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.
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.
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.
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."