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Project Taylor

He's got the genes and the killer instinct, and at age 18 cyclist Taylor Phinney is a good bet to medal in Beijing. But more important than any Olympic hardware for the prodigy is that, after radical brain surgery, his dad—the legendary Davis Phinney—is back in the saddle.

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The director of Taylor Phinney’s Garmin-Chipotle cycling team, Jonathan Vaughters, shares his favorite Denver bike rides.

Every second counts—he knows that all too well.

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Straddling his bike in the driveway of his Boulder home, Davis Phinney waits for his son, Taylor, to finish getting ready. Already dressed in his Pearl Izumi cycling shorts, his jaw firm and his biceps bulging in his Maratona delle Dolomiti race jersey, he still looks like the guy in the old poster curling on the far wall of the garage, winning Colorado’s famed Morgul-Bismarck road race in 1979—one of the first of more than 300 bike races he’d go on to win in his extraordinary career. The crazy thing is that the guy in front of me looks like he’s maybe in his late 30s—which means he would have been in grade school in 1979. But athletes are like that, some of them. They stay young well after their prime. Normally.

The garage is packed nearly to the rafters with skis and bikes and kayaks and camping gear and other outdoor equipment, leaving no room for the family car; an Audi wagon sulks at the curb, covered in salt and grime. “I was like Adventure Dad,” Davis says, “getting the kids out on everything, doing everything. But we don’t use most of this stuff anymore.”

The door to the house opens and 18-year-old Taylor Phinney appears, all six feet and four inches of him, clack-clacking down the steps in his cycling shoes before grabbing his own bike. They look almost nothing alike: Davis is lean and muscular, while Taylor is long and jangly-limbed, with the milky-pale skin and light hair of his mom, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who, like her husband, is also a champion cyclist. “I’ve been waiting for you,” Mini-Phinney, as Taylor is known, tells Davis, who’d spent the morning at church.

But now Adventure Dad is pushing the envelope: It’s been a few hours since he has taken his pills, and soon, he knows, they’ll begin to wear off. He’ll feel the tingle in his left leg, and the tightness throughout his body; before long the tremor will start up again, and it will require a monumental effort to make his way through a complete sentence or finish a meal without flicking food onto the table.

“It feels like fingernails on a chalkboard,” Davis tells me later. Even his balance is shaky. A couple of months ago, he fell on his town bike, breaking his wrist but refusing to learn the lesson that his Parkinson’s disease has been trying to teach him: He’s supposed to be getting old before his time.

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They’ve got to hurry off if they want to get in a full ride, so they click into their pedals and roll down the driveway. I watch them disappear around the corner and accelerate up the road, one of the great American cyclists of the late 20th century leading his son, who is already well on his way to becoming one of the legends of the 21st.

Even from the cheap seats, you can hear the thing whine. Taylor Phinney is pedaling his bike on a stationary trainer on the infield of the velodrome at Los Angeles’ Home Depot Center, and he’s got it absolutely redlined. His long legs pump up and down, his cheeks flare in and out, and the blade-spoked rear wheel whips around so fast that if you were anywhere in the vicinity you might count your fingers just to make sure they were still attached.

The arena is practically full, with more than a thousand spectators in the stands. Hundreds of other riders, coaches, and officials crowd the infield—but Taylor is the only one with a battery of cameras pointed at him. A Sports Illustrated reporter skulks around, while a trainer stands by with a water bottle. One of his coaches, Neal Henderson, holds a stopwatch; a mechanic holds his racing wheels; and another coach stands ready to paste a number onto his back.

“It takes a village,” quips Jonathan Vaughters, who had the bright idea to sign Phinney to his Garmin-Chipotle junior team before he’d competed in a single race. (5280 is a sponsor of Garmin-Chipotle.)

The next four and a half minutes—preferably less—will be the most important of Phinney’s sporting life so far: It’s the qualifying round of the individual pursuit at the U.C.I. Track World Cup, an event at which Phinney is ranked among the best in the world—having raced it exactly three times before tonight. If he does well, he will be one step closer to qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. If not, he might as well forget it.

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It’s mid-January, and in the past six months Phinney has gone from being a relative unknown—albeit with a famous name—to cycling’s Next Big Thing. It started last August, when he won the Junior World Championship title in the time trial. Two months later, he went to the U.S. track cycling championships, never having raced in a velodrome before, and won the individual pursuit title, blowing the padded shorts off seasoned professional racers. Then he hit the World Cup circuit, and in his first two outings, against top international fields, he finished ninth and fourth.

