A Late Debut in the Tour de France: The Scars Tell Why

When Taylor Phinney was 14, he went to the Tour with his father and rode some of the course and saw some of the mayhem and glamour. It was alluring enough for him to quit playing soccer and start racing a bike. He was so good, so fast, that he soon became a junior world champion. Later came three Olympics and a stage win in the Giro d’Italia.

His arrival at the Tour de France, though, has come much, much later. Certainly much later than he expected. The scars on his left leg can tell the story of why.

He was supposed to ride the Tour three years ago. But in the weeks leading up to it, he crashed into a guardrail going more than 60 miles per hour, breaking his left leg in multiple places, shattering bones, severing a tendon and partially tearing a ligament. The scars on his leg today are a road map of suffering, zigzagging around his knee and down his leg.

Those scars, once red and angry, hinted that Phinney should quit the sport. They also were constant reminders of a doctor’s words: “You’ll probably never run again.”


Phinney competing in the men’s individual time trial at the Olympics last August in Rio de Janeiro.

Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

He didn’t ride a bike for six months and needed crutches to walk for nine. He didn’t race for more than a year. A contemplative guy, he took the time to step back and think. He painted and drew. He took flying lessons.

He also tried not to complain. After all, how could he when his father — once so physical that he was nicknamed Thor — was battling Parkinson’s disease and having trouble with his mobility?

“I thought about how my life would be so different without cycling,” Taylor Phinney said in a telephone call on Thursday. “I learned so much about the grand scale of the world and how small the cycling bubble is within this whole scheme of things. And that life would be O.K. for me if I never raced a bike again.”

When he did race a bike again, though, he was a calmer Phinney. “Obsessive Taylor died when I broke my leg,” he said.

The weight of having to succeed, he decided, was gone. After five operations, after so much unexpected physical and emotional pain, it was time to just enjoy cycling.

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