This post by Tatiana Jovic originally appeared on the lululemon blog on June 9, 2015
On the outside, the Phinney’s garage looks like any other in Boulder, Colorado. Inside, however, hanging from perfectly spaced hooks, are at least a dozen bikes, each representing a race won, a race lost or a memory worth keeping.
Perhaps the most cherished cycle of them all is tucked behind the front wheel of one of Taylor’s time trial bikes; a burnt-red two-wheeler perfectly fit for a three-year-old. Taylor’s first bicycle. Except, Davis admits in his soft-spoken and considered way, Taylor was a bit of “a late starter.”
“He was five or six when he finally got off training wheels,” the elder Phinney recalls, looking at the toddler-sized equipment. “Man, he used to rail turns with this and create jumps in the cul-de-sac. He had good schooling quickly.”
That he did. Davis, 55, is an Olympic bronze medalist who has celebrated the most victories of any cyclist in US history. Taylor’s mom, Connie Carpenter-Phinney, 57, won an Olympic gold medal in cycling and is the youngest American woman to compete at the Winter Olympics, where she finished seventh in the 1500m in speed skating.
With lineage like this, Taylor was born to achieve greatness, but spend a few days with him and his family and it’s apparent that the 24-year-old’s success hasn’t come solely by way of his genes. Taylor possesses a unique ability to let go—of dark times, of grief, of regret, even of perfection. It’s a lesson he’s learned from his parents.
In 2000, at the age of 40 and after years of feeling “not quite right,” Davis was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Shortly after, the family of four (Taylor has a younger sister, Kelsey) moved to Italy to adjust to the illness, and to gain access to the European cycling circuit. Though cycling competitively was no longer in the cards for Davis, saying goodbye to the sport was never part of the plan; staying in close proximity to the world’s best camps and competitions was.
In 2005, Davis took Taylor to see the Tour de France, and his love affair with cycling began. Since, as the world knows, Taylor’s name has become synonymous with cycling. He has competed in the Beijing and London Olympics, turned pro and added World Championship titles to his CV. Last year, after solid performances in the Spring Classics, Taylor won the US National Time Trial Championship.
As the world also knows, a few days later, during a descent in the US National road race, he crashed into a guardrail. His lower left leg snapped like a twig, and his future on a bicycle hung in the balance.
“The year since the crash has been a huge journey. When you are forced to sit down and be with yourself, you think about what is really important in your life. With anything negative that happens in your life, if you react to it in a positive way, you can have great things come of it,” says Taylor. In other words, by letting go of the negative associations with the crash he was able to turn the experience into something completely different.
About four months after the accident, Taylor discovered a hidden talent, which he coyly admits was revealed by a girl. “When I was strapped to the couch and I had a broken leg, I couldn’t do much and I needed a mental outlet, so I started flying planes and then I found painting. I just started painting with my friend, Sophia, one day. I really could just sit down and paint for eight hours and lose myself in it. You get that same meditation quality painting as you do when you go out for a long bike ride, and you’re able to clear things in a completely different way. It’s both an expression and a little bit of an escape from your own brain,” he explains.
Evidence of Taylor’s expression and escapism is ubiquitous in his own three-storey downtown Boulder townhouse, where the walls are covered with canvases of his latest creations. In one room, no canvas is required; the Art Room is covered floor-to-ceiling in swashes of colour, the floor littered with receipts for art supplies, tubs of paint and well-used splatter sheets.
Asked to describe his artwork, he simply replies, “Weird.” It’s clear, though, that American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is an influence, and also where he may have inherited some artistic talent. His mother’s paintings are hung on walls throughout the Phinney family home, but rather than expressing scars or raw emotions through her art, like Taylor does, Connie’s art focuses on birds, trees and nature.
Unlike many artists, Taylor is happy to let go of the idea that art can never be completely finished or that perfection is never quite achieved. “You’ll try to make the whole painting around this one thing that you really like and then you realize you shouldn’t do that, so you just get rid of it,” he explains, dipping his brush in blue oil paint. (While having this conversation he started and finished his latest masterpiece—it took him 45 minutes.)
“Before I found painting, my mental outlet was just riding my bike. The cool thing about painting is you have something to remind you of where you were mentally in that space. With a bike, you don’t really have that,” he says.
For the 6’5” cyclist (6’8” if you count his lofty, wavy coif) who’s full of life, he finds balance by doing his work in silence and letting the results speak for themselves. It’s a lesson Taylor learned after years of thinking he needed to be “cocky, loud and intimidating,” as he puts it.
While recovering from his crash (he says that his left leg is still missing “20 or 30 per cent of its raw strength”) Taylor’s also been able to let go of defining himself in a singular capacity. “A lot of guys don’t even know who they are because they’re so attached to [cycling]. I like to think that I was able to find out who I am without my bicycle over the last year. That makes the prospect of doing something other than cycling a lot easier to think about,” he says.
For his father, escaping the pressure of competition didn’t come as easily—until Davis met his wife, that is. “When I was 18, I was so focused on what I wanted to do, and that was be a bicycle racer. When I met Connie she was focused, but she had other interests, and her view of the world was like this [Davis holds his hands about two metres apart], whereas mine was funneled down. So we learned from each other, because I helped her bring her viewpoint in, and she was more aware of the broader picture,” adds Davis.
Together Taylor and Davis find happiness in the small things, like hopping in the family’s ’86 cream-coloured Porsche, a car Davis bought when he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s. While their roles may be reversed (Taylor now gets behind the wheel), Davis still revels in the moments he gets to spend with his son. His ability to let go of the traditional roles of father and son was something he learned early in their relationship, and to which he attributes the strong connection he has with Taylor as well as the success his son enjoys.
“I was assistant coaching Taylor’s soccer team and as we drove home, I was just going off on him. Taylor was quiet for a second and turns to me and he goes: ‘Dad, you just don’t get it. It’s not your game.’ That was the wisdom of that 10-year-old. He put me perfectly in my place about my desires and my ambitions for him. I realized that I needed to just step back and I did. I did from that point on. I stepped back from trying to coach him and mentor him in that way as an athlete, unless he asked for specific direction. I think that was kind of a pivotal moment in my evolution as a parent, so thank you,” says Davis.
Taylor replies with not words, but a smile and a hug. What gives him the most purpose, he shares, are his family and his closest friends: “When they’re really happy, I’m really happy.”