Yet in spite of the pressure, and in spite of his age, Taylor seems an island of calm in the sea of frantic activity. It’s not just an effect of his mirrored Oakley shades or his white iPod earbuds, either. “See how relaxed he is, how calm?” marvels Allen Lim, Garmin-Chipotle’s sports physiologist. “Most teenagers would get incredibly impatient. I joke about dumping buckets of water on him during his workouts and hiring go-go dancers. He’s immune to distraction.”

This year, Taylor’s been featured in Sports Illustrated and the New York Times, and hailed as his generation’s Greg LeMond or Lance Armstrong. The yellow Livestrong bracelet on one arm came straight off the wrist of Armstrong himself, while the red “WristStrong” band on his other arm came from comedian Stephen Colbert. Whether or not he adds to his family’s collection of Olympic hardware—his mom won a gold medal in 1984, while his dad took home a bronze the same year, which makes Taylor a sort of crown prince of Boulder’s athletic aristocracy—sponsors are already lining up to throw lucrative contracts at him.

It seems safe to say, then, that it’s a pretty good time to be Taylor Phinney. While he was technically still in high school this past spring, he was taking just two classes, one of which was Literature of Film. He finished up at 12:30 each afternoon, which left plenty of time for training and playing Burnout Paradise, his favorite video game. And then there’s his girlfriend, Sophie Allen, a Boulder High junior, all-state swimmer, and six-foot-tall model. As Lim puts it, “He’s on the ride of his life right now.”

Back at the Home Depot Center, someone hands Taylor a smooth, white helmet that’s shaped like a spaceship to reduce drag as he flies around the track. But the helmet doesn’t fit; it belongs to another rider, who evidently has a smaller head, and the straps are too short. Now Davis steps up, limping and slightly stooped, his head bobbing and left hand quaking like an animated figure in a video game. Carefully, he tries to will his trembling hands to do their job, which is to thread a green zip-tie through the helmet loops and thus lengthen the strap. The job is not made easier by the green cast on his wrist, a souvenir from his fall a few weeks earlier. Taylor stands patiently while his dad manages to join the ends of the tie and pulls it snug. Then Davis reaches in with a pair of pliers, ever so slowly and carefully, to snip off the excess length of the tie, rolling and bobbing until—snip!—mission accomplished. Taylor gives his dad a grateful hug and rolls off to the start.

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The symptoms started showing up a few months after Taylor was born, at the end of June 1990. Davis—who was known by his teammates as “Thor”—had to rush off and ride the Tour de France, and within a few months of his return home Connie noticed that he seemed to be tripping over his own feet. Cyclists generally detest walking and often aren’t very good at it anyway, so Connie chalked it up to laziness. “I thought he just wasn’t picking up his feet,” she says.

There were other signs. Davis became more easily fatigued, which he first attributed to the stress and travel involved with his post-cycling job as a commentator for NBC, CBS, ABC, and the Outdoor Life Network (now Versus). Connie started to worry: Her mother had suffered from multiple sclerosis, and Davis’ symptoms seemed eerily familiar. Then, she read an article in People magazine about Michael J. Fox, who had just revealed that he suffered from Parkinson’s disease. “I remember saying, ‘Huh, this might be what you have,'” she says.

Parkinson’s is a disease of aging that generally shows up in people in their 60s and 70s. Davis was only 40 when his doctor sat him down, in May 2000, and told him there was no doubt he had Parkinson’s. Scientists aren’t sure what causes the disease. It may be genetic, in part, but it might also be related to environmental factors or a history of head trauma. The Phinneys wonder sometimes if Davis’ problems didn’t start in 1988, when he crashed headfirst through the window of a team car in a Belgian race and needed more than 150 stitches.

Parkinson’s originates in the subthalamic nucleus, a bean-size region of the brain that produces dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for, among other things, smooth, controlled movement. For an athlete, Parkinson’s is a particular form of torture. “A lot of what you lose is just your natural ease of movement,” Davis says, “and your sense of feeling comfortable in your own skin.”

The good news is that you probably won’t die of Parkinson’s. The bad news is that it will never get better. Your speech becomes slurred, mumbly and sloppy, and your balance starts to get dodgy. Muscle groups sometimes simply don’t do what they’re told, even for such simple tasks as swallowing. There are medications that can relieve the symptoms, but there is no cure. The closest thing, for Davis, is to go for a ride with his son—to try and keep his body fit, at least, until medicine figures out how to write a new ending for his story.

