Life Cycles (cont.)
Posted: Tuesday April 1, 2008 11:11AM; Updated: Tuesday April 1, 2008 2:45PM
Cash Register, as he came to be nicknamed, won four national championships. He won an Olympic bronze medal and 22 stages of a seminal American race called the Coors Classic. In his prime he rode for the pioneering, gate-crashing 7-Eleven squad, the first North American team to barnstorm Europe. Here was this motley crew of arrivistes -- Phinney, Andy Hampsten, Alex Stieda, Eric Heiden, Ron Kiefel and a gap-toothed bodyguard named Bob Roll, among others -- racing in the ancient cradle of high culture and haute cuisine under the banner of that quintessentially American invention: the convenience store. The vibe they got from Euro riders at first, Phinney recalls, was, Who the hell are you, and how did you get into our race?
But the North Americans more than held their own on the Continent. "I know you're not supposed to compare eras," says Roll, now a cycling commentator for Versus. "But if that team could race in today's Tour of California, Davis would never lose a sprint. He would massacre the field. We would lead him out, and he'd drop the hammer and just destroy people. He'd have 15 wins in that race. That's how talented he was."
But in the Phinneys' spacious, light- and art-filled house in Boulder, the third-greatest cyclist in his nation's history may not even be the most accomplished athlete under his own roof. Connie Carpenter made the Olympic speedskating team in 1972, at age 14, finishing seventh in the 1,500 meters in Sapporo. A chronic ankle injury forced her to abandon that sport shortly before the '76 Winter Games. At the urging of speedskater-cyclist Sheila Young, Connie took a crack at cycling. She would go on to win not just the 12 national titles but also four world championship medals.
She met her future husband on a training ride in Tucson in 1978. Just under 6-feet tall, she was (and is) svelte, regal and -- with that corona of ginger hair -- easy to spot in a crowd. He stood out as well. While most road racers have pipe cleaners coming out of their shirtsleeves, Davis always had serious guns. "He didn't look like an average cyclist," Connie concludes. They were married in 1983.
Connie had taken a break from cycling in 1980 and enrolled at Cal, where she rowed on the Bears' national champion four oars with cox. But upon learning that women's road cycling had been added to the Olympics for the '84 Games, she came out of retirement -- spurred largely by Davis. "He told me I hadn't really ever lived up to my potential in the sport. I didn't slap him," she says. "It turned out he was right."
She placed third in the road race at the 1981 world championships in Prague, losing by inches because she lacked one of the basic tools of a sprinter: She didn't know how to properly "throw" her bike across the line -- thrusting it forward at the last instant, head down, arms fully extended. So for an entire year Davis and Connie practiced throwing their bikes every time they passed a city limits sign on training rides. Trailing fellow American Rebecca Twigg by three bike lengths 50 meters from the finish in the road race at the '84 Olympics, Connie accelerated, threw her bike across the line and won by three inches.
Davis, meanwhile, was tearing a swath through the U.S. men's peloton. Between 1982 and '84 he won in the neighborhood of 75 races. No American had ever won a road stage of the Tour de France until the afternoon in July '86 when Phinney outsprinted a group of breakaway riders to the finish in Liévin. Phinney won another stage on the '87 Tour, and he was in superb form the following year -- until he nearly bled to death at a one-day race in Belgium called Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Hammering a descent, he pitched through the rear windshield of a team car that had stopped, inexcusably, on the course. It took some 160 stitches to close the lacerations on his face; he also severed a tendon in his left arm and fractured a vertebra in his neck. Astoundingly, he returned to competition 10 days later.