BMC Racing doctors Max Testa and Eric Heiden have given Taylor Phinney six to eight weeks of recovery time before he may begin riding a stationary bike and performing strengthening exercises in the gym. The US time trial champion crashed on a descent during the USA Cycling Professional Championship road race on May 26 in Chattanooga, Tennessee, trying to avoid colliding with an official race motorcycle to which his family has considered the legality of the incident.
Directly following the incident, Phinney was taken to Chattanooga's Erlanger Medical Center where he underwent surgery to repair a compound fracture to his tibia. Surgeons inserted a nail and several screws to re-set the bone back in place, attach it to his upper fibula. He also severed his patellar tendon, which he believes happened on impact with the guard rail, and noted that surgeons likely would have cut the tendon in order to reset the fractured tibia.
"They had to cut off a centimeter of my patellar, which I'm not planning on getting back anytime soon," said Phinney who seemed in good spirits considering his career-halting injuries. "Doctors have always joked that I have overly large patellar tendons anyway, so now one of them is of normal size.
"I was very lucky in Chattanooga, that they have a level one trauma center, in which I had my surgery, so I was in good hands. Dr. Heiden was in contact with the surgeon who did my surgery and said that he was very well qualified and that he did a very good job."
On May 31, Phinney was transferred by air ambulance to Park City Medical Center in Utah where he underwent assessment to make sure he was not developing infections. He was discharged but has daily access to the hospital as an outpatient where he is under the care of Dr. Testa and Dr. Heiden.
Phinney has spent roughly six hours a day in physiotherapy for rehabilitation. His sutures will be removed this week and he is expected to be cleared to return home to Boulder, Colo., to continue his rehabilitation.
"I'm in physiotherapy and I'm way ahead of schedule, in fact they're forcing me to chill out," Phinney said. "There isn't much for me to do except for rehabilitation."
He believes he could begin training on a stationary bike and performing strengthening exercises in the gym in roughly four more weeks, early July.
Phinney made a point of thanking his BMC Racing team and doctors for their support. He also thanked the first responders, in particular Lucas Euser of the UnitedHealthcare team, who avoided the crash but stayed with Phinney while medical services arrived. "He was there by my side while I was in pain. He gave up his race to be there, and he probably experienced more post-traumatic stress because he actually looked at my leg, and I didn't want to see it."
Season targets put on hold
Phinney had a strong early season that included a stage win at the Tour of California followed by a win at the USA Cycling Professional Championships in the time trial. He was expected to compete at the Critérium du Dauphiné and his main target was the first Tour de France, where he was gearing up to help teammate Tejay van Garderen in the overall classification. He was also aiming to win the stage 20, 54km time trial from Bergerac - Périgueux.
With his previous goals on hold, Phinney plans to reassess the later portion of the season once he begins training again. "I'm past the point of thinking about what could have been … I'm on a day-to-day schedule right now," Phinney said.
Speculation as to whether or not Phinney could be recovered in time for races held at the end of the year, such as the UCI road world championships held from September 21 to 28 in Spain, forced him to be realistic about the recovery process.
"I will reassess my season once I get off crutches and can put weight on my leg, and pressure on my knee. I'm going to try to be optimistic about the rest of the season but right now it's about doing the right thing, not pushing too much but not being lazy. When I first had the accident, they were saying I'd be off the bike for three or four months but it's starting to look better and better. I need to be patient and conservative."
No word from official moto driver; Carpenter considers legal options
Phinney crashed on the first descent off of Lookout Mountain, 45km into the 166.7km road race at the USA Cycling Professional Championships on Memorial Day Monday. He was descending the mountain with Euser on his wheel when the pair allegedly crashed trying to avoid an official race moto. He crashed into the guard rail.
"I don't know how long the driver was an official," Phinney said. "But for sure there was negligence on his part and he wasn't paying attention or aware of the speed at which we were traveling behind him. The way that he reacted when he realized we were coming up on him demonstrated that he was not equipped and he didn't react properly in my mind."
According to Phinney, USA Cycling's President and Chief Executive Office, Steve Johnson along with Vice President of Athletics, Jim Miller have checked in on his recovery process. No one from the organization or the moto driver, however, have communicated with him regarding the details of crash as it relates to the official moto. USA Cycling has described the investigation as on-going.
"I, unbelievably, have still not heard from the moto driver or anyone from the local organization," Phinney said. "USA Cycling issued an incident report with no mention of the moto driver. He definitely played a significant role in the crash, in the accident. I was taken aback, especially the first couple of days following the accident, that he didn't stop after the accident or check in during the days that followed — It's more from a humanity standpoint."
Phinney noted that his mother, Connie Carpenter, is looking into the matter from a legal standpoint.
"I know that they are probably worried from a legal side, but it was more from a humanity standpoint, for me. I was disappointed that I didn't hear anything from him [the moto driver]. I don't even know who it was to be honest.
"I'm not sure how to proceed with all that … The issue of the moto driver is an ongoing thing. My mom is looking into it from a legal side. For me, it's more personal, the human side of things; causing an incident and then not checking in, not having any sort of reaction, to not apologize or even make a connection with me. I find it strange."
In light of the accident, Phinney has considered several changes that could be made to ensure the safety of the riders during a race including more training and licensing for official divers. "Accidents and crashes are going to happen … a crash should never involve a commissaire moto, someone from the caravan, the cars or anyone in front or behind the race. I don't know exactly what needs to change but I would appreciate USA Cycling looking into it and trying to figure out how to make an event as safe as possible."
Phinney feels that if he's learned anything from this accident it's not to take his job as a professional bike racer for granted. "Nothing is a given or set in stone with regard to the future of a professional cyclist …," he said. "There aren't many sports that you can end your career with one crash.
"I have a new perspective now and the wisdom of not taking anything for granted. It's something you have to experience before you can put it to work. I will approach things differently, anybody would after experiencing something like this. This is something that I don't want to experience again."
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Kirsten Frattini is an honours graduate of Kinesiology and Health Science from York University in Toronto, Canada. She has been involved in cycling from the community and grassroots level to professional cycling's WorldTour. She has worked in both print and digital publishing, and started with Cyclingnews as a North American Correspondent in 2006. Moving into a Production Editor's role in 2014, she produces and publishes international race coverage for all men's and women's races including Spring Classics, Grand Tours, World Championships and Olympic Games, and writes and edits news and features. As the Women's Editor at Cyclingnews, Kirsten also coordinates and oversees the global coverage of races, news, features and podcasts about women's professional cycling.