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While Davis and Taylor are out on their father-son training ride, Connie taps out e-mails on her laptop and watches the Tour of California from the kitchen of the Phinneys’ Boulder headquarters. The previous weekend, Taylor had been a VIP guest at the race, hosted and feted by elite cycling teams like High Road and CSC. His younger sister, Kelsey, is sequestered in the TV room, suffering from a flulike virus that she probably caught from her brother. She’s an athlete in her own right, a promising cross-country skier; right after the U.C.I. Track World Cup in L.A., Davis had flown to Salt Lake City to watch her place third in an important junior race.

Racing runs in the family, but Davis got the winner’s genes. Right from the start, he showed a talent for being first across the line that hasn’t been matched in American cycling since. He won more than 300 races, more than any other American bike racer—including Lance Armstrong—and in 1986 his gifts took him across the Atlantic as part of the legendary 7-Eleven team, the first American squad to race the Tour de France. Three days in, he nabbed a thrilling sprint victory, becoming the first American ever to win a Tour stage.

I wonder aloud how Davis’ illness has affected the family. What a tragedy, I opine, especially for an athlete. “He hasn’t allowed it to be a tragedy,” Connie says firmly. “There’s so much more in life.”

Taylor agrees. “I hate for him that he has to deal with that, deal with being shaky,” he’d told me over breakfast at Turley’s. “But it’s also made us a lot closer as a family, because we had to kinda rally around this.”

After the diagnosis, Davis quit his TV-commentating jobs; the travel and stress weren’t doing him any good, and it was getting difficult to hold a microphone.

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Then, when Taylor was 12, the family decided to move to Italy, where they had been running Bike Camp cycling clinics during the summer and fall. They settled in a small town near Bassano del Grappa, in the foothills of the Dolomites. “We decided, let’s just do this,” Davis says. “We thought we would stay there through the end of the year, so we went with four suitcases, and we stayed three years.”

Cycling is like a second religion in Italy, and the Phinneys were at least demigods, so Taylor did the natural thing: He joined the soccer team. Come July, however, Taylor and Davis would visit the Tour de France, with Taylor acting as his dad’s de facto assistant. He met Lance Armstrong, he posed for pictures with Sheryl Crow, and in 2005 he was introduced to Axel Merckx, a thirtysomething Belgian pro rider whose father, Eddy Merckx, is widely regarded as the greatest cyclist of all time.

“I don’t think he got into bike racing because he imagined himself like his dad or his mom,” Connie says. “I think he just realized, these guys have body types similar to mine, they’re tall, they’re handsome,” she laughs. “Every kid needs to imagine himself as someone, and I think he imagined himself as one of those guys.”

When the family came back to Boulder in the fall of 2005, Taylor signed up for the high school cross-country team, mostly because it seemed like fun: It was a big team, co-ed, with 100 kids and lots of social events. Not everyone had lived in Italy or spoke Italian fluently, and nobody else’s dad had Parkinson’s. Yet he managed to fit himself into Boulder High’s social life, while eschewing—for the most part—its infamous party scene. “It’s just kinda like watching kids get hammered, and I don’t need to do that,” Taylor says in his slowed-down, laid-back way. “That’s what I like about having lived in Italy for three years: I don’t have that obsession with alcohol.”

All of which makes Taylor Phinney about the farthest damn thing from your Typical American Teenager. Last November, he faced a standing-room-only crowd at the Boulder Theater during a charity event to benefit the Davis Phinney Foundation, and he had the audience eating out of his hand. He can hold his own with the likes of actor Robin Williams and the luminaries of the cycling world, or he can hang with his Boulder High mates and cycling friends like Danny Summerhill, a Garmin-Chipotle teammate who is a rising star himself, having placed second at the junior world cyclocross championships this past winter.

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Also unlike most teenagers, even teen athletes, Taylor is subject to big-league cycling’s drug-testing regime, which requires him to keep three separate organizations apprised of his whereabouts on a daily basis—surely a wonderful thing for any teenager’s parents. He can be visited at any time by drug-testers who can demand a sample of his blood, urine—even his hair.

He says he doesn’t mind any of it. When he turns professional for Garmin-Chipotle, he’ll be subject to the team’s rigorous internal drug-testing program, which goes further than cycling’s stringent tests. The point is to prove that cyclists can compete without drugs, and Taylor is seen as the big hope of a post-doping generation. His heroes include Garmin-Chipotle’s David Millar, who confessed to doping and served a two-year suspension. But he expresses disappointment with disgraced Tour de France champ Floyd Landis and Boulder’s Tyler Hamilton, both of whom tested positive and fought their cases to the bitter end.

