Davis PhinneyBy Dan Koeppel - from
Davis Phinney doesn't
know how to lose. Neither does his Parkinson's disease.
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."
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
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
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
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
"There were no two athletes with more attention--or expectation,"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
"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
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
"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."
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.
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
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."
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."
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
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
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.
for the Davis Phinney Foundation
Parkinson's Disease Research and Wellness