Cyclist's Meteoric Rise Comes Up Short

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

BEIJING, Aug. 16 -- In his furious attempt to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, cycling phenom Taylor Phinney logged roughly 100,000 miles of travel during the past year, training and competing in World Cup events around the globe.

After failing to advance to the final of the men's 4,000-meter individual pursuit on Saturday, Phinney did a quick computation: 100,000 air miles to race less than 8 minutes 50 seconds in the Olympic Games.

And he smiled.

Not every successful Olympic experience ends with a medal.

In some sports, such as women's gymnastics, an athlete's window of opportunity is so brief that it lasts only one four-year Olympic cycle, if that.

But in cycling, particularly the endurance races, champions can contend into their 30s. And at 18, the youngest cyclist to qualify for Saturday's race, Phinney is just getting started.

This time a year ago, he never dreamed he'd be in the 2008 Olympics. He hadn't even competed on a velodrome's wooden track at that point.

Saturday's race -- in which the fastest eight qualifiers were pitted against each other in pairs, with the winners advancing to the medal round -- was only the 10th individual pursuit he had attempted.

Had Phinney needed perspective on his Olympic debut -- a sage voice to point out that what he had achieved in Beijing, qualifying seventh-fastest against a field of cyclists a decade older -- he only had to turn to the stands.

There, in front-row seats overlooking Turn 2 of the Laoshan Velodrome, sat his parents, 1984 Olympic cycling medalists Connie Carpenter-Phinney, who won road-racing gold at the Los Angeles Games, and bronze medalist Davis Phinney, who also was the first American to win a stage of the Tour de France.

But even without their help, Taylor Phinney was able to leaven whatever heartache he felt with pride, fully aware of the meteoric trajectory of his career.

"I was expecting to watch this all on TV back at home, prime time," he said. "But I'm here! By the time 2012 rolls around, I'm going to have everything dialed in."

Phinney's impressive Olympic debut was the sweetest possible medicine for his family, whose lives have been turned inside out by Davis Phinney's battle with Parkinson's disease.

His condition worsening, he underwent brain surgery at Stanford in April. The results have been encouraging, enabling him to make the trip to Beijing to watch his son race.

Seeing Taylor keep up with the world's best -- his 6-foot-4 frame crouched over the handlebars, the biked pinned to the lowest line of the steeply banked track -- was an indescribable joy.

"I'm such a huge fan of the Olympics, and of course this one resonates loudest with me because of Taylor," Davis Phinney said afterward. "What a wonderful moment to have as a dad. In a big dream, it would have been great to see Taylor pull a huge rabbit out of the hat. But the kid did good! Eighteen years old? Racing in his first Olympics? I'm so proud of him."

Taylor, for his part, said he learned an enormous amount these last days in Beijing. He started too fast in Friday's qualifying race, for one, and his lungs and legs howled in pain over the final 1,000 meters. But his time (4:22.860) was fast enough to propel him to Saturday and the chance to contend for a medal.

As it turned out, Friday's effort sapped more of his strength than he expected. And he was beaten handily in his duel with Hayden Roulston, 27, of New Zealand, who went on to win silver with a time of 4:19.611.

Britain's Bradley Wiggins, 28, won his second consecutive Olympic gold (4:16.977). Steven Burke, Wiggins's British teammate, took bronze (4:20.947).

But on balance, Taylor Phinney's Olympic debut was rich with rewards.

He learned about pacing and tactics on the track. He learned how true champions handle themselves. At the velodrome, he was thrilled to find that Wiggins and Roulston treated him as an equal rather than "like a dork" when he wished them well before the race. Over lunch at the Athletes' Village he marveled at how his new friends, U.S. gymnasts Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson, handle pressure with such grace. And he felt such pride in escorting his parents into the village so they could see the posh accommodations modern-day Olympians enjoy.

For now, the medals can wait. The Beijing Games have brought the Phinneys a different reward.

Said Davis Phinney: "For the longest time, my health has been like a dark cloud on the horizon of my family and me. It has been a weight on the family. And for the first time, the sun is out and shining bright."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company