“I respect Floyd a lot, but I just don’t know. Or Tyler—there’s no way to really know. I just wish that the people who are involved in [doping] would fess up to it and not just draw it out and make it into this huge deal.”

“It’s a really healthy time for Taylor to be getting into the sport, I think,” Connie says. “I hope.”

Thor and Mini-Phinney get back from their ride as Connie pulls some muffins out of the oven. Perfect timing, as always. “These have nuts,” she says, placing them on the breakfast bar, “and these don’t.” Davis pulls up a stool and grabs a muffin.

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He’s a dedicated photographer, and it isn’t long before the photo albums come out. One of the first shots is Davis and Connie at the top of a mountain pass in Italy, with an almost unrecognizably scrawny, goofy little kid next to them, riding what looks like a gigantic bike. “Here’s Taylor when he was 12, and he would ride with our Bike Camps,” Davis says. As Dad flips through the pages, Taylor grows up before our eyes, week by week and month by month, sprouting into a skinny teenager and then into a bona fide athlete, which makes his father no end of proud. “And here, you see his legs develop a little more,” Davis says. “This is a good one, him and Lance. You start to see how he’s sculpting now, how he’s looking more like a real road rider.”

Within months of entering his first bike race, in the spring of 2006, Taylor was good enough to jump up to Category 2, one notch below the elite level of the sport, but his parents decided to hold him back for a year. In June the Phinneys asked Neal Henderson, sports science manager at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, to help coach their son. One of the first things Henderson did was put Taylor through a battery of physiological testing, to try and quantify his generous genetic gifts. He was surprised, but not in the way he expected.

“His lab results are very good, but they’re not this remarkable thing we’ve never seen,” Henderson says. “He’s got his mother’s and his dad’s genes, but I’ve seen other people with similar ability, laboratory-wise, who have nowhere near the [race] results.”

What set Phinney apart was his hunger to win races, a characteristic he shares with his dad, whose teammates nicknamed him “Cash Register” for his reliable winning sprint. But this past August, it became clear that Taylor had inherited not only his father’s will to win, but also his mother’s gritty endurance. Taylor went to the Junior World Championships in Aguascalientes, Mexico, to ride the individual time trial. He rode all out and blew away his competition by more than 20 seconds.

Around then, Davis had a crazy idea: Why not enter Taylor in the pursuit, on the track? It was a perfect event for him, blending endurance and speed. Connie became his unofficial manager, fielding calls from interested sponsors and pro teams, and the family brought on more coaches. Garmin-Chipotle’s Allen Lim fed Taylor’s scribbled training logs and lab-test results into a spreadsheet, while Coach Henderson tested and monitored Taylor’s progress. Taylor also headed to Fort Collins to work on aerodynamics in the wind tunnel. “It became kind of like Project Taylor,” Lim says.

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In October, with hardly any training on the track, Project Taylor entered the U.S. national track-cycling championships, where he rode the individual pursuit for the first time. By the time it was over his parents and coaches had started to think about Beijing.

Accelerating out of a standing start, Taylor brings his bike up to speed with a few powerful pedal strokes, then settles into an aerodynamic tuck, flying around the banked oval track like a runaway roulette ball.

The fans are screaming for him, pounding the trackside boards as he blurs past, his carbon-fiber rear wheel practically snarling as it flies over the smooth wooden planks. It’s sort of a hometown crowd: Taylor has been coming to Los Angeles to train for the World Cup for the past six months, taking four-day weekends here and there with the tacit approval of his Boulder High teachers—most of them, at least.

Despite its name, the individual pursuit is not a strictly solo race: Two riders start on opposite sides of the track, and basically try to catch each other. That’s why it’s called a “pursuit,” but it’s really more like a duel. Since Taylor had the second-fastest qualifying time, which got him into the final round, the worst he could do was win the silver medal. His opponent, Dutch national champion Jenning Huizenga, would be tough to beat. While resting in a borrowed motor home before the final, Taylor mused on his prospects.

“He said, ‘Wow, second place is really good,'” Lim remembers. “Then he said: ‘What the hell am I thinking? I’m here to win a bike race.'”

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Which he is not on the way to doing, halfway into this race. After eight laps out of 16, he has fallen a solid half-second down on Huizenga. But then the time gap starts dropping, lap by lap. “I kicked it up a gear,” Taylor told me. “It hurt, but it was now or never, so you might as well give it everything. It was painful, but I don’t remember it as painful.”

What he remembers is the crowd, the announcer screaming, his USA Cycling coach yelling time splits at him until finally he was in the lead. He always finishes faster than he started, while most of his competitors slow down toward the end of the race. He crosses the line a half-second ahead of Huizenga to win his first World Cup race—and to become, in four and a half minutes, an Olympic medal contender.

“Yeah!” shouts Davis as he bounds back down to the track infield. “There’s a new sheriff in town!”

An hour or so after he gets back from his afternoon ride with Taylor, a change creeps over Davis, slowly but perceptibly. As the afternoon wears on, his left knee begins to twitch up and down, his hand starts to wander. “I can feel the tremor starting to creep up my leg,” he says. “It’ll come on in a little bit. But it’s OK because I’m here now and it doesn’t matter.”

The meds had allowed him to go for his ride with Taylor, to rebuild the strength that his Parkinson’s has been slowly stealing, and to reconnect with his son. “That’s, like, sacrosanct to me,” he says. Especially because Taylor had been feeling depressed: He’d just gotten back from Copenhagen, where he’d placed 10th in a World Cup. Only 10th! He had been suffering from a virus, and his legs just weren’t there. There were no crowds cheering for him, either—just his mom, in her usual corner, and he could hear her on every lap: “GO, T!!!”

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“He’s just had his first bad ride,” Garmin-Chipotle’s director, Jonathan Vaughters, says later. “But I think it’ll be good for him in the long run.”

In the short run, though, it meant he’d have to fight for his Olympic berth. Under the arcane qualifying rules, he needed to keep a top-five world ranking to snag one of the 16 coveted start spots in the individual pursuit. Which meant that everything came down to the World Championships, held in March in Manchester, England. Riding against some of the best riders on Earth, Taylor set a new personal record but still managed “only” eighth place.

It was good enough to make the Olympics, but, more important, it meant the Phinneys could concentrate on a more pressing contest.

The day after he returned from watching Taylor at the Worlds, Davis flew to San Francisco to undergo a radical procedure aimed at beating back the symptoms of his Parkinson’s. In a five-hour operation on April 9, a team of surgeons led by Dr. Jaimie Henderson of Stanford Medical Center opened a pair of holes in Davis’ skull and, while he was still awake, began probing different regions of his brain with a tiny electrode no thicker than a human hair.

The doctors were looking for the best location in which to implant a bigger, permanent electrode, which they would then connect to a kind of neurological pacemaker that would stimulate the circuits of Phinney’s brain that Parkinson’s had starved of dopamine. The procedure is known as deep brain stimulation, and it seems to relieve the symptoms of Parkinson’s more effectively than medication.

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Henderson switched on the device as a test. “All of a sudden they hit the right frequency and my tremors stopped,” Davis remembers. “It was so cool, like they turned the power on. I feel a lot like my old self.”

“The most gratifying thing is watching the life come back into somebody’s face,” Dr. Henderson says. “It’s almost as if we’ve given them their soul back.”

While Davis adjusts to his new life, which includes plans to see his son compete in Beijing, Taylor’s looking at a busy summer. He graduated from Boulder High in late May after spending most of the month in Europe racing with the U.S. Junior National Team. This month, he’s off to South Africa to defend his Junior World Championship title. Then, in August, he’ll fly to Beijing for his big moment, the individual pursuit. “It’s only a four-minute race,” he’d said over breakfast, trying to downplay it, but it was clear it meant a lot more to him than that.

Meanwhile, it fell to Connie to make the airline arrangements—in addition to being cheerleader, muffin maker, and hospital bedside assistant, she’s also the travel agent for Team Phinney. “Connie is an amazing, amazing lady,” says Dr. Henderson. “Most other people would be just beside themselves, but Connie just maintains the same even keel.”

Between her husband’s battle with Parkinson’s, her son’s gold medal dreams, and her daughter Kelsey’s own cross-country skiing career, she handles it all with iron discipline and an easy laugh. But she sometimes finds herself wondering when her family’s life will return to normal.

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If it ever does, it won’t happen until this fall, after the Olympics, when the Phinney’s passports and travel cases will finally get a rest. Between now and then, though, there are a lot of frequent-flyer miles to be earned. After weeks of online research to try to figure out Taylor’s summer travel schedule, Connie concluded that it would be cheaper and easier for Taylor just to fly from South Africa to Europe and to train there for a while before going on to Beijing. Before he does even one warm-up lap on the track at the Laoshan Velodrome, Connie says, “He’s gonna do a lap around the world.”

Bill Gifford is editor-at-large for Men’s Journal and the author of Ledyard: In Search of the First American Explorer. E-mail him at [email protected].

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