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Phinney finds his own cadence into cycling

He is a prodigy and a late bloomer.

He grew up in the mountains of Colorado and found his heart in the hills of France.

A teenager who got on his bicycle three years ago and rode all the way to the Olympics.

"It's been a complete surprise," said his mother Connie Carpenter-Phinney. "Every step of the way."

As master plans go, this one was a little haphazard. Taylor Phinney may have had every reason to turn to a career in cycling, but he had little motivation until recently.

You may have heard of his mother. Connie Carpenter-Phinney was a 14-year-old speed skating sensation at the 1972 Olympics before turning to cycling and winning a gold medal in 1984. His father's name may also sound familiar. Davis Phinney won an Olympic bronze in cycling in '84 and two years later became the first American to win a stage at the Tour de France.

So what did Taylor want to do?

He mostly played soccer as a youngster. And when he got to high school in Boulder, Colo., he turned to cross country. If cycling was supposed to be in his blood, he was going to need a transfusion.

It wasn't until his parents took him to see the 2005 Tour de France that Taylor's interest in cycling grew. Seeing the crowds, the emotion, the fervor surrounding the event was a revelation even for someone who grew up with Olympic medals in the kitchen cupboards.

"When I think back on it, I wasn't really aware that cycling is the sport it is. To me, you rode your bike to get a sandwich or whatever," Taylor said. "What's really important is I chose my sport without too much influence from my parents. Obviously, I knew about their accomplishments, but they weren't pushing me superhard to be a cyclist. I made that decision for myself.

"I realized I had the genes for it and I'd probably be pretty good at it."

That would fall under the category of understatement. Phinney did not begin racing until 2006, and a year later, he won the Junior Road World Championships in Mexico at age 17. Suddenly, he was being called the most exciting athlete to hit the American cycling scene in years. The Mini Phinney.

"Davis and I thought if he had a good day, he might be in the top 20. And he won," Carpenter-Phinney said. "We looked at each other afterwards and said: 'His life is never going to be the same. Never.' "

A year later, Taylor qualified for the Olympics.

Now he is talking about putting college on hold while he pursues a cycling career. With the exaggerated wonder of a teenager, he talks about being recognized on the street and having strangers know his name.

It would seem the perfect handoff from one generation to the next, except stories are rarely so simple.

As Taylor's profile has grown, Davis, 49, has been fighting to maintain his own life and dignity.

The man who won more races (328) than any American cyclist, Davis Phinney was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease in 2000. His career as a broadcaster, motivational speaker and cycling guru came to a crashing halt in an avalanche of tremors, stutters and other complications.

With his condition rapidly deteriorating, Davis moved his family (which includes 14-year-old daughter Kelsey) to a small town in Italy, where they lived from 2002 to 2005, while coming to grips with the changes in their lives.

"Moving to Italy was a stressful time," Taylor said. "But we've really grown closer as a family."

With Taylor immersed in training this spring, Davis had his own battle to fight. He underwent a relatively new procedure in early April that involved implanting electrodes in his brain to reduce his tremors. Later that month, doctors adjusted the settings, and the tremors immediately lessened. The procedure essentially turned the clock back on his disease by more than five years.

"It's not quite as dramatic as someone coming back to life," Davis told the Denver Post. "I wasn't dying. But in essence, I did have that feeling: My God, I've been given a gift I never could've imagined."

Davis and the rest of the Phinney clan are planning to travel from Boulder to Beijing this month to see Taylor compete. It was barely three years ago that Davis introduced his son to Lance Armstrong at the Tour de France and Taylor got it in his head that cycling might be a career worth pursuing.

Now he is a legitimate medal contender just a month after turning 18. And the kid who got to meet Armstrong on the way to a Tour de France title is now being called a possible successor.

That might be a little premature, considering Taylor's career has barely gotten started. For now, Taylor is satisfied with making his Olympic debut. And getting a chance to ride alongside his father again, now that Davis' symptoms are under control.

"Every once in a while, we'll go out together on a ride. Just a father-and-son ride," Taylor said. "We'll talk about whatever. Just two guys that are friends. That makes it pretty special."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

>>fast facts

29th Summer Olympics

When/where: Aug. 8-24, Beijing

Number of countries: 205

Number of athletes: More than 10,000

Number of sports: 35; medals will be awarded in 302 events.

Phinney finds his own cadence into cycling 07/30/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 30, 2008 8:40pm]
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