Phinney, and his long haul back: ‘All I can do is look forward now’

Taylor Phinney talks to reporters for the first time about his horrific crash at nationals, moving forward, and not being bitter

Photo: Tim De Waele

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

It would have been easy to be bitter. It would have been logical to think about walking away.

He would have been at the Critérium du Dauphiné now, and perhaps he would have been at the Tour de France. Maybe it would have been his best season on record.

Maybe. Would have.

Taylor Phinney can’t be interested in what may have been. Not today. Maybe that first week, after sustaining a compound fracture in his lower left leg due to a motorcycle in his way at the USA Cycling National Road Championships, he was angry, down, awash in the disappointment of a single moment that paused the trajectory, at least for now, of a rising career.

But now, he only looks ahead and out of these moments crutching 20 meters and needing a break.

“I’m quite strong mentally and I’m able to focus on the future and focus on any positives that might come out of this, which is a lot of maturity, a lot of mental fortitude,” Phinney told several reporters via conference call Tuesday morning. “I see a lot of things a lot more clearly, and am able to kind of — I realize that this career that I have is not a given, and it’s something that can be taken away at any point in time.”

It could have been taken away that day on the road, on May 26.

Phinney (BMC Racing) was fresh off a win at the national time trial championship and was shooting for the double in the road race. He had recently won stage at the Amgen Tour of California, with a shimmering solo attack off a descent, and was looking forward to the Dauphiné, where he would have a chance to prove himself for the Tour de France squad. Phinney was flying.

He was flying on the road that day, too, searing a descent, when he came around a corner upon a slowed race motorcycle and its driver.

Phinney avoided the moto but struck a guardrail, breaking his left tibia so badly it stuck through his skin — a compound fracture, on the side of the road. He screamed lying there, unable to take a good look at a mangled leg that was strong and stable just moments before. He never thought about calling it quits, even then.

“I never thought of quitting for sure when I was laying on the side of the road and I was in tremendous pain and every time I would peek at my leg I could see it was in a contorted position to where it was definitely not in a natural-lying state. For sure I had some time to think about whether or not … I was going to be able to fully recover,” he said.

It seems now that he has a good chance to completely recover, though it’s too soon to tell. The rest of the season is an unknown, too. “That’s a bit far off for me to think about now. Obviously I remain optimistic for the rest of the season,” he said. “Nothing is set in stone for later in the season.”

Phinney also severed his left patellar tendon in the crash, but, oddly, doctors would have needed to sever that tendon anyway for the surgery to Phinney’s leg. He gashed off about a centimeter of his patella that he won’t be “getting back anytime soon,” he said. It was initially reported that he also broke his fibula, but that wasn’t the case.

The 23-year-old rouleur underwent a pair of surgeries after the crash and was later transferred to Utah’s Park City Medical Center, where he was assessed for infections. Phinney was discharged, but still under the care of team doctors in Park City, Utah.

He will return to his home in Boulder, Colorado, once his stitches are removed, where he will keep working to rehab his knee, and may be able to ride a stationary bike a month out, but will likely be on crutches until then. For now, he spends six to eight hours a day doing knee flexion exercises to ensure the patellar tendon doesn’t get too sore.

Phinney said the moto driver was to blame for the incident, that he slowed down as Phinney bore down on him, as opposed to speeding up to clear the road. “For sure there was just kind of negligence on his part,” Phinney said. “He just wasn’t paying attention and wasn’t aware of the speed at which we were traveling behind him.”

So it would be easy, maybe even expected, to be angry. All the luster and shine stripped to its base now, starting over from physical scratch in the middle of the season, unsure if he’ll ever really be the same. Yet Phinney isn’t angry. His attitude on Tuesday, at least over the phone on a conference call, came across confident and solid. He genuinely seemed to look at the injury as an opportunity now as opposed to a setback.

“I kind of feel like I have this chance to rebuild my body again from scratch… an injury like this you have the time to be able to kind of wipe the slate clean and just rebuild again. And the process of rebuilding and the process of training and reaching a goal is so much more rewarding than that goal in general,” he said.“I’m going to have a lot more focus. I’m going to be a lot more present with the races that I’m doing. And maybe a little bit more conservative as well. And a little bit smarter in the races, because I just know that any race we do — in a way cycling in itself is an extreme sport. There’s not a lot of other sports where you can just end your career with a crash.”

The injury represents a shift for the strapping Phinney, who was at one moment youthful and full of potential and the next, very injured and very stalled. “I’m used to being out there and active. But when you’re immobilized like this, all I can do is sit on a couch and watch TV and read, move from the couch to a chair… my main mental state is that I’m just kind of bored now. I’m fortunate there’s a lot of good sporting events on TV,” Phinney said. “I’m sort of over the point of thinking about what could have been in the next couple months … But for sure every day I don’t have a lot of things to look forward to, which is abnormal for me. It’s an interesting kind of comedown, I guess.”

His lack of bitterness isn’t an indication he isn’t disappointed. He is. Phinney has not heard from the moto driver he and others say caused the crash, and that isn’t sitting well with him.

“I have… unbelievably still not heard form the moto driver, or anyone from the local organization,” he said. “He definitely played a pretty significant role in the crash, in the accident. I was pretty taken aback especially those first couple days following the accident that he didn’t stop to see if I was okay, or check in, you know, in the days following … I know that they’re probably worried on the legal side, but more on a humanity standpoint I was definitely taken aback that I hadn’t heard anything from him, and I don’t even know who it is, to be honest.”

USA cycling issued an incident report following the crash, but the specifics of the crash as it pertained to a motorcycle were left out. Phinney said his mother, Connie Carpenter, is looking into legal options.

“I try to be forgiving. I know people make mistakes. People are human. Humans make mistakes,” Phinney said. “It is what it is. I’m not bitter about anything. I definitely get frustrated when I am hobbling around and I can crutch myself 20 meters and I have to take a breather and sit down and then I can keep going. I get frustrated with my current state, but I’m not constantly thinking about one person, or an organization. I’m not angry. I’m not bitter. I had my time to really think through the accident and really kind of have those couple days of being angry. My main issue is just from a humanity standpoint. The best thing about being human is that when you make a mistake you can apologize and you can sort of make things right in that sense showing remorse. But since I haven’t heard from the guy … it’s more confusion from my standpoint. Because I think of anytime I’ve made a mistake the first thing that I’ve wanted to do is clear it up and apologize and make it right with the people involved.”

“As far as anger and resentment and bitterness goes, I’m quite strong mentally, and I’m able to focus on the future and focus on any positives that might come out of this which is a lot of maturity, a lot of mental fortitude. An accident like this, a trauma like this definitely changes you, and changes your approach to things.”

Phinney said he remains “eternally grateful” to friend Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare) who sat with him after the crash, abandoning his own race in the process. “We’ve known each other for a while and we’ve been quite close friends for a while but this definitely goes above and beyond friendship and takes it to another level.”

His return to form will take time. Phinney’s not broken a bone before, and it’s early to say that he will or won’t have complications down the line in his recovery.

“I’m confident that I will be able to [return to 100 percent],” Phinney said. “A lot of it is mental. And a lot of it is pushing through, and dealing with pain. And dealing with the right kind of pain. Having had a lot of knee issues in the past, I sort of have a good sense of what is right and what is wrong.”

This part of Phinney’s season, as it may have appeared on his palmares at least, is gone. But that thing he’s always had remains. And it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

“I’m quite confident,” he said. “Just in general.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.