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Taylor Phinney Q&A: Recovery, the Tour, and the crash

After a long recovery from traumatic injury at nationals, Phinney is gunning for a full recovery — and yellow

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At this point, what happened to Taylor Phinney that day is well known. An in-race motorcycle slowed down in front of him and others during a descent of the USA Cycling road national championships. He smashed into a guardrail. His left leg snapped as a toothpick does under a heavy thumb.

What happens next, though, is the unknown. Phinney has worked and rehabbed. He’s suffered through watching the races, feeling like he’s losing ground every single day as the peloton barrels forward. He talked with VeloNews recently about his recovery and his ambitions for next season.

VeloNews: How are you doing? How’s the leg? How are things?

Taylor Phinney: Things have been good. I’ve been getting out on the velodrome here in Boulder, getting back to roots, riding behind the moto getting back my leg speed. But things are progressing, slowly but surely. I thought I’d be back to 100 percent in October, but I still have a little ways to go. Just getting the strength back in my left leg — not using it for six weeks takes it about nine months to [get to] where I had it before.

VN: Is that what they’re saying, nine months until it’s back to fully functioning?

TP: Well they said six to nine months, but I can still do stuff. I can ride and still put out some watts, but I want to make sure that my left leg is equally as strong as my right leg before I start doing some serious training. I feel like that’s an important thing for me.

VN: Does it still hurt?

TP: Yeah, it starts to hurt if I push too hard around my knee, so I’m just trying to not make it hurt and just ride. I’m happy that the season is over now, just because it’s one more thing that I don’t have to think about now, but now that the season is over, it’s like everyone is at the same place now. But I’m still working and improving, so hopefully I can start training with everyone else when the time comes. For now, I’m not too fixated on what everyone else is doing.

VN: When next year rolls around, is there a time when you want to be 100 percent ready or will the progression be more as it comes?

TP: My biggest goals that I’m hoping to be 100 percent ready for are the Tour and worlds in Richmond. I want to be ready for the classics, but I just don’t know whether I’ll be ready to handle that intensity at that point. It’s hard to have a full long-term plan, but I’m quite sure that by May or June — a year after the accident — that I’ll be at 100 percent.

VN: Has the team been supportive of you, not putting a ton of pressure on?

TP: Yeah, they’ve been telling me to be conservative. I talk to them just about every week to check in and they speak with the doctors. I talk to a lot of the riders, they want to have me back, to at least be at the dinner table to make people laugh, but I’ll be back there eventually.

VN: You did a conference call shortly after the crash once you had some time to think about what happened. To me you seemed not too mad or upset with the situation then. Do you still feel that way or are you mad about what happened?

TP: I don’t get mad about it. I’ve learned a ton about myself over the past couple of months. I’ve had some really good times and some really bad times, and I’ve gained a whole new appreciation of what bike racing means to me and the ability to be mobile and the freedom of riding the bike when I could barely walk, but still pedal a bike. My relationship with the bike itself is completely different now. When you’re going through a hard time, it really is a nice escape and it allows you to filter all of the shit that you have built up in your mind. I had the relationship with the bike before, but I never went through anything as difficult or trying as this, and I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process. I’ve really matured a lot, which you hear about all the time, but never really appreciate until you’ve actually gone through something like it. I have a new perspective now, things mean something a bit more to me. Just life in general and mobility and the ability to live and breathe and be a contributing person to society. It all has a whole new meaning to be healthy and I’m just grateful to getting back to being healthy, and it’s something I’ve always been grateful for, being around my dad [Davis Phinney has Parkinson’s disease —Ed.], but it really puts it in a new light when it’s you. When you can’t walk, when you need an assistant and you’re constantly trying to get better, but the recovery isn’t happening daily, but every week or month, so it’s tough to see the slow progression of the recovery.

VN: It must be hard for you, being so healthy and fit your whole life to ask for help or to need it.

TP: Yeah, I went to my friend’s soccer game the other day, and I can walk now, but my left side is still weaker. I can ride a bike a lot better than I can walk right now, but I went to this game and just desperately wanted to run around and kick a soccer ball, but there is nothing I can do about that, I simply can’t physically run yet. … But I tried to kick the soccer ball afterwards and went to kick and planted my left leg, my bad leg, as I was about kick and then just collapsed. I couldn’t hold myself up like that, so it was pretty embarrassing, I ended up in some weird pose on the ground.

VN: We saw Cadel and Hushovd retiring, what do you think of the team next year? It will obviously be a bit younger.

TP: It’s always too bad when you lose legends of sport. Thor and I have a really close relationship, he’s one of my favorites to room with, so announcing his retirement wasn’t a surprise but it was a bit of a shock to me. I know that Cadel had been thinking about it for awhile, but this allowed the team to open the door to a bunch of new riders and I think that’s the best direction to take the team — make it younger, get the energy levels up and I’m looking forward to getting back to it and forming a bond with the younger riders who are coming up.

VN: The Tour is going to be the big goal next year?

TP: Yeah, if I can come back and do Paris-Roubaix, that would be the best thing, but the Tour is a massive goal for me, especially with the short punchy prologue [The Tour’s opening 14km time trial will be considered stage 1, not a prologue —Ed.]. So being able to put on the yellow jersey and maybe winning the world championships are things that I’m trying to look forward to. Obviously, there is a lot of stuff that needs to happen before I can check off those boxes, but I’m just happy that the Tour is back to putting prologues in. It’s nice of them.