Riding it out
Before he became America's Greatest Two-Wheeled Sprinter and before he became the Young Man Who Shook and before he became Father of the Great New Hope, Davis Phinney was just the Weird Guy With The Bike at our high school.
We'd see him out there, riding his 10-speed around and around the cinder track at Boulder (Colo.) High School, and we'd snicker, "What is that moron doing? Why doesn't he go out for basketball like everybody else?"
But then one spring day, Phinney walked through the quad in his bike shorts and killer quads and all the girls went "sigh," and that's when we knew we'd been had.
Davis Phinney went on to win 328 bike races, two Tour de France stages and an Olympic bronze. And even that isn't the best thing he's done. The best thing he's done is marry Olympic gold-medalist cycler Connie Carpenter and produce America's best chance for a biking medal in the London Olympics, 22-year-old heart-throb Taylor Phinney. The 6-foot-5, 2-iron-thin Taylor hopes to bring home a medal in either the individual time trial Aug. 1 or the road race on Saturday.
"I'm training to win the gold medal," says Taylor. "That's how I've got to look at it."
And that's just the beginning. People are talking about Taylor as the kind of sprocket sensation who could win a Tour de France someday.
It's a little unreal for Davis. Seems like just yesterday Taylor was the toddler he had to catch before he'd go ramming himself into walls or crashing into coffee-table corners.
Taylor was only 10 when his dad came down with early-onset Parkinson's at 40. I'd see Davis and could hardly believe he was the same guy I knew in high school -- shaking wildly, his head rocking this way and that, his hands jammed in his pockets.
"I could only sleep for 15 minutes at a time," Davis remembers. "I'd have to pin my hands down under my leg just to get them to stop shaking long enough to go to sleep. It was misery."
Taylor was just a fifth-grader then, with no clue how devastating this was.
"Thinking back now to the way he handled it," Taylor wrote in his blog, "I can't really believe his composure. He kept on living, loving, and laughing. He easily could've lapsed into self-pity and depression but he held his head high."
Finally, in 2008, as Taylor was about to go to the Beijing Olympics, Davis decided to take a literal plunge. Using deep brain stimulation, surgeons implanted two electrodes 2½ inches into either side of his brain, powered by a pacemaker in his chest. It was risky and not promising.
And it instantly worked.
"The doctor said, 'OK, let's try a little current now," Davis remembers, "and just like that, all these muscles that had been at war with each other suddenly were at peace. It was like Armistice Day. It was just like, "Oh ... my ... god! I looked at my wife and she was crying. She said, 'I haven't seen your smile in a year!'"
In Beijing, meanwhile, Taylor finished seventh. He did win the heart of gymnast Shawn Johnson, who won a gold. It was an Olympic village romance that ended a few months after the Games.
"I got distracted," he admits.
This time, he's staying in a hotel, with his parents, as far away from the village as he can get.
Sadly, while Taylor seems to get stronger with every race, his dad has been regressing. The doctors told him the brain pacemaker could turn the clock back on the progress of Parkinson's five years. It's been four years. The disease is setting in again. He doesn't shake like he used to, but his balance is awful. When he greeted me at the door of his Boulder home, he stumbled backward and almost over.
"I have to catch him sometimes," Taylor says.
Funny how life can come full circle, isn't it?
For both of them, a medal in London will not be the best victory. The best victory is that for the last two months, Taylor has trained in Boulder, and his unsinkable dad is with him every day.
"We go on these little one-hour rides together," Taylor says. "And I'll maybe give him a little push on the hills. But then, up near Eldorado Springs, I'll lead him out for a sprint to the city-limit signs. It's so fun to watch him. He can still fly a little."
It's such a delicious moment to savor, Davis holds those arms stiffly out in front of him and throws his head back to laugh.
"Any dad would be stoked to have his son follow in his footsteps," he says. "I just didn't know he'd have such big feet."