that raft,” he said.
“After changing teams, you realise every single one has its own unique vibe and I think being on Cannondale suits me a little bit more, at least where I am now. It feels a little bit more human orientated to me.
"I find the relationships within the staff, between the staff and riders and within the group of riders itself feels more tight-knit. We’re all working towards a particular sort of unity and goal and that’s all you can hope for being on a team.”