With the parade of admitted dopers and sordid revelations that Lance Armstrong lied, cheated and bullied his way to seven Tour De France titles, the public perception of cycling has reached an all-time low. The accomplishments of many professional cyclists have been placed on equal-footing with a Sammy Sosa home run -- irrelevant.
Traditionally a sport of skinny Europeans, cycling briefly shows up on our radar anytime an American cyclist enjoys success in the Tour De France. The rest of the time, when someone not named Lance Armstrong or Greg Lemond is winning, it's relegated to the back of the sports page co-occupied by rugby and other Euro sport happenings.
But just when you think competitive cycling has no redeeming qualities other than for perfecting PED tests, a glimpse of humanity appears on the horizon. Two weeks ago in a race that only die hard cycling fans have heard of, the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race, American cyclist Taylor Phinney finished last.
But don't stop reading, this is a story about a guy who persevered when he had every reason to get off his bike, hand it to some guy in his team car and go get a massage. No one would have blamed him and it wouldn't have even registered on the back page of the sports section.
What's ironic is that Taylor Phinney is one of the bright stars of U.S. cycling and one that many hope will win many of the one-day races traditionally dominated by guys named Fabian, Thor and Philippe.
Phinney's cycling story starts with good genes. His mother, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, both won a gold medal in Olympic cycling and competed as an Olympic speed skater. Phinney's father, a member of the United States Bicycling Hall of Fame, was once a professional cyclist and member of the first U.S. cycling team to compete in the Tour De France. Also a winner of two stages in the Tour De France, Davis Phinney has lived for the past 15 years with Parkinson's Disease. So it has been a surprise to no one that Phinney has excelled at cycling and has an already promising career that includes two Olympics of his own.
But back to the race. Taylor Phinney was having a bad day and just wanted to finish because he knew that failing to do so would not allow him to compete in the next day's time trial, his strength and an event he had a chance of winning.
But of course, as many bad days do, it got worse. It started raining; his bike chain broke; and one of the climbs was so steep, many of the professional cyclists got off of their bikes and walked. Conditions were so miserable that the pack of cyclists he was riding with, a group of 80 dangling off the back of the main field, decided en masse to quit the race partway through the 209 km race.
But Phinney kept riding alone, and it was thoughts of his father that kept him going. "I thought about my dad a lot in the race and, you know, if he could kind of have one day, if he could have been in my shoes for that day, completely healthy -- you know, he has Parkinson's -- if he was disease-free and he had to ride seven hours, four of those hours by himself in the rain, as hard as he could, he would have done that," said Phinney in a VeloNews article.
If this was a movie, Taylor Phinney would have fought his way back and won the race, with mud running off of his face and gritting his teeth in pain. But after his four-hour race was over he found out that he finished outside the time deadline for the day, disqualifying him for the next day's time trial. His suffering was for naught.
Later, via Twitter, Phinney called it "probably the most trying day I've ever had on a bike" and wrote "When I wanted to stop, I thought about my Dad and didn't quit." While the emotions of the day overwhelmed him and he broke down, "crying like a little girl" it stirred an outpouring of support much greater than if he had won the race among those who read about his ride in Wall Street Journal and VeloNews articles the following week. It gives hope that cycling has a future and one that hopefully will learn from the mistakes of its past.
Surely, the next time you read about Taylor Phinney it probably won't be about him finishing last. What makes him special though is not his talent, his pedigree or his Olympic appearances, it's that he gave us reason to remember why sports can sometimes mean more than finishing first.