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Taylor Phinney Refused To Let One Horrible Crash Define Him

Photo: Bryn Lennon (Getty)

American cyclist Taylor Phinney retired yesterday at age 29, ending a decade of professional racing. Phinney’s career is defined by two days in the saddle—one triumphant in 2012, and one tragic in 2014—but the moment that most illustrated Phinney’s talent as a bike rider came between those two poles, at the 2013 Milan San Remo.

The notoriously brutal early-season race was especially nasty that year, as heavy snowfall forced organizers to ride buses over a dangerous segment, which prompted several of the most hardened one-day racing specialists to drop out. Phinney did not win the Italian monument, but he made a desperate solo effort inside the last few kilometers that earned him the same time as the six-man group that contested the finish. A top-10 finish at a monument classic at age 23 is nothing to sneeze at, and Phinney showed guts and strength in the toughest conditions. Good things seemed to be on the horizon for a rider like him.

Phinney was tabbed as a potential star from a young age. He was one of the most decorated junior riders in the world, and the son of cycling royalty (both of his parents won medals at the 1984 Olympics). In his second pro season, he wore the Giro d’Italia’s famed pink jersey for three days after crushing the prologue time trial. Later that year, he finished one step off the podium in the Olympic road race and time trial. American cyclists in the post-Lance era have typically been climbers or general classification contenders, but Phinney represented the country’s best hope to compete for victories in the fabled spring classics of France and Belgium. Those are the most exciting races cycling has to offer, and Phinney became a fan favorite instantly.

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Unfortunately, he suffered one of the worst crashes in modern cycling history at the 2014 U.S. Championships. He won the Dubai Tour that spring, took a phenomenal solo victory at the Tour of California, and even won the national time trial championships. There are mercifully no videos of Phinney’s crash, only photos, but he slid into a guard rail on a descent while trying to avoid an errant motorcycle and suffered grisly injuries: a compound fracture of his left tibia and fibula, a severed patellar tendon, and a busted kneecap.

Doctors doubted he would return, and he had to re-learn how to ride a bike with a mangled left leg. Phinney’s career would never be the same, but it’s a minor miracle that he went on to race for several years. He made it back on his bike in time to secure the USA a spot at the Rio Olympics by showing out at the 2015 World Championships, and he eventually did notch a top-10 finish at Paris Roubaix. He finally got to make his Tour de France debut in 2017, and he briefly wore the King of the Mountains jersey.

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But racing stopped being the point of Phinney’s life, and as he said in his retirement announcement, he’s been injured for the majority of his pro career, pushing a left leg that simply could not summon the old power. He couldn’t be happier to stop fighting his own body:

I think that there’s a lot of power in recognizing that you don’t have the genuine passion for the thing that you’re doing anymore, and then having the courage to make that choice, to make that decision when you’re so deep in it. I feel like I’ve been basically preparing for this for a while now, cultivating the ability to voice my honest opinion and say, “I think that I don’t want to do this anymore.”

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In an Instagram post announcing the news, he wrote, “As far as cycling goes... I’m more in love with bikes now than I have ever been before. My body is very relieved now that it knows that I will not be punishing it to the fullest extent of my capabilities.” For someone who shouldered the expectations of a country then came back from a life-changing injury, that’s a happy ending